SILENT AS WHITE NATIONALISTS CLAIM HER WORK AND IMAGE
By Hannah Weilbacher
TAYLOR SWIFT, the pop star who made her break with country ballads, is the queen of looking backwards. Throughout my nine years of committed fandom, her reflective and honest songwriting has helped me process emotions, memories, and difficult moments. Looking backwards is her strength, and it’s always served her. But in today’s political reality, as white nationalists claim Taylor’s work, nostalgia is not enough.
Reputation, her sixth album released on November 10, reflects the songwriter’s processing of her past few years. There’s good music on Reputation, but also a big problem with the album: its refusal to deal with our dangerous present reality.
Swift leans on her nostalgia-inducing strengths and has written heartbreaking pieces about past loves, as she has for the past eleven years (if you’re familiar with her work, think back to “Back to December” or “Out of the Woods” or 2012’s “All Too Well”: “Back before you lost the one real thing you’ve ever known / It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well”). Even her evocative portraits of the present — “22,” “New Romantics” — summon a kind of emergent nostalgia, reminiscent of that moment when you’re with friends and you know you’re creating a memory you’ll always hold. On 2010’s “Long Live,” she sang, “I said remember this moment / In the back of my mind / The time we stood with our shaking hands / The crowds in the stands went wild.”
Reputation is in the tradition of her previous albums. “Getaway Car,” is the standout, although I fear it’s fated to be a beloved b-side. The extended metaphor tells the story of an emotionally-necessary but doomed rebound. “Don’t Blame Me” is part electronic dance music, part Christian folk, part slithery pop, and a total earworm. The new album has the best that Taylor has to offer: her poetic song-writing, her perfect production, and the story-telling qualities she has held onto from her country music days.
So Taylor hasn’t changed, but nothing else in the world feels the same – and her motionlessness has allowed the current political era to reframe her, likely against her will. During the 2016 election, as a fervent white supremacy exploded forth from various dark corners of the internet, some hateful elements grabbed onto her as a symbol of aryan perfection. Granted, she is tall and blonde and sings music that appeals mostly to white people (believe me, I’ve been to a TSwift concert), but there’s no reason at all to think she’s a white nationalist. What does give me pause, however, is the fact that Taylor has yet to disown or even address the emboldened racist elements that have embraced her.
This silence forces Taylor Swift into a presence that is ubiquitous but somehow irrelevant. She acts as if she operates in a vacuum and is not interested in current political or cultural conversations. She never publicly supported a presidential candidate in 2016 and has still not said a word about our current president, which puts her in stark opposition to Cher, Beyonce, Pink, Katy Perry, and most other A-listers. In a time of tremendous struggle against racism, sexism, and incipient fascism, there’s no excuse for taking up so much cultural oxygen if you have nothing interesting or helpful to say.
“Make America Great Again” has made it clear that there’s no such thing as a value-neutral pining for the past. Judging by her lyrics, Taylor should understand this: In the memory of a lost love, you can create a narrative that affects your future relationships. Nostalgia can be used for good, for bad, for redemption, for lust, but it’s used. We remember the past so we can create a future. But what kind of future does she want?
NOSTALGIA IS A WEAPON in the hands of Trump, his supporters, and the right. The white supremacists who culturally adopted Taylor Swift latch onto an invented memory of an America where everyone looked like Taylor Swift, dressed modestly like Taylor Swift, played banjo and dated within their own race, and respected their fathers – like Taylor Swift. White supremacists have been praising her for years and remain convinced that she shares their beliefs. And she says nothing about it. Instead, her lawyers recently threatened to sue a blogger who criticized her for this silence (the ACLU immediately supported the blogger, only deepening the divide between Taylor and progressives). Of course, her lawyers indicated that their threat should constitute a blanket rejection of white supremacist values, but threatening people who accuse you of something isn’t the same thing as rejecting the accusation.
If Taylor really wanted to improve her “reputation,” there’s actually a really simple solution: She could denounce white supremacy, Trump, Hitler, Nazis, or literally any form of oppression not directly targeted at her. But she doesn’t. Instead, she deliberately focuses on the past.
Reputation’s lyrics reference her breakup with DJ Calvin Harris, her whirlwind romance with actor Tom Hiddleston, and the emergence of her current relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. Of course, it dwells on her infamous on again/off again feud with rapper Kanye West that began with the 2009 VMAs, when Kanye stormed the stage after Taylor won an award for her music video, claiming infamously that he was going to let her finish her speech but “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!” The feud went through ups and downs, but climaxed in 2016, when Kanye’s wife Kim Kardashian posting a video proving that Swift lied about what was said on a phone call she had with West.
While there are some serious earworms on the album, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Given what we’re up against politically in 2017, it’s a little ridiculous that the primary antagonists identified in her songs are “the media” and an iconic black man.
“I’m your American queen,” she croons on “King of My Heart.” “I don’t like your kingdom keys/ They once belonged to me,” she sings to Kanye on “Look What you Made me Do.” And “they’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one,” Taylor warns on “I Did Something Bad,” evoking the right’s critiques of social justice warriors and their witch-hunts in the media. In her race- and politics-blind analysis of her world, she’s enabling dangerous tropes about black men, the media, and more. Taylor’s not a Nazi, she’s just naive – and incredibly insensitive to the fault lines of race and privilege in 2017.
NOW, SOME are going to read this piece and think, “Oh c’mon, it’s pop music, what’s it matter?” But Taylor Swift matters even if you don’t care. Taylor Swift’s political blindness, and the flack she’s been getting from everyone from cultural critics to her fans (me) to the ACLU, says a lot about what’s happening in our country. If she were just an average person, this might not be a big deal. However, Taylor’s not an average person; she has millions of followers and an unimaginable amount of influence. Rather than using it to speak out, she’d rather sing about how all her problems are due to her enemies who malign and misrepresent her.
We’ll see if Taylor ever gets unstuck. But even if she stays stuck in the past, she’ll probably remain a fixture of our present. Reputation is full of too many good songs that will top the charts as singles over the next year — she’s not going anywhere. But we fans deserve an artist who can deliver catchy tunes and political literacy. As long as Taylor remains captive to nostalgia, well, as she sings, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
Hannah Weilbacher is the creator of The B-Sides, a pop music and culture newsletter and playlist for lefties who love pop. Subscribe at bit.ly/listentothebsides. She is the program director at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and lives in Washington, DC.