Over the last few years, it’s been noted many times that while the Right enjoys nearly complete political power in the United States — consolidated most effectively last week when an accused sexual harasser was confirmed to the Supreme Court, thereby ensuring a lifetime of slanted conservative decisions further damning the country — they have nearly no cultural power, which is enjoyed entirely by the Left.
Hence the uniform spazzing on Sunday night when Taylor Swift, tarred as a crypto-Nazi for her refusal to publicly endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016, finally came out of her apolitical cave to give the thumbs up to Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper ahead of the midterm elections in her home state of Tennessee.
Almost immediately, the parade of profound morons somehow allowed to publicly opine on politics broke from their giddy celebration over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to call Swift the right-wing equivalent of cancelled, using the dumbest language possible.
Hey @taylorswift13 -— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) October 8, 2018
You just endorsed a Democrat in the Tennessee senate race with a ridiculous statement saying Marsha Blackburn, a woman, is against women
You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about
Your career has never recovered since Kanye ended it
The self-evident idiocy of this kind of logic needs no serious rebuttal, inasmuch as we’re all adults with things to do. That the Right so quickly mobilized to somehow express disappointment with Swift for getting political at a time in which “politics” are literally destroying the world will win Swift some public honors for taking a risk with her lily-white brand. Still, it’s hard to call her profoundly brave or anything — she is late to the broader Trump problem by a couple years. Projecting her as a tacit white supremacist in response to her political silence may have been a hysterical move, but it was fair to find some disappointment in her insistence on remaining neutral considering the present impossibility of apoliticism.
In a better world, we would never need to know what celebrities think about anything, but Swift is a unicorn amongst modern superstars for her immense popularity and cross-partisan appeal. Could she have swayed some on-the-fence white women — a core Trump support base — into admitting their latent leftist feelings? Probably not, but I don’t know, maybe?
“Maybe” is a sadly vague conclusion to find at the end of a couple years that saw her once-sparkling reputation nosedive in the press, thanks partly to a disastrous feud with Kanye West and the release of Reputation, a mediocre pop album where she swapped in a “dark” persona that might’ve been more compelling if the songs were better. Celebrities have always gotten in dumb feuds and released bad albums, but everything in culture now is overlaid with excessive metaphorical and political symbolism. This is due in part to a critical class getting unnecessarily serious about pop culture as a means to avoid getting serious about anything else, and fandoms who’ve become toxically polemicized because that’s just the way fandom works on the internet now.
Swift’s only real sin was assuming she could simply remain the projected image of herself in a world in which everything is seemingly connected. This is something that’s generally true under the tenets of liberal/leftist discourse, in which the type of car you drive is a referendum on your stance on the environment and your vote for president, but becomes facile when people happily cherry-pick facts to support their narrative of choice. Even now, there are cynics among us wondering if Swift’s statement was not just a simple political endorsement but an opportunistic attempt to reform that dinged reputation. But this is just the way it works now.
I’m like 99% certain the Taylor Swift Declares War On The Right Wing storyline is the result of her seeing Kanye in a MAGA hat and realizing her window for redemption had opened but primarily I hate the past decade for allowing this storyline to even be a thing I can track— Sady Doyle (@sadydoyle) October 8, 2018
A quick detour, with some spoilers: The newly released remake of A Star Is Born tells the story of Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a hybrid country-hard rocker with an earthy voice and earthier pretensions, and a woman named Ally (Lady Gaga), a struggling artist with a titanic voice and no last name whom Maine discovers, thus setting off a chain of events that climax in the realization of the movie’s title. As the movie progresses, Ally rises from background vocalist for a rock band to a glossy, manicured pop star. In not very much time at all, she’s making her Saturday Night Live debut, during which she dons a glittering outfit and performs a bouncy and salacious pop song titled “Why Did You Do That?”. Maine, who in the movie is fond of giving profound-ish speeches about artistry and inner voices, watches sadly from the side, and temporarily breaks his sobriety with a drink.
“Why Did You Do That?” could pass as a hit on today’s radio, but the framing of the scene (and its fallout) is clear: We’re supposed to be disappointed in Ally; she’s thrown away meaningful artistry for cheap pop spectacle. Watching this, I thought about the protracted arguments in music criticism over the last decade or so about the term “rockism.” Rockism, coined in 1981 by the English musician Pete Wylie and popularized in the last decade by critics like Kelefa Sanneh, describes the stuffy, industry-standard belief that some kinds of music (namely, rock and its offshoots, which are often performed by men) are more serious and artistically worthwhile than others (namely, pop and its offshoots, often performed by women). The formal diagnosis of rockism led to the invention of poptimism, a corollary critical framework stating (theoretically) that all types of music are worthy of serious consideration, instead of a reflexive eye-roll.
There’s about a million racial, gender, and political considerations wrapped up in all of this, which largely have to do with “correcting the record” to properly acknowledge traditionally undervalued perspectives, but to save some time: Whether Maine is acting like a toxic rockist or a concerned husband (he and Ally get married halfway through the movie) is wholly dependent on your exposure to these ideas, which have completely revamped the nature of criticism over the last decade.
In the more accurate version of A Star Is Born, we’d see the critics bemoaning Ally’s shift from gritty folky realism to gleaming pop artifice, followed by the other critics accusing them of being too uptight. We’d see her Twitter fans battle over which sound they liked more, whether or not she should divorce Jackson after he embarrasses her at the Grammys, whether she should forcefully repudiate the election of Donald Trump. We would get all of the projection, and less of the actual music.
Instead, there’s none of this, and the movie is viscerally appealing enough to push aside all the broader critical concerns about the underpinning ideologies. It’s a movie, to be watched in a vacuum, to take your mind off whatever bullshit is happening in the world.
Which brings me to: What if Taylor Swift could just be a charismatic and engaging pop star, without anyone caring about what was underneath the work? Of course, one big difference between A Star Is Born and Taylor Swift’s beliefs is that movies are purposefully fictional; Bradley Cooper’s real thoughts about pop music don’t matter, and the political motivations of his two-dimensional characters can remain blessedly unexamined if the story is fun enough.
But Swift has spent so much time presenting herself as accessible and relatable — a struggling artist, not an untouchable superstar — that she had almost no choice but voice her thoughts, lest she be continually criticized for what she doesn’t say, lest she continue to relate to her fans, who grapple with the issues of the day to her music in the background. There’s so much discussion surrounding the minutiae of every pop star’s life that their work can feel secondary to what they supposedly represent. Is it better this way, opposed to information-deprived era of years past in which everyone sort of cared about what their celebrities thought, but there was no mechanism through which to know what they thought all the time about every single thing? I don’t think so. But if you present yourself for consumption, you’re going to get eaten, and even someone as massively popular and controlled as Taylor Swift finally realized she’s no exception.