Despite superficially embracing feminism, Taylor Swift has a problematic habit of staying tight-lipped on topics that call for her to share her political and social values—and it’s starting to seriously hurt her reputation. From her much-speculated political allegiance to her stance on gun control, Swift tends to steer clear of most issues that could be deemed “political,” while simultaneously engaging in the personal and professional dramas that keep her firmly in the pop culture zeitgeist. And during a particular dumpster fire of a year in which Donald Trump is President of the United States, mass shootings are happening almost daily and white supremacists are rallying publicly, her latest bout of silence is deafening.
On October 25, Swift’s legal team tried to shut down blogger Meghan Herning for writing about Swift’s popularity among white supremacists and suggesting that the pop singer is linked to the alt-right, calling Herning’s piece defamatory and demanding she retract it from the little-know blog, PopFront. As PopFront describes it, the story “dove into a history of white supremacy and eugenics and how those ideologies have played a role in the political discourse of this country. It compared the lyrics of Swift’s song ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and the chants at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville Virginia.” The end of Herning’s piece also included this call to action:
“And while pop musicians are not respected world leaders, they have a huge audience and their music often reflects their values. So, Taylor’s silence is not innocent, it is calculated. And if that is not true, she needs to state her beliefs out loud for the world-no matter what fan base she might lose because in America 2017 silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor.”
— keith a. spencer (@_kaspencer) November 7, 2017
It certainly wasn’t the first time a journalist wrote about Swift’s popularity among the alt-right, as PopFront pointed out in a November 6 post. “PopFront is far from the first outlet that has noticed the connection between Taylor Swift and the alt-right. Vice, Konbini, and Complex are just a few news outlets that have written about Swift and the alt-right. Swift has very vocal alt-right fans that make public statements about their fandom and assign their ideology to hers on social media,” they write. “There have been many stories about this connection in the past 18 months and our piece was an attempt to continue the discussion, as well as call on Swift to denounce this hateful group. The rise of the alt-right must be examined critically. It is unsettling to see Americans openly expressing racism. Celebrities are not obligated to voice their political beliefs, but it is not a stretch to assume that Swift would want to issue a statement even if it could be controversial.”
It’s unclear if Swift’s team ever went after publications like Vice or Complex for running similarly unflattering stories, although one could muse that these outlets have more means to fight back than a site as small as PopFront. But while the small culture and politics online publication may not have had the clout to battle Swift’s undoubtedly powerful legal team on their own, the American Civil Liberties Union does and swiftly denounced the “Look What You Made Me Do” singer’s attempts to impede freedom of speech. In a press release, ACLU lawyer Michael Risher writes, “This is a completely unsupported attempt to suppress constitutionally protected speech.”
And as it turns out, this is def not the first time that Swift has tried to silence her critics through legal intimidation. In addition to going head-to-head with everyone from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West to Katy Perry and Calvin Harris, Swift has also been quietly feuding with journalists and publications behind the scenes for years through a steady stream of cease and desist letters and threats of legal action. For someone who seems to care so much about her reputation, she doesn’t seem to be worried about the one she’s getting—for trying to silence her critics while seemingly never taking a meaningful stand against anything of substance that could serve the greater good, instead of the Taylor good.
Journalists like Carey O’Donnell, Anne T. Donahue and Ira Madison have been sharing their own experiences with Swift’s legal team:
Taylor’s people once requested I take down a post where I imagined her storyboarding a European vacay with Tom Hiddleston
— Carey O’Donnell (@ecareyo) November 6, 2017
Taylor’s lawyers once also requested (see: insisted) I take down a piece where I criticized her political apathy! WHAT A DELIGHT! https://t.co/C6xC1lECrd
— Anne T. Donahue (@annetdonahue) November 6, 2017
I was issued a letter by Taylor’s lawyers once too, and you know MTV caved because well, MTV. Then she didn’t even show up at their VMAS.
— Ira Madison III (@ira) November 6, 2017
While many Swift supporters defend her choice to not get political (“She’s an artist, not a politician. Maybe she wants to keep her views to herself,” wrote one supporter on Twitter), there’s no denying that a platform as public as Swift’s could—and, we’d argue, should—be used for positive change. Imagine if only some of her 265 million combined Twitter, Instagram and Facebook followers, including those superfans for whom Swift’s word is practically gospel, felt inspired and even empowered to call their elected officials, volunteer or get involved some other way. It would be staggering—and Taylor knows it. That’s why, when she opts out of almost any critical, if sometimes controversial, conversation, her critics see it as lending passive support. In her effort to “control the narrative,” she’s trying to shut up detractors and appeal to all sides—a losing game, if there ever was one. This lack of action is especially shocking in 2017, when so many famous faces have become politically engaged.
The weight of responsibility on someone as famous as Swift must be intense. But knowing the power of influence you and your choices have over millions of fans—seriously, we sympathize—and choosing to stay silent (and worse yet, wielding your considerable power to silence others) is infinitely more dangerous. By opting not to publicly denounce white supremacists, particularly in such fraught and tense times, she’s passively supporting them whether she likes it or not.
That’s why it’s time for Swift to speak up—by denouncing white supremacy, for starters—because we doubt she’ll be able to shake off this reputation anytime soon.
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