Chad Batka / The New York Times

September 29, 2019

YANG | Taylor Swift Is Still Learning How to be an Activist

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On this campus, Taylor Swift is one of the safest bets if you want to start a conversation with someone. Chances are you both like her. Chances are she is one of the few celebrities with whom our parents and we have reached the rarity of common admiration. For the young adults of our generation, Taylor Swift has been the public figure many of us look up to –– often perceived as a strong, smart and sweet woman. Here at Cornell, the discourse on Taylor Swift follows this consensus of appraisal. The agenda is usually framed by her cult followings — those who take pride in referring to themselves as “Swifties” and organize in an army-like way on social media.

At the beginning of the semester, fellow arts columnist Andrea Yang ’20 wrote an article on how Taylor Swift reclaimed her narrative with her new album Lover. She argues that Swift made a “genius power move” by incorporating her response to public scrutiny into her lyrics, directly altering the way she is portrayed in media through music. She further concludes that Lover is a “textbook case study for manipulating public discourse,” yet I would like to shed light on an alternative lens to revisit her activism endeavors for her Lover campaign. As a pop megastar, Taylor Swift still has a long way to go before she knows how to be an effective activist.

A few weeks ago, in my media communication class, we discussed the music video of Swift’s song “You Need To Calm Down” in terms of media literacy. Perhaps most people felt critical enough to praise the blatantly obvious and meticulously timed LGBT campaign embedded in the visual like product placement, most of the comments are about just how great it is that Taylor Swift stepped up and is now using her mega-platform to voice for contested social issues and to empower others. To me, it is baffling to see her leveraging her massive platform to disseminate such lukewarm and softened political messages. For contemporary allyship, it is ignorant for her to put herself at the center of the narrative and equate her personal struggle with online bullying with the daily struggles LGBT people face. The whole rhetoric bears a resemblance to the outdated catch-all but failed-to-capture-any LGBT campaigns of 2012 when the public conversation has long moved forward to accentuate the understanding of the unique experiences of each LGBT individual. It left out the current more controversial discourse on queerness and fluidity. Pride always sells, unless you’re selling “Make America Great Again” hats. Rather than a reinvention of her past apolitical self, the release of “You Need To Calm Down” is more like a grandiose status update similar to the effect of a calculated move of rainbow-washing to leverage the publicity of Pride by temporarily using the rainbow filter on her profile picture.

We live in a network era in which there’s an increasing expectation for pop stars to be publicly political. Taylor Swift has an issue with her near-blank political profile, and she feels the need to change it now. The first decade of Swift’s career can be summarized as a near-silence on essentially any issue that matters. By no means am I blaming Taylor Swift for the disturbing misogyny she is subjected to. Like all of pop’s golden girls, Taylor Swift suffers from her lack of control over the way the media frames her image. The media framed her feud with Katy Perry as a catfight, reinforced Kim Kardashian’s remake of her as a snake when her controversy with Kanye West backfired and associated her with white supremacy, alt-rights and neo-nazis who called her an “Aryan goddess.” Adding on to the fact that she has her roots in the world of country music, this hyper-political pop music landscape is, in fact, something relative to her. For years, Swift suffered from the toll public scrutiny takes on her life. Whenever she attempts to respond to the media, her comment will mostly like be framed as manipulative and inauthentic.

In contrast to her frustration over controlling the ways media portray her, Swift, as a social media guru, dominates her narrative on social media. She is well versed in cultivating her loyal fanbase into her cyber army that helps disseminate her message. Swift is known for interacting with her fans on social media by liking, commenting on and even sharing her fans’ social posts. Her social media persona puts on an impressive campaign on feminism that consolidates her popularity among young girls and women. So what resulted in this division between her social-media-savvy persona and her demonized public image? Perhaps she has not adapted to the new age of social news. When the news landscape is so intertwined in the world of social media in the age of information, there are increasingly more opportunities for the public to engage in a conversation with the news outlets. As Swift attempts to cling onto her appeal to a wide cross-section of fans while venture out into the world of activism, her recent comments on media are all too meticulously crafted that the true messages lost in vagueness.

Taylor Swift said she’s now obsessed with politics. That is exactly what you will read in the news and what the algorithms will lead you to when you look up Taylor Swift online now. After her recent in-depth interview with Rolling Stone, she dominates the narrative in a very structured and strategic tone. It is so consistent all across different major media outlets that they sound more like press releases than interviews to me. And what exactly are the policies she endorses when she is suddenly so passionate about something she happened to espouse  for ten years? Swift said she regretted not getting involved in politics earlier as she was “living in this sort of political ambivalence [since] the person I voted for had always won.” Essentially, she is saying that it is a political thing to say you are political. To promote her new album, Swift is turning this I-become-political thing into its own campaign without concrete political messages which, in terms of policies, is worse than Trump as you can neither disagree nor agree with her. Yes, she voiced her disdain toward white supremacy and directly stated her endorsement of the Democrats, but that’s more like something on the checklists when one sign up to be a pop star. The values behind her bland statements remain obscure to the public. When her rare direct interaction with the media left so much to be desired, there is no one else but herself to blame when she is framed as inauthentic in the interactive digital culture.

Still, I hate to see the misogynistic backlash Swift is subjected to, and I sincerely hope this won’t hinder her activism when it obviously does have an overarching impact. But just like the case of Ivanka Trump, for someone coming from a privileged background, if you as a public figure don’t clearly voice your opinion on an issue, it is fair when the public perceives your silence or ambiguity as you being non-supportive to the matter. In the 2018 election, when Swift endorsed two Democratic candidates in Tennessee, voter registration did spike in the state due to her endorsement. She has the power in her hand. If Taylor Swift does not know how to make her message coherent and powerful in the intertwined new media landscape, it is such a waste of her well-resourced platform and her omnipotent command of fandom when she is eventually freed from her country, apolitical and neutral cocoon of the past.


Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.