photo by Marc E. (marcen27 on Wikimedia Commons)
There is a time and place for music, and a time and place for politics. I give Taylor Swift credit for understanding which is which.
As most of planet Earth probably knows by now, this week the 28-year-old singer-songwriter endorsed Democrat Phil Bredesen over Republican Marsha Blackburn in the race for a U.S. Senate seat from Tennessee. In many cases, if not most, it would scarcely be newsworthy that a millennial multimillionaire entertainer leans left politically, but Swift has been notably circumspect about her views in the past. And she has taken heat for it, too.
The Tennessee race is crucial to the Democrats’ long-shot hopes to win control of the Senate as well as the House (where they have much better prospects) in next month’s midterm elections. Observers and polls had indicated that the race was close, although Blackburn recently seemed to be opening some space over Bredesen.
After mentioning that the past two years had changed her previous reluctance to publicly voice her political opinions, Swift explained in a post on her Instagram account that she looks for candidates who she believes will prioritize human rights issues, including gender and racial equality and LGBTQ rights. Swift expressed her belief that Blackburn’s record does not demonstrate these values, and said she will be voting for Bredesen (as well as House candidate Jim Cooper). She ended with a sincere call to her followers to participate in the democratic process, whatever their political leanings. “For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway,” Swift wrote, before directing her followers to vote.org, a site that offers information about voter registration, polling places, election calendars and absentee ballots.
Swift’s post gave the Bredesen campaign at least a temporary shot in the arm. Notably, her endorsement arrived just after Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a justice on the Supreme Court. Bredesen broke with nearly all of his party by declaring that he would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh, which aligns him with most of the Tennessee electorate but not with the Democratic base whose support and donations are vital to him. Like other red-state Democrats, Bredesen found himself in a no-win position due to the Kavanaugh controversy. Swift’s Instagram post diverted attention away from the Democrat and onto what Swift described, in summary opposition-research fashion, as Blackburn’s appalling and terrifying congressional voting record.
Naturally, the conservative political media cringed and its more prominent liberal counterpart crowed. The respective factions of social media did much the same. If Swift were still performing in the country music genre, she might have had reason to fear the sort of backlash that the Dixie Chicks faced when they spoke out against George W. Bush’s foreign policy over a decade ago. But I don’t think Swift has the same commercial exposure as a pop artist, and I highly doubt she would have cared anyway.
I don’t agree with her position, but I would cheerfully observe that Swift handled her entry into political discourse as she does most other things, with grace and maturity. She did not subject a captive audience to a political rant at a concert or on an awards telecast. People who follow celebrities on social media do so primarily because they want to know the person behind the image or the music (or at least as much of that person as the celebrity cares to reveal). Swift had more than 1.6 million likes on her Bredesen endorsement post within 24 hours. Social media is the perfect place for Swift to share her political views with those who want to know them.
Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, I attended a Steely Dan concert in New York City. The opening performer, jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, repeatedly harangued the audience with rants against candidate Donald Trump. This brought many more cheers than groans – I did mention that this was New York City, didn’t I? – but I found her behavior went past annoying all the way to offensive. I didn’t come to see Peyroux perform at all, and I certainly did not come to hear her views on Trump and the people who planned to vote for him. If she had been performing at a rally for Hillary Clinton I would have had no objection, but that was not what I thought I was getting when I bought my ticket.
Peyroux later released an album entitled “Anthem,” collaborating with other prominent artists who were inspired and influenced by the 2016 election. Her website describes the “consciously not too preachy” music as “striking that perfect equilibrium of dark humor and compassion.” A politically themed artistic statement, offered to an audience who welcomes it, or at least expects it, is in perfect harmony with our long tradition of free expression. I have no quarrel with it, regardless of its content, unlike the performance I attended.
I have a similar issue with football players taking a knee during the national anthem. They are paid to perform in a drama, namely an orchestrated (if unscripted) clash of freakishly large, athletic warriors on a 100-yard-long battlefield. That field belongs legally to the league’s owners, and practically to the fans who pay to view the spectacle. Athletes are entitled to employ their fame in favor of any cause or candidate they choose, but they should use their own venues – social media being the obvious acceptable choice – with an audience who hasn’t paid in the expectation it would receive something else in exchange.
One of the dumber reactions to Swift’s endorsement came from former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. His own daughter, who is not much older than Swift, takes near-constant abuse as Trump’s spokeswoman. I would have thought simple courtesy would have led him to refrain from trying to put down Swift for her stance, and especially to avoid trying to do so by observing that Swift’s endorsement means little because 13-year-old girls don’t vote.
Just for the record: Taylor Swift has 112 million followers on Instagram. Mike Huckabee has 42,000. He does manage to put 1.1 million Twitter followers against her 83 million. It’s possible that Swift’s 13-year-old female fan base is larger than his entire audience, but Huckabee should not let that confuse him. The laws of probability alone imply that many more voting-age Americans will pay attention to Swift than to Huckabee. Especially since she speaks more eloquently, and in the right places too.