Culture

Taylor Swift is the queen of silence

Why she stands out on TIME’s Person of the Year cover.

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Culture

Taylor Swift is the queen of silence

Why she stands out on TIME’s Person of the Year cover.

This year, TIME’s choice for Person of the Year is a powerful one: The Silence Breakers, referring to the people who spoke up against their abusers. In an editorial hailing the actions of the famous, non-famous, and anonymous alike, the piece provides what has been sorely missing in recent months: an inclusive portrait of the widespread movement against sexual assault that came to the forefront this year.

Time's 2017 Person of the Year cover

Time's 2017 Person of the Year cover

The magazine’s choice of who to put on the cover, though, was curious. Along with actor Ashley Judd, strawberry picker Isabel Pascual, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, and lobbyist Adama Iwu stands musician Taylor Swift, in the back and off to the side but nevertheless, by virtue of her being the most famous person pictured, a focal point. In a group of people who very publicly spoke and acted out against sexual assault and harassment this year, Swift indeed has a place. One of her most high-profile moments of this year was when, on August 10, she took to the stand to testify against DJ David Mueller, who groped her while they were taking a photo together in 2013. Swift won the case, which was itself a countersuit against a defamation lawsuit Mueller filed after Swift spoke out about the assault, and got him fired from the station where he worked at the time. Her reward was a symbolic $1.

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Nonetheless, Swift is a conspicuous choice in a package highlighting women who spoke truth to power at all costs. It wasn’t long ago that as musicians and celebrities alike were voicing their support for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, Swift remained silent, refusing to speak up about either candidate. The only public reference she made to the presidential election was in an Election Day Instagram where she stood in line to vote. While some of the most-liked celebrity voting Instagrams were captioned with endorsements like “#ImWithHer” and “she betta,” the caption on Swift’s Instagram remained neutral: “Today is the day. Go out and VOTE.” Her silence avoided alienating any part of her lucrative fan base, and it paid off: Hers was the most-liked shot on the app that day. Meanwhile, Election Day Google searches revealed her vote was also the one most people were curious about.

Of course, Trump won, and more than one pundit wondered whether Swift could’ve thrown meaningful support to Clinton, given her singular popularity and cross-demographic appeal. At the beginning of the year, she broke her silence by tweeting a message of support to participants of the Women’s March on January 21. Amazingly, she did so without mentioning the openly sexist president. When Swift’s long-awaited album Reputation was released on November 10, it only reinforced her long apolitical brand. There was no mention of the administration headed by an admitted sexual harasser, but plenty about the legions of people who have wronged her. Relatedly, Reputation is one of the best-selling albums of the year.

To be clear, Swift isn’t at all required to talk about her political leanings. It would be beautiful if we lived in a world where celebrities didn't feel motivated to share their opinions, since many of them are undoubtedly bad. But considering her ongoing silence on the country's most high-profile sexual harasser, her prominent placement on the cover feels tonally off. It’s even more off when one considers the very recent moment where Swift actively worked to silence others. In September, blogger Meghan Herning wrote a piece calling on Swift to speak out against Trump and white supremacy — “because in America 2017, silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor,” Herning wrote.

The musician responded by threatening a lawsuit against Herning if she didn’t take the post down and issue a retraction. Variety reported that Swift denounced white supremacy privately in a letter to the blogger but forbade her to publish it. The ACLU quickly got involved and challenged Swift’s threats, publishing the letter. (“Let this letter stand as a yet another unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the alt-right,” it said — a curious statement to insist be private.) The lawsuit was never filed. Nevertheless, the incident exposed how far Swift was willing to go to silence people who threaten her bottom line.

Swift’s inclusion in the editorial as well as on the annually much-shared cover exposes the choice as an economically strategic one.

In no way should Swift’s experience with sexual harassment and the exhaustive fight for legal justice be discounted. Her actions and her testimony in that regard should be rightfully honored as part of this year’s wave of exposing sexual abuses in workplaces of all kinds. But when it comes to TIME’s designation of her as a silence breaker, it’s absurd and disingenuous to ignore how she has nurtured and exploited silence in other areas for her own personal gain. Yes, she spoke out against a sexual harasser. Unlike her fellow honorees, she only did so when she had relatively little to lose. The risk still isn’t worth it when it comes to calling out Trump and racial injustice, potentially alienating those of her supporters who wear MAGA hats and think Colin Kaepernick has ruined football. Notably, though Trump is mentioned seven times in the collective Person of the Year feature, in TIME’s one-on-one interview with Swift, there is no mention of the president, suggesting the publication was asked not to mention the glaringly relevant topic. (We e-mailed TIME’s Eliana Dockterman about whether Swift’s camp placed conditions on the interview, and have not heard back.)

Swift’s presence, too, seems especially cynical considering the many other brave, famous people who could have filled that slot: Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lupita Nyong’o, or Kesha — who returned to music this year after years-long legal battles against her former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke. Of course, her inclusion is an economically strategic one. As one of the most successful pop artists in the world and one of Instagram and Twitter’s most-followed users, the difference between putting Swift on the cover and in the article or not was potentially a difference of millions of dollars. In valuing money over truth, the singer and magazine have something in common.