Taylor Swift has many titles: cultural juggernaut; international pop star; billionaire businesswoman. She can now add MAGA conspiracy theory target to the list.
Far-right internet personalities and even a former Republican presidential candidate are spreading the notion that something is not quite right with Swift’s relationship with Kansas City Chiefs star player Travis Kelce — and that somehow the Super Bowl is rigged and it’s all leading up to a Swift presidential endorsement of Joe Biden.
Swift was once famously politics-averse, but she inched into the arena in 2018 when she endorsed Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen, and then she backed Biden in 2020. That may have first soured some conservatives on Swift, but in recent days, the right has seemingly launched a full-bore attack on her. It seems like incredibly foolish politics, particularly as the gender gap grows and Republican support with suburban women erodes.
To explore how Swift’s influence has grown and how the attacks could backfire on the GOP, POLITICO Magazine reached out to Brian Donovan, a University of Kansas professor who teaches a popular college course called “The Sociology of Taylor Swift.”
“The Swiftie fan is arguably the most immersive and intense fandom in the U.S. right now,” Donovan said. “And to anger them is just political folly. They are a political force that I don’t think anyone really should mess with.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is Taylor Swift suddenly at the center of the political conversation?
I think there is a cyclical reaction happening where we saw with the Barbie movie and with the Eras Tour, a kind of woman-centered cultural aesthetic take hold of the American imagination. And I think there’s a ton of backlash to that driven by real basic sexism and misogyny.
If you look at the history of Taylor Swift, if you go back 10 or 12 years, her main critics were actually coming from the left. There was a feminist discourse that argued that she was too heteronormative, that she is supporting the patriarchy by writing these love songs with a straightforward, boy-meets-girl, happily-ever-after kind of narrative. So you would think that the right would embrace that. And for a while, when Taylor was more quiet about her politics, they had this notion that she was secretly one of them. You saw this in around 2017, 2018 when literal Nazis like Andrew Anglin or folks from the GamerGate community like Milo Yiannopoulos, were posting these memes that were suggesting that Taylor was secretly a white supremacist.
And so the fact that she had this political coming out in 2018, and started to embrace leftist causes, that was the first moment when the right rejected her. And as she gained cultural power over the last year, I think that’s made her an easy target. You would think that her dating a football star would be something that would be satisfying to cultural conservatives — she’s playing out a standard conservative script of falling in love with a football star — but the fact that she’s not on their team is especially irksome for a lot of folks. On the right, it’s seen as a betrayal.
Sexism and a sense of betrayal — is there anything else that might be fueling this hate we’re seeing from the right?
The intensity is coming from different levels. Again, it’s this basic sexism. She is unmarried. She is an extremely successful businesswoman. And I know that a lot of folks on the right probably do not aspire to be a pop star, but a lot of them aspire to be successful in business. And she has lapped them over and over. She has become a billionaire based on her own artistry. And so there’s a jealousy factor as well.
Another part of this is that she is not easily consumable as a sex symbol. What makes Taylor Swift so unique is that her celebrity persona, unlike pop stars of the past few decades — think of Madonna or Britney Spears — is not centered on the male gaze. She’s not denying or muting her sexuality, but her performances are not catering to men. Her persona is crafted around this kind of goofy, almost nerd-like relatability and I think that is also irksome because she is not playing out the standard, patriarchal playbook of being a consumable Barbie doll sex symbol.
There’s a growing gender divide in politics. Do you think the conservative attacks against Swift will further alienate women voters from the Republican Party?
Absolutely. What is fascinating to me about this whole spectacle is it seems like political suicide. She certainly has appeal among women, but she has such a broad demographic appeal — racially, in terms of age, in terms of socio-economic status. It just seems like attacking her, from a strategic political standpoint, makes no sense whatsoever.
And that’s why I think some of these attacks, they will be short-lived. Because the folks that have the money, that are putting resources behind these political campaigns, are going to talk to people like Vivek Ramaswamy and say, “This is not a good strategy for you.”
And it will alienate women voters in the long term, for sure, because Taylor’s politics, they’re not that radical. She’s not the kind of radical feminist figure that they are painting her to be, and I think a lot of women see themselves in Taylor. She is highly relatable. And she, through her songwriting, lets us feel like we have a bond with her. And so the rabid attacks against her are going to turn people away on a very deep level.
Tell me more about the demographics of Swift’s fan base. Are there any notable traits or political trends?
Morning Consult did a deep dive into her fan base demographics. And they found, not surprisingly, that her main fan base is primarily white, primarily women and primarily millennial.
What’s unique about Taylor Swift is the intergenerational appeal that she has. And you saw that over the summer with parents taking their daughters to the Eras Tour. She’s been a star for 17 years. There are folks that I’m interviewing for my book that have literally grown up with her. She was there for them through all the different turning points in their life. So she can draw younger listeners who are experiencing her music for the first time, listeners who are millennials that see themselves in Taylor Swift, and fans that are my age and older that see an element of nostalgia in Taylor. So what is really powerful and unique about her is that demographically she has this cross-generational appeal.
Based on the folks that I’ve interviewed, she has a way of writing that, coupled with her celebrity persona and media appearances, connects uniquely with the experiences of young women. The Swiftie fan is arguably the most immersive and intense fandom in the U.S. right now. And to anger them is just political folly. They are a political force that I don’t think anyone really should mess with.
What makes Taylor Swift’s fandom such a political force?
It’s both the sheer number and the intensity of their devotion to Taylor Swift.
A lot of Swifties take their cues from Taylor Swift. During the pandemic, when she released the album “Folklore,” she changed her entire aesthetic from the multicolored “Lover”-era aesthetic — which was this psychedelic, 1960s vibe — to this cottage-core, flannel vibe. Swifties went right along with it and started buying flannel and started adopting that style. And so she is very influential on a cultural level.
But also Swifties listen to her statements about politics as well and absorb them and act on them. And so I think that the fear coming from the right that she could make an endorsement that will act as a political force and be consequential for elections — that’s not inaccurate. There’s some truth there.
Swift has resisted the political arena for so long. What are her politics? Does she even want to be in the political limelight?
Her politics are fairly mainstream. She wants reproductive rights. She has come out and supported the Violence Against Women Act — some very fairly mainstream things that are not terribly controversial among a wide swath of the American electorate.
She had a moment in 2018 when she had a political coming out. She started speaking out in particular in support of LGBTQ+ rights. And there was a period of time when she became more politically active. That was when she supported Phil Bredesen against Marsha Blackburn. That’s when [then-President Donald] Trump said he liked her music about 25 percent less now. And for a lot of Swifties, and even those who weren’t into Taylor Swift, that was an important moment because it showed she was one of us. That she was in the same political orbit as a lot of us.
She hasn’t really continued with that. The pandemic hit, and other than a tweet about the Dobbs decision and a speech that she gave during one of her concerts during Pride Month, she’s been very relatively politically silent. And that’s frustrated a lot of the more social justice-oriented Swifties and Swifties who are further on the left. So it’s interesting that she’s receiving criticism from the right for being this avatar of the left wing. And at the same time, she’s receiving criticism from the more far-left Swifties for not being vocal enough.
Do you foresee Swift becoming any more political after the recent MAGA meltdown?
I don’t think so. I think she’ll endorse Joe Biden. And she might even make a campaign appearance or two, but I don’t see her throwing herself into politics in a really robust way. Part of that is due to the fact that I just don’t think she speaks the language of politics and activism. She’s a great storyteller and is brilliant at so many things. But I don’t think she sees that as one of her strengths.
The other reason I don’t think she is going to be more vocal about politics is personal safety. The article that ran in Rolling Stone that right-wing operatives are declaring a “Holy War” on her honestly frightened me. We’re living in a time of heightened political violence and deep political polarization. And she is out in public performing for tens of thousands of people. Just on a pure safety level, her getting more vocal about politics might not necessarily be a good thing.
Would a Swift endorsement give Biden a major boost in popularity?
I don’t think so. The people who are already big Taylor Swift supporters, most of them are going to vote for Biden anyway. And looking at what happened in 2018, when she supported Phil Bresson — he still lost to Marsha Blackburn. So her endorsements, as important as they are, can only go so far. Where I think she can have an impact and maybe a big political boost for Biden is in getting out the vote. She touted a Get Out the Vote website on her Instagram account, and it drew 35,000 new voters within hours.
What do you think about Donald Trump reportedly grumbling that he’s “more popular” than Taylor Swift?
We know he loves the trappings of celebrity. And so it must irk him that she is both more popular than he is and has more money than he does right now. And so I think that her mere existence is tapping into some deep insecurities in his psyche. And we’re seeing that play out by his surrogates, as well.
Why do we demand political alliances from celebrities? What does that say about our political atmosphere right now?
Increasingly, it seems like every consumer and entertainment choice we make is somehow politically coded. What beer one consumes, or where one goes shopping, whether it’s Target or Walmart — all of these micro-decisions have somehow become part of political discourse, and it’s exhausting. But I feel like there’s comfort in that too. It’s part of that relatability aspect that is so important for celebrity culture. We want to know the people that we’re spending time and money on share our broad value system.
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