Taylor Swift, political power, and the challenge of affect in popular music fandom

Simone Driessen

Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—When Taylor Swift came out politically via Instagram in 2018, her fans, the Swifties, reacted to their object of affection and her political position. An analysis of the online fan response provides a snapshot of how politics is empirically manifest in mainstream pop music fandoms—a genre and space often overlooked when it comes to discussing politics.

[0.2] Keywords—Celebrity politician; Fan comments; Polarization; Swifties; Vigilantism

Driessen, Simone. 2020. "Taylor Swift, Political Power, and the Challenge of Affect in Popular Music Fandom." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

[0.3] Finally omg. She's been so vague over the past and FINALLY! She says it loud and clear. I'm so proud.

—Taylor Swift fan (, 2018)

1. Introduction

[1.1] Mainstream, commercial pop songs are not often associated with politics. Yet in May 2016, Vice journalist Mitchell Sunderland reported on something remarkable. Allegedly, the so-called "alt-right" movement considered pop singer and musician Taylor Swift as its "Aryan pop queen who is 'red pilling' America into a race war through her pop hits" (Sunderland 2016). Swift did not debunk these allegations when they appeared in mainstream media. Nor was it the first time she had been associated with right-wing politics. In 2013, Swift was the target of a young Pinterest user who pinned Adolf Hitler quotes to images of Swift—labeled as Taydolf Swiftler—to create memes (see Malone 2013; Sunderland 2016; Prins, forthcoming). Although Swift never publicly reacted to these cases by confirming her political position, it can be argued that her image as the "white, heterosexual All American girl" and her music, rooted in the country genre, expressed a conservative and nostalgic sense of Americana that might appeal to such groups.

[1.2] Taylor Swift has been active in the music industry since 2006. Typically, her songs are personal (e.g. about previous relationships) and upbeat (note 1), not political or activist. The absence of politics from Swift's persona changed in 2018. She posted a lengthy account on Instagram regarding who she would vote for in the United States midterm elections, and why. Swift revealed that she had been "reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now" ( In her Instagram post, she explained that she planned to vote for a male senatorial candidate, given that the only woman running for office, Marsha Blackburn, had a "voting record in Congress [that] appalls and terrifies me." Blackburn voted against equal pay, the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and gay marriage—all political items Swift revealed she cares greatly about. Swift ended with an appeal to her fans, "For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway." Because of this addition, I consider her post not only personal, but also political: actively urging her audience to use their right to vote.

[1.3] This call for action and the revelation of her political preference define her as a Celebrity Politician (CP) (Street 2004). A CP can be a nonelected politician: a celebrity persona who speaks out on "specific causes and for particular interests with a view to influencing political outcomes" (Street 2004, 438). According to Dean (2017), fandom is a proven aspect of politics that might help us to understand issues like polarization or controversies in today's society. Thus, Swift speaking out against and for certain causes might have an influence on her fandom, the Swifties. How does that sit with Swift's carefully constructed pop musician persona?

[1.4] In the remainder of this article, I will briefly connect music, politics, and fandom. I will also present fans' reactions to Swift's political reveal. By offering this insight, I expose how politics is manifest in mainstream pop music fandom—a space not typically associated with politics.

2. Music, politics, and fandom

[2.1] Music and politics are no strangers to each other. Politics can be made audible through propaganda songs, or in subcultural genres where lyrics and sounds express resistance or opposition (cf. Street 2003). Think about genres like hip-hop or punk challenging society's status quo. John Street declared that "songs and sounds are more powerful weapons [in politics] because of the way music works directly on our emotions" (2003, 114). Pop music like that of Taylor Swift's, however, has not been attributed this power, given its fleeting character and the high focus on personal over social topics in the lyrics. However, with the rise of artists like Beyoncé or Lady Gaga, I argue that nowadays mainstream pop has also become an arena in which to express political views or address civil rights. That makes these stars and their celebrity image and reach highly influential.

[2.2] Brough and Shresthova argue that fan activism in neoliberal society is not solely about understanding fan-driven efforts, but more about "how particular actors construct, use, and circulate their voices through the production or reproduction of cultural content, as well as whether and by whom content is consumed and engaged" (2012, ¶4.9). In Swift's case, this might imply that through her music or her social media commentary (she was one of the most influential people on Twitter in 2018), she might hold the power to produce or reproduce a certain voice her fans could feel encouraged by.

[2.3] The potential political power of Swift invites one to examine how her carefully constructed persona sits with her status as celebrity politician. Wilkinson (2019, 441) described the singer as zany: a "hapless pop princess and an autonomous and savvy industry professional," which helps to craft and promote an authentic image of Swift. That might also explain her popularity with many of her fans: Swift is upbeat but proficient, and wacky but real. How does that influence her political image, particularly when conservative politics has tried to lay such a strong claim on her? I will offer a brief analysis of fans' reactions to Swift's Instagram post to explore this question.

3. Evaluating pop politics

[3.1] To understand how fans interpreted Swift's political declaration in 2018, I analyzed comments in a thread dedicated to the post in Reddit's r/TaylorSwift community. This community is devoted to Swift (discussing news, music, etc.), and openly readable for all internet users (participating requires an account). I will not include usernames of the message posters, to ensure anonymity. Although the Swift community is only a small part of Reddit, I consider this community a space where fans of different ages, genders, and political and sexual orientations meet and exchange information. For example, some fans openly express themselves as fans since their teens or as members of the LGBTQ community, or ridicule the politics of the alt-right.

[3.2] Fans' reactions to Swift's political coming-out were twofold. Some were happy that she finally declared a political stance, but denounced her for the timing. According to this group of fans, it followed conveniently after a tour, when no new material had come out for a while. Other fans were vigilant and defended Swift against other fans and critics, arguing that she did not have to go public with her politics. However, they did consider it Swift's responsibility in today's political climate. To illustrate my observations, I give a few examples of these different modes.

[3.3] When her political announcement went public in late 2018, Swift had not released any new music for a while. This was considered to be an important factor, according to some fans. Reactions like this one—"Somebody said that Taylor finally said this because her US tour is over so she could use all the Republican money she has and throw it back to their faces… We love a calculated snake queen"—are illustrative for this observation. The "calculated" remark is also telling of how this fan perceives her image: created to fit and appeal to her audience. The Redditors, however, knew that it could also have different roots: "Last year she was basically accused of being a white supremacist due to her radio silence. Even though her silence extended to all areas of her public life/career because she was literally on hiatus," another fan argued. So, there were justifiable reasons why she did not react to such allegations: she was busy touring, or they took place while she was on hiatus.

[3.4] These two events led a fan to argue that the singer "is irrelevant and has been for awhile now. She's forced to make posts like this for publicity now." Again, this attributes her political comments to the constructed image of Swift. Yet this also might imply that she is actually fueling her next career move or reinforcing her image as a pop singer who has successfully moved away from her Republican-associated country roots. Another fan's interpretation is illustrative of that: "…when you're in the country scene you're kinda stuck on that side [of conservative politics]. I'm just glad she's got a pop head audience to cushion the fallout so she doesn't end up like the Dixie Chicks." This remark implies an expectation of Swift to be more conservative in her politics and that she may have waited until she had that "pop head audience" to go public. The reference to the Dixie Chicks is important, because this group was shunned and boycotted by country music lovers after their overt statements against former president George W. Bush's second Iraq invasion in 2003 (note 2). Such a fate might also have been bestowed upon Swift if she had opened up about her views earlier on.

[3.5] These comments imply that some of the Swifties denounced her for going public with her politics. They considered it a career move and were particularly critical of the moment at which Swift's political disclosure happened. This fits Wilkinson's (2019) claim regarding Swift's authenticity: speaking up in this activist persona also emphasized her progressiveness and perhaps her zany nature. But, this also led to some fans feeling compelled to defend and act as vigilantes to support Swift's decision of making her beliefs—finally—public. They also castigated other fans, saying that Swift does not owe them an explanation of her private politics. The following is a typical argument of her vigilant fans: "Given her country roots, I guess you could see how it would be easy to think she wasn't liberal. However, if you look at her actions over the past several years, it's pretty obvious where she stands politically…" Through offering this addition, this fan suggests everyone could have known what Swift's beliefs were already, given, for example, that she had donated money to several LGBTQ advocacy organizations.

[3.6] Another fan commended Swift for being comfortable enough to share her political views now: "It's not a matter of finally cuz she doesn't owe us shit, but a matter of her trusting us enough to let us know about her stance on politics…" This fan seemed to appreciate the singer's awareness that her stance on politics might be important to her fans. Taking it a step further, another Redditor stated that Swift did not have to go public but does have a responsibility toward her fans: "…with current events and her having a huge platform it would have been vastly irresponsible for her not to do so if she truly believes in the causes she's talking about." Such a statement resonates with the responsibility or position of a celebrity politician (Street 2004); she is apparently thought of as being able to influence her fans by sharing her views on political matters. Moreover, these fan arguments, whether critical or vigilant, seem to imply that an affective investment in Swift is an investment in her persona beyond the music.

4. Affective politics?

[4.1] Van Zoonen (2004) argues that fans offer a blueprint for democracy. If Swifties are representative for today's society, we can learn from these fan comments that they do care about politics through the celebrity persona. Although this sample of fan responses offers just a glimpse into this fandom, I argue that this does invite further reflection and examination of how these young pop fans can be mobilized and invited into participating in political discussion. Through the Instagram post, Swift actively displayed her political preference for her fans to reflect upon and discuss.

[4.2] Nevertheless, as some critical Swift fans pointed out, it might also be part of a marketing strategy of Swift as an industry professional. Taking a stance against certain politics, in a society that is characterized by political controversies and polarization, and where, for example, advocates of LGBTQ rights still really need to fight for their cause, it matters that she—in her celebrity politician role—does so.

[4.3] Although this piece can only offer a brief and slightly blunt sample of fan reactions, a lengthier analysis could show more nuance and balance to demonstrate how Swift's political persona is influencing her fans. Still, this does expose how mainstream pop, particularly through the persona of the artist, might hold a political emphasis. And that might just lead to Swifties using Swift and her music as a resource to make sense of politics in everyday life.

5. Notes

1. Taylor Swift's music has been largely devoid of activism, yet she has been known to take action in favor of artists owning their own music: in 2014, she took her music off of streaming platform Spotify. She openly supported and donated money to help fellow pop artist Kesha in her lawsuit against Dr. Luke in 2016. In 2019, she called out music manager Scooter Braun, who, upon purchasing the label she was signed to in the past, now also owned the rights to her music, without her being presented a good opportunity to buy her catalog back.

2. During a concert in London in 2003, the Dixie Chicks, who were vocally against the plans of former president George W. Bush to invade Iraq (which happened and became the second Iraq War). Many fans disagreed with the Dixie Chicks' viewpoint and boycotted their music and concerts, also leading to cancellations of partner and sponsorship deals for the band. In 2016, they also expressed themselves as being against President Donald Trump by taking a banner of his face, defaced with a devilish mustache, goatee, and horns, on tour.

6. References

Brough, Melissa M., and Sangita Shresthova. 2012. "Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

Dean, Jonathan. 2017. "Politicising Fandom." British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19 (2): 408–24.

Malone, Ailbhe. 2013. "A Pinterest User Has Been Attributing Hitler Quotes to Taylor Swift." Buzzfeed, August 30, 2013.

Prins, Annelot. Forthcoming. "From Awkward Teen Girl to Aryan Goddess Meme: Taylor Swift and the Hijacking of Star Texts." Celebrity Studies.

Street, John. 2003. "'Fight the Power': The Politics of Music and the Music of Politics." Government and Opposition 38 (1): 113–30.

Street, John. 2004. "Celebrity Politicians: Popular Culture and Political Representation." British Journal of Politics and International Relations 6 (4): 435–52.

Sunderland, Mitchell. 2016. "Can't Shake It Off: How Taylor Swift Became a Nazi Idol." Vice, May 23, 2016.

Wilkinson, Maryn. 2019. "'Taylor Swift: The Hardest Working, Zaniest Girl in Show Business…'" Celebrity Studies 10 (3): 441–44.

Van Zoonen, Liesbet. 2004. "Imagining the Fan Democracy." European Journal of Communication 19 (1): 39–52.