In the wake of a disastrous new presidency, the seemingly regular murders of black unarmed civilians by law enforcement, and the televised rise of a white supremacist “movement,” political unrest has simply become part of the way we experience media. In 2017, it’s commonplace, even expected, for pop idols to use their clout and art to express their values. Yet around the top of the charts an eerie silence has begun to pervade the airwaves.
Yes, Taylor Swift has been claimed as a white supremacist icon — so is it okay to just “Shake it off?”
Infamously closed-lipped on every single civil-rights issue that has happened since her teen breakout “Our Song,” Swift is usually a political non-entity — unless the stakes are low and there are clear promotional benefits. She has her own strain of white-girl feminism, rooted in a less-than-radical “hope that women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.” Fans will tell you that she is an inspiration for young women and I’m not going to argue otherwise, but there is a sanitized nature to Ms. Swift’s activism.
The closest we got to an overtly political statement was last November, when Swift posted an Instagram picture encouraging fans to vote (note that her social media accounts have since been cleared in a promotional “stunt” for her new album), but never gave a clear verdict on who her ballot was for. And yes, after the conclusion of March’s Women’s’ March Taylor dropped a noncommittal “Proud to be a woman” tweet and stuck an indirect LGBT shoutout into chart–topper “Welcome to New York.” But if those are powerful political statements then our political climate is a whole lot tamer than I thought it was.
Now, I’m not insinuating that Taylor Swift is a neo-Nazi, nor do I really think that she voted for Trump. But there is something to be said for the fact that her commercially-sound apoliticism made the pop star a perfect target for white supremacist trolls because they knew that she would never deny their allegations. To do so could turn away fans, seem opportunistic, or otherwise hurt PR in a whole list of unpredictable ways. So how exactly did White Supremacist target this unlikely chart topper?
It started in 2013 a teenage girl named Emily Pattinson (@poopcutie) went viral after Buzzfeed published her Pinterest memes that falsely attributed Hitler quotes to Taylor Swift. The aftermath was a sharp rise in activity from both sides of the, for lack of a better term, political Pinterest spectrum. Some christened memes that turned the weird phenomenon on its head (T-Swift quotes on photos of Hitler), while others brewed content which we would now now attribute to “alt-right,” or “white nationalist,” or “white supremacist” groups depending on your political affinity. At the time, most of us would probably dismiss this seemingly insignificant clickbait clash with an eye roll. But then Trump got elected and everything changed — retrospectively, @poopcutie’s memes could be seen as the first sparks in a dark new trend.
Flash forward to August 2017, about half a year into the new presidency. Taylor released single “Look What You Made Me Do,” and Breitbart (Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s brainchild and the self-professed “platform for the alt-right”) started rattling off lines from the song on Twitter, ostensibly legitimizing years worth of internet garbage circulating from the laptops of white supremacist internet trolls. If that connection is not convincing enough, see Breitbart’s article from last May, bluntly titled: “Taylor Swift is an Alt-Right Icon.”
This connection, shocking at first, has since been beat to death in the news cycle. Though a countless number of major outlets have reported on the issue, including NPR and The Washington Post, Taylor Swift Incorporated has remained disconcertingly silent in denouncing the allegations. In fact, the closest thing we have seen to any sort of denial is a personal letter from T. Swift’s lawyer, J Douglas Baldridge, sent to teenage @poopcutie in 2013 regarding the Hitler memes:
“Public figures have rights. And, there are certain historical figures, such as Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and the like, who are universally identified in the case law and popular culture as lightning rods for emotional and negative reaction.”
To paraphrase, Taylor Swift’s lawyer is saying she shouldn’t be associated with nazis because Hitler is “identified” by the public for being unpopular and hurting feelings. He could have just said, “try again, but pick someone that’s not the archetype of dictatorship and genocide — it just doesn’t sell.” Swift’s political and moral credibility are becoming as scarce as the content on her wiped social media accounts.
I’m not asking for a political manifesto, nor do I really care who she voted for after she posted her infamous photo from the election line. But when a growing hoard of neo-Nazis co-opt you as a bastion of white supremacy you should at the very least denounce their claims if you’re not a white supremacist yourself.
Because, Taylor Swift, we are all starting to wonder.
Written by John Lawson
Illustration by Fabiha Fairooz