Over the weekend, The Washington Post published leaked audio of presidential candidate Donald Trump saying in 2005 that when you’re a famous man, “[Women] let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.” This is a description of sexual assault. For many women, it’s a description of lived reality.
Taylor Swift is one of those women. In October 2015, Swift filed a lawsuit against a Colorado radio DJ accusing him of assault and battery (after he sued her for defamation). She says that he “groped” her butt while they were backstage at a meet-and-greet. The court documents state that her intention in filing the lawsuit was both to define who committed the crime and to “serve as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts.”
Yet, this weekend, after a leading presidential candidate was heard bragging about engaging in this exact behavior, Taylor Swift did not say a word. She stayed silent on social media in the wake of this political controversy, as she has for the entirety of this campaign cycle. She’s been silent on the hundreds of misogynistic and racist comments Trump has made, silent on who she will vote for in November—silent on whether she’ll vote at all. It’s surely an intentional decision on her part, to avoid controversy and maintain the allegiance of all of her fans.
But her reticence should be controversial. To remain silent is to remain complicit in every hateful statement, every reminder that a man with power and fame can—as Trump said this weekend—”do whatever he wants.”
Taylor Swift can’t win. No matter the situation, how she behaves, or what she says, there is no way that Swift can please everyone. Her fan base consists of millions upon millions of people scattered across the globe and the political spectrum. Like her relationships and her feuds, any statement she makes will be ruthlessly picked apart by whichever side disagrees with her. It is terrible to be a woman in the spotlight.
It’s easy to understand, then, why she defaulted to silence on political matters pretty early on in her career. Taylor has made it clear that she won’t comment on politics or religion. This is a stance that many of Swift’s fans turn to in order to explain why she’s stayed quiet this year through these events. In 2012, she told Time:
“I follow [the election], and I try to keep myself as educated and informed as possible. But I don’t talk about politics because it might influence other people. And I don’t think that I know enough in life to be telling people to vote for.”
As a citizen, Swift has the right to keep her vote private. Like the rest of us, the decision she makes in the voting booth is between only her, her god, and the United States government. Even hardcore Swifties aren’t 100% sure where Taylor Swift leans politically. There’s an argument to be made by both sides that Taylor Swift is “theirs.”
A Republican could argue that her religious past, having grown up in the church, might lead her to conservatism. Her best friend is supermodel Karlie Kloss, who is dating Joshua Kushner, the brother of Ivanka Trump’s husband. She’s also a millionaire, and 538 found that 57% of people making more than $500,000 a year identify as or lean Republican.
A Democrat could argue the exact opposite. Swift dated a Kennedy and is friends with Lena Dunham. She has alluded to voting for Obama in 2008, and just last week appeared in an Instagram photo that a friend posted with a pro-Hillary caption “#Imwithher.”
In a profile of Swift published in Rolling Stone just after the 2008 election, Vanessa Grigoriadis writes:
She’s constantly worried about saying something that could be construed as offensive to her fans, and even swats away a question about her political preferences before conceding that she supports the president.
That is where the personal benefit of Taylor’s silence on political matters lies: by saying nothing, she offends no one, and can be beloved by all. This is smart business, and until this weekend, I think she had a fairly good argument for keeping her mouth shut. But it’s very difficult to be quiet about politics unless you have the privilege of not being affected by them. And over time, as Taylor’s gotten older and more privy to the world we live in, she’s occasionally relented from her silence.
Since the release of her album 1989 in October 2014, it’s been impossible to argue that Swift is apolitical. She may not have publicly endorsed a candidate for office or revealed herself to be a card-carrying member of either party, but she has been political. For one thing, she declared herself a feminist, a word created for political activism. Here’s what she told The Guardian in 2014:
As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.
A candidate for president saying that he would like to grab women “by the pussy” should be abhorrent to anyone who shares the beliefs Taylor Swift professes to believe. It’s also a disturbing echo of an experience she knows intimately, that rocked her enough to file a lawsuit. And yet, she hasn’t said a word.
This is and isn’t an argument about Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift the woman who wakes up in the morning and tries to live her life is probably very different from the Taylor Swift who poses for magazine covers and produces multi-platinum albums. This is really an argument about what it means to sit in a position of power and say nothing when you could speak out against racism, sexism, and inequality.
What duty does a pop star have to voice a political opinion? Well, none at all. It’s not a pop star’s job to push a political agenda. Taylor Swift does not owe anyone her opinion on Trump, or racism, or anything. Celebrities, of course, may choose silence. But silence is not an apolitical action, as much as Swift seems to suggest that it is. To remain silent is to remain complicit—a choice that’s all the more egregious in light of Swift’s enormous platform.
Last night, at the second presidential debate, Donald Trump bragged about having the ears of “25 million people” on Facebook and Twitter combined. Eighty-one million people follow Taylor Swift on Twitter alone. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
For so long in this campaign, people have cried out that the words coming from Donald Trump’s mouth aren’t “right,” that they are racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and full of hate. This weekend, his comments went so far that even members of his own political party began to openly denounce him. These people have not said they will vote for Hillary, simply that they will not—under any circumstance—be voting for him.
I wonder if, when Taylor Swift decided that she wouldn’t speak out about politics, she was thinking about Natalie Maines, the most recent liberal country music witch to be burned at the stake of her political beliefs. On March 10, 2003 (not even an election year), Maines made an offhand statement from the Dixie Chicks stage: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Immediately, country music—which has a largely Republican fan base—turned on her. Toby Keith and Reba McEntire immediately came out in opposition. The Dixie Chicks put out one more album, but the controversy essentially ended their career.
“I feel like we are tainted,” Maines told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I don’t know if we put a tour up, if people would come.” Swift must know this story. She said she admired Maines in her 2008 interview with Rolling Stone. And think of what’s at risk for Taylor if she stands up against Donald Trump, possibly alienating some segment of her fan base. Her 1989 tour alone made her $200 million dollars. It’s not just popularity and reputation on the table for Taylor Swift (as it would be for just about any A-list celebrity weighing whether to endorse a political candidate); there’s also a huge hunk of cash.
If Taylor Swift had never become friends with Lena Dunham, if she never had never proclaimed herself a feminist, we would not be having this conversation. To be a ruthless capitalist in a capitalist society is completely acceptable. To be a ruthless capitalist who also claims to fight for the “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” as feminists do—well, that’s another story.
Taylor Swift’s 2012 statement that she didn’t want to talk about politics was apparently forgotten when she herself chose to take a political stance in 2014 by declaring herself a feminist. By identifying with an activist group of any kind, an artist is subject to the public expectation that they uphold the tenets of that movement. Beyoncé’s fans cried out when she didn’t speak out on Black Lives Matter, for example. (Since she released Lemonade, with its highly political stance, the Beyhive has been satisfied.) Just recently, Selena Gomez became the subject of controversy among her Latinx fans for her refusal to address political issues.
Taylor Swift has not spoken out on any issue this campaign season and she has not, really, been asked to. Taylor Swift occupies a position in society that allows her to remain silent. She is white. She has enough money to pay her rent and her healthcare bills. No matter who gets elected in this race, her privilege on those two things won’t change (just like it won’t change for all cis, straight, able-bodied white women). She will still be less likely to be shot while picking up our child from school and will still be able to afford food. But she is also a woman. That’s where this gets messy.
Taylor Swift’s type of feminist practice is sometimes referred to as “white feminism,” meaning that the only statements she feels compelled to make are on issues that directly affect her—not the more complex, intersectional problems that face women of color and queer women. Taylor has been called out for this kind of feminism before, as when she framed her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West this summer as an attack on all women.
Even though Taylor Swift’s brand of feminism is problematic, you would think that decrying Trump’s comments would be an easy decision for her to make. On Friday, when Donald Trump admitted to grabbing women “by the pussy” and getting away with kissing them because he was famous, he set himself in direct opposition to anyone who claims to be a feminist. This major political event is—theoretically—right in the crosshairs of Taylor’s feminism: something that has effected her personally, and that she has already taken a stance against. And yet, she stayed silent.
Taylor Swift has been quiet for most of this election cycle. While “on break” or “writing her next album,” she hasn’t participated much in the public realm. With the exception of Hiddleswift and the Kim/Kanye feud, she’s basically been off the radar. Unlike almost all of her contemporaries (Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga Britney Spears, Demi Lovato), Taylor Swift has not endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. But she wouldn’t have to take a stand for Hillary to take a stand against misogyny, bigotry, and sexual assault.
I don’t know what Taylor Swift believes. I don’t know which politicians’ statements, if any, keep her tossing and turning in the middle of the night. But I do know she’s filed a lawsuit against a man who sexually assaulted her, and that she’s offended by the word “bitch.” It’s hard to imagine that, at a minimum, she isn’t upset that a presidential candidate admitted to sexually assaulting women. She’s registered to vote in Tennessee, so come November, she’s going to have make some decision, even if that decision is not to vote.
Ultimately, Taylor Swift’s political opinion doesn’t really matter. If a voter hasn’t made up their mind by this point in the election cycle, they probably aren’t going to be swayed by something she says. A statement from Swift in support of Hillary Clinton (or even against Donald Trump) wouldn’t really do anything at all. Does she owe it to us, her listeners and her fans, to take a stance? Nope.
But to stay silent in this election, in which a candidate has unabashedly insulted women and people of color, is to ignore the mission she has claimed to be promoting, and makes money off of.
As Swift herself once sang, “I’ve never heard silence quite this loud.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece said that Taylor played at the 2008 RNC. This is not true. It also said she was “well known among the fandom to have written ‘Republicans do it better’ on her Myspace page in the early 2000s,” although this cannot be confirmed.