Two weeks ago, on her 28th birthday, Taylor Swift posted a picture to Instagram that her guitarist took during a recent show at an arena in London. The photo shows Swift center stage, spotlight shining down as she plays her new music in front of thousands of fans.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better year, all thanks to you,” Swift wrote in the caption.
A fairly innocuous post — but not if it’s 2017, one of the most tumultuous years in modern U.S. history, and not if it’s written by Swift. The headlines started rolling in. Nylon: “Of Course Taylor Swift is the Only Person Who Enjoyed 2017.” HelloGiggles: “Taylor Swift ‘couldn’t have asked for a better year’ while we’re all living in Hell.” Cosmopolitan: “Taylor Swift Says She ‘Couldn’t Have Asked for a Better Year’ and The Internet Is Mad.” (Naturally, her fan base took issue with this Internet anger.)
The incident blew over fairly quickly but really seemed to capture her year in a nutshell. Swift, who reigns as one of the top musicians on the planet, had many things worth celebrating: “Reputation,” her sixth album, sold 1 million copies the week it was released in November, making it the highest-selling album of 2017. Her solo write for Little Big Town, “Better Man,” won the Country Music Association award for song of the year. She was featured on Time’s Person of the Year cover as a “silence breaker” after her powerful testimony at a trial in August, where a jury found a radio DJ guilty of groping her before a concert.
Swift, however, also encountered backlash for glossing over current events during a grueling, divisive year in which it has been impossible to avoid politics in pop culture. Even chatter in her new app, the Swift Life, reportedly quickly devolved into a political debate with President Trump supporters on the platform.
But Swift herself is constantly criticized for not taking a political stance, as she didn’t endorse a candidate in the presidential election. Many were disappointed that she simply tweeted about the Women’s March in January instead of attending, despite using feminism to fuel her brand over the years. The American Civil Liberties Union sent her a harsh letter after her legal team threatened to sue a blogger who wrote a convoluted post about Swift not publicly denouncing the white supremacists who continue to support her.
So Swift’s “tone-deaf” Instagram was apparently the tipping point for some. The caption could have just been a few quick sentences that she fired off on her birthday — but Swift is nothing if not strategic. Although she has hit some road bumps in her image management, thanks to some well-publicized feuds with the likes of Calvin Harris and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, Swift has typically been very deliberate about what she says and how she says it.
She is clearly aware that the public wants her to open up about some of these issues. She’s the type of star who knows what people say about her; the entire music video for “Look What You Made Me Do” tackles every bit of mockery lobbed her way. Yet Swift won’t address anything controversial, and she also won’t put herself in a situation where she could be asked. She hasn’t given an in-person interview in well over a year, and her only TV spots during the “Reputation” launch were performances or scripted skits.
It appears, however, that Swift has no plans to address anything. As her Instagram post emphasized, in a photo where she’s performing hit songs to packed arena, it doesn’t seem to matter. “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she sings to a crush on “Delicate,” the fifth track on her new album. It’s true in real life, too — Swift may be weathering the most significant criticism of her career, but as long as the albums and tour tickets keep selling, there’s no reason to think that in 2018 she’ll change anything about this successful strategy.