is a series reflecting on our memories of 2017, one month at a time, as we head into the new year.
One of my more reliable somas, especially at a time where most phones have become disease carriers for existential dread, is losing myself in online celebrity fan battles. The online stan spaces, once exempt from mention of Trump in favor of Brazilians arguing about the merits of Justin Bieber’s exes, have become a conduit for polemics. Celebrities are avatars in discourse, mythical mascots that embody both moral principles and systemic injustices.
In November, almost exactly a year after the nation plunged into the absurd, Taylor Swift released her sixth studio album, Reputation, with a coy campaign that winked at her haters. After all, hating Taylor Swift has become as mainstream as Taylor Swift herself, and Taylor is perhaps the most eager to tell us that. As expected, a litany of Taylor Swift think pieces descended upon a certain corner of the online, and pop culture continued to lurch forward. But as I dutifully worked my way through the hot takes, mindlessly imbibing the cultural criticisms the Twitter algorithm sends my way, I saw a storm brewing — a full-on confrontation between the BeyHive and the Swifties.
Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are forever bound by Kanye West’s iconic VMAs stunt, cursed to decades of career comparisons that neither seem comfortable addressing head-on. Their respective fan-bases fill the vacuum, dutifully comparing album sales and reviews as markers of success, lobbing grainy gifs at one another from accounts like @BeyonceMyRoc and @TaylorSwiftMore in a back and forth with the rhythm of a tennis match, as if either’s artistic merit can be quantified by numbers rather than the music itself.
Of course, fandom rarely exists without rivalry. It’s inherent in the concept of one person or entity being the best in its totality. There must be a foil, and the foil must be the worst in its totality too. Online, the logic beckons a kind of “evidence-based” discourse not unlike a high school debate, albeit an incredibly ugly one. Regardless of the facts — facts in this case being Youtube views, ticket sales, the legitimacy of those ticket sales, looks, racial roles, overall money intake, singing quality, Instagram followers, ultimately attempts to assign value to the subjective — there’s no winning in a stan battle. That’s part of its appeal: once declared, it will continue till the end of time, through endless iterations, each offering another opportunity for fans to reify an artist into an emblem for their cause celebre.
2017 leaves little room for the apolitical; even the Real Housewives of New York were asked to reveal how they voted. Reputation’s release came almost a year to the date after all corners of culture were pushed to confront their politics, the kind of unmasking that leaves us side-eying anyone, celebrity or otherwise, who remains silent. Beyoncé’s politics are no secret—her performance of “At Last” at Obama’s 2008 Inaugural Ball ushered in an era of pop culture where the demand for celebrity political statements barely existed because the assumption was, obviously you like this president. This administration doesn’t allow for the same kind of repose. Silence doesn’t satisfy a society convulsing, frantically questioning its idols one by one.
Naturally, Taylor’s noted lack of political endorsements makes her suspect. It’s an easy pop shot for diehard Beyoncé fans, and low-hanging fruit for the Taylor Swift thinkpiecers. “Her silence seems to be more willful: a product of her inward gaze, perhaps, or her pettiness and refusal to concede to critics,” reads a recent Guardian editorial. “Swift seems not simply a product of the age of Trump, but a musical envoy for the president’s values.” And if Taylor is an avatar for MAGA, Beyoncé may as well have been the “BLACKS RULE” meme — The National Review, once a model of supposedly thoughtful conservatism, attacked her “Marxismo chic fashion” and her “infantile, neo-Black Panther dance skit.” I would wager that author — an old white man, if you couldn’t guess — wouldn’t necessarily mind Taylor’s apolitical, asexual bopping.
It’s easy for fans, haters, and Senior Fellows at the Hoover Institution to speculate about Taylor and Beyoncé’s politics given neither are particularly forthcoming with the media. Though both fan bases seem resentful of any mention of Reputation and Lemonade in the same sentence — at this point I consider myself to be an expert observer of both — the albums were sold to us as direct messages from the artists, unadulterated and unfiltered by a media industry both Swift and Knowles seem wary of.
In the rare instances that either deign to give interviews, it’s not that hard to deduce why woke Twitter roughly aligns itself with Beyoncé and “Sometimes Black Lives Matter takes it a bit too far” Twitter is sympathetic to Taylor Swift. In her 2016 Elle interview, one of her few lengthier sit downs in recent history, Beyoncé clarified her stance on the police after “Formation”’s music video release: “if celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me.” In her 2016 “73 Questions With Taylor Swift” video, one of her few lengthier interviews in recent history, Taylor Swift clarified what she might have done with her life had she not been a musician: “I might be in advertising.”
A friend of mine recently divulged his most recent litmus test for friendship. “I swear to God,” he wrote me, “Whenever I meet a new white person who I’m building a rapport with I ask them how they feel about Beyoncé. If you can’t give a clearly excellent and hard-working black woman her props, you’ve told me everything I need to know about you. You’ve also told me how you view me.” The same friend also said, “Taylor can barely hold a note lmaoo.”
I haven’t told that friend that I myself listen to a decent amount of Taylor Swift, perhaps more than I do Beyoncé. Part of that has to do with Taylor’s convenient return to Spotify, which is where I stream my music, but a lot of has to do with the fact that I do think she can hold a note. I was unironically screaming “We Are Never Getting Back Together” on a roof with a crowd of New York media people less than five years ago. Somewhere between then and now liking Taylor Swift became synonymous with celebrating white mediocrity at best, celebrating white supremacy at worst.
I’m willing to bet most of us at the drunken Taylor Swift singalong still listen to her music, despite the turning of the tide. Should we not? Should I be self-consciously hiding my phone screen when “Blank Space” shows up on my “most played in 2017” playlist? My Beyoncé-core friend has me nervous to admit my penchant for songs by a woman who could pass as the eight Von Trapp child. Maybe he won’t abruptly end our friendship once he finds out. But it’s a risk I’m considering given the lines he’s drawn.
There is always someone somewhere groaning, “Leave politics out of this!” Swift’s fans are most likely to take this stance while defending Taylor’s lack of politics, because it’s much easier for a white woman to opt out. As the pendulum turbulently swings between neo-fascists and social justice warriors, though, fewer of us can consume pop culture without examining the political implications of its makers. Fewer of us can ignore what it means to give money and power to forces that embolden policies that actively seek to suppress us, even with silence. I can’t blame my friend for using Beyoncé and Taylor as an easy rule for who to trust; I just hope he can trust me.