An entertainer sits in the White House, and given the grim soap opera that has taken over our national politics, there’s something quaint about the idea that a celebrity’s political endorsement could cause a genuine stir in 2018. But when Taylor Swift broke her long-standing political silence to endorse Democratic candidates for House and Senate in her home state of Tennessee and to outline some of her political views, she made headlines — and illuminated the strange nature of artists’ engagement with contemporary politics.
Many artists seem to have made the calculation that in order to sell their work, they also have to sell a politically acceptable version of themselves. It’s not enough simply to make good art, the thinking goes. That art has to be good in service of a larger vision or it risks being judged either suspect or decadent to the point of flimsiness. The beige blandness of Hollywood means that a confection such as the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” can justly present itself as an important effort to make Hollywood more representative — even as the adaptation eliminated some of the class distinction and the intra-Asian racism that made Kevin Kwan’s novels sting so sharply. Stars such as Amy Schumer troop up to Capitol Hill to protest the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, both out of conviction and as a way to reassure viewers that they’re willing to push feminist causes and not just profit from them.
There are two diametrically opposed ways artists can go about navigating this political climate.
The first is a base strategy, in which artists throw themselves into the task of establishing their political bona fides in an effort to get fans to see them not merely as icons but as causes, too. There are immediate rewards that come from making audiences feel as though buying your music or a ticket to your movie is a way to do good in the world. But once artists commit to that course, they have to be very careful not to violate quickly emerging new orthodoxies in the communities they court. If you’re Scarlett Johansson, one minute you’re giving a speech at the Women’s March, the next you’re apologizing for having taken a role playing a transgender man given debates about the limited number of roles available to trans actors.
The second is the course Swift previously took, in which an artist says very little about politics but presents an attractively blank surface onto which fans can project whatever they’d like to believe about the object of their admiration. The upside to this approach is that it mostly requires demurrals, which are a lot less work than carefully crafted policy statements. The downside is that people project some fairly strange ideas onto celebrities: In addition to her adoring teenage fans, Swift attracted a following among white supremacists convinced she was merely waiting for the right moment to proclaim herself a member of their ranks.
What makes Swift’s endorsements intriguing isn’t the sense that she’s finally caught up to her celebrity peers. By the standards of Hollywood, Swift’s declaration — “I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is wrong. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent” — makes her decidedly middle-of-the-road.
Rather, it was Swift’s allusion to “several events in my life and in the world in the past two years” that changed her mind about going public with her politics. Though she didn’t specify which events she was referring to, it’s entirely possible that the confluence of Swift’s civil suit against a man who groped her and the #MeToo movement provided that catalyst.
Personal experience has always been the grist for Swift’s artistic work, stripped of the identifying details and spun into pop confections. This shift in her politics is as mild as much of her music, though in these intensely polarized times, and given Swift’s nominal remaining connection to the country music scene, it remains a risk. It might be even more so because it’s unlikely that Swift could reinvent herself as woke, presenting her record sales as a barometer of the health of the resistance, even if she wanted to. The dynamics of her clashes with stars such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West and controversies over her use of twerking dancers in her video for “Shake it Off” have ensured that.
Whatever happens, Swift is probably going to be fine. Love songs know no party, and even if that changes, Swift can retire to Tennessee with a tidy fortune already in the bank. But her change of heart is a reminder that our politics and our art are more interesting when they’re personal and idiosyncratic, and when they come with even the slightest sense that something might really be at stake.