Taylor Swift knows she can’t so much as step out of her apartment without throngs of superfans analyzing her outfit for codes. The pop juggernaut is known for her hidden clues and Easter eggs whenever she reveals a new album or “era,” most famously redecorating her Instagram page with snakes after an infamous spat with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. If anyone can meticulously own a narrative, it’s TSwift. Which makes her recent forays into LGBT culture both unsurprising and eyebrow-raising. Almost any blonde popstar is bound to have a committed gay following, but Taylor Swift has dominated the Target-loving mom demographic for over a decade now. Her silence on key political issues such as the 2016 election has drawn criticism from skeptics who believe Swift would rather court conservative fans before sticking her neck out for left-leaning causes.
As if to answer those criticisms head-on, Taylor has slowly but surely begun drawing attention to social justice issues, beginning with her endorsement of Tennessee Democratic candidates Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper in the fall of 2018 right before the midterm elections. In the inaugural Instagram post, Swift wrote, “In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions. I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG.”
The endorsement comes on the heels of white supremacist outlets championing Swift as a symbol of white virtue and excellence. The post rightfully distances Swift’s own political views from those who might exploit her image for wrongful gains. Until recently, however, Swift has separated her music and politics with a pretty thick firewall. 1989 and Reputation have boasted their fair share of vaguely feminist anthems, but a girl squad of (mostly white, mostly skinny) famous supermodels is still a far cry from a firm political stance. Taylor Swift is also known for her activity on the leftist forums of Tumblr, where she interacts with fans directly, sharing fan art and posting her own exclusive content with a less polished, more accessible sheen. Sites like Tumblr have become a haven for queer teens due to its proliferation of art, fanfare, and yes, pornography. Although recent censorship crackdowns have left users migrating to other sites like Reddit and Twitter, Tumblr’s contribution to social justice culture has left a lasting impact on Gen Z and millennials alike. For this reason, Swift’s shift to more politically outspoken avenues makes sense. That being said, this past week has the former country singer shifting into gay overdrive in a move that feels suspiciously like pandering.
Pride month’s move to the mainstream in recent years has left many wary of corporatization and shameless money-making bids, all in a rainbow wrapper. Companies like Uber have touted their tolerance of queer and trans individuals while continuing to make their workplace environments unfriendly to drivers. More radical, leftist LGBT activists believe capitalism and queer liberation will always be at odds, making any rainbow logo a hollow publicity grab, at best. That’s not to say that the movement’s recent milestones haven’t benefited from a wider audience. Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye For the Straight Guy has launched the Fab Five to instant stardom, placing the lifestyle team in staunchly conservative haunts like rural Georgia and now Missouri, fostering feel-good across-the-aisle connections. What does all of this newfound LGBT popularity mean for Taylor Swift? To the cynic, a savvy career move.
Unlike more eccentric pop stars like Lady Gaga who have long campaigned for LGBT rights, Swift began her career as America’s country sweetheart, churning out wholesome hits that appealed to both the sentimental teen and her middle-aged mother. Although she weathered her fair share of romantic woes like any other woman her age, she maintained a relatively uncontroversial image, bolstered by widespread sympathy following Kanye West’s infamous mic-grab almost ten years ago. That image has since wavered throughout her last three albums as the media performs its usual dance deciding whether to idolize or villainize a young female pop star. (Ashley O, anyone?) Reputation said goodbye to the Old Taylor, leaving her new singles to answer the question of who the New Taylor will be.
“Me!” featuring Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie was a disappointingly saccharine attempt at self-affirmation, with the music video and single alike feeling scattered and infantile. With millennials aging out of the hardcore pop demographic, it makes some sense to regain a new, younger audience. The promotion surrounding her newest single, “You Need To Calm Down,” however, marks a startling pivot back to the twenty-something demographic, specifically, the gays. Last Friday, Taylor Swift appeared at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York for a surprise performance, the final boss version of the straight girl who goes to gay bars for change of scenery. Pride month is as good a time as any to voice support, but the very problem is that many celebrities, companies, and media outlets alike do little to further LGBT causes outside of the month of June. A sudden, direct plea to gay fans seems opportunistic, to say the least.
What’s more unsettling is the smorgasbord of LGBT celebrities (and Ryan Reynolds, I guess) that have packed into Swift’s latest music video, a dizzying, technicolor display that can only intend to overwhelm. The video is set in a trailer park, bolstering the limiting notion that homophobes only exist in poor, rural areas—a stereotype that allows most straight liberals to pat themselves on the back. The aforementioned Fab Five are in attendance, as are RuPaul (a pioneer of corporate queerness) and a team of drag queens all dressed as different fellow pop stars. The video is replete with winks, nods, and references, but nothing screams louder than the message, “Taylor Swift Is OK With Gay.” It’s “Bad Blood” all over again, yet another testament to Swift’s ubiquitous star power. Unlike “Bad Blood,” Swift is using “You Need To Calm Down” to build bridges rather than burn them—the video features an official make-up between Swift and former rival Katy Perry, whose animosity has been well-documented the past five or so years. The video’s rollout spurred yet another opportunity for Swift to show off her Tumblr education; this time to speak out against “queerbaiting.” Queerbaiting is exactly the kind of cheap pandering frequently aimed at LGBT fanfare—think Britney and Madonna’s MTV kiss, or the entire plot of BBC’s Sherlock. Queerbaiting hinges on titillating a gay audience with the implication that they might be queer, but without any explicit confirmation. Swift made her comment following a rumor that she and Perry would kiss in her new video, again on her preferred platform, Tumblr.
“Guys,” she wrote. “That is ABSOLUTELY false. To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting. Anyone trying to twist this positivity into something it isn’t needs to calm down. It costs zero dollars to not step on our gowns.”
Some have speculated that Swift’s latest career development foreshadows her own coming out, but at least of late, Swift is positioning herself firmly as an ally, nothing more. But how much is allyship worth? It’s too late to ask that Swift begin her LGBT-friendly efforts before it became marketable, but is “better late than never” good enough? Swift is hardly the first pop star to embrace a gay audience; Ariana Grande has been crowned (and subsequently guillotined) as a gay icon despite being straight and engaging in the same queerbaiting Swift has criticized.
For the record, the last thing I want is for Taylor Swift to come out. Not for any reason other than that up until now, she’s contributed so much to straight culture I think it would be too much to have her change teams this late in the game. My mind would short-circuit. With a surprise reveal off the table, the only other explanation is that Taylor Swift is a straight woman using the LGBT rights movement to build around her own public image, rather than forefronting queer artists or voices in her work. To her credit, she apparently compensated the performers more than fairly for their time in her music video, but with all the money she’s raking in, that counts as the bare minimum. Taylor Swift has never been one to pick a lane and stick to it. Activism and advocacy, unlike synthpop or misguided rapping, shouldn’t be a new look to try on. If Swift’s next album has her back in blue jeans with an acoustic guitar, we know how this move played out.