So two months ago, I was the guy who dared to say the unspeakable: Taylor Swift’s overwhelming popularity was in some grand sense a sign of societal decline. While the blunt headline on my column got people’s attention — getting denounced by British tabloids wasn’t exactly on my bucket list — as per usual, people missed the substantive forest for the clickbait trees.
In the last year or so, Swift’s popularity reached such a crescendo that a great many of America’s self-styled intellectuals, who are nothing if not thirsty for cultural relevance, were falling all over themselves to praise a woman whose artistry is finely tuned to appeal to not particularly precocious teenagers. Indeed, there was a rash of think pieces that had this off-putting and very meta overtone of cultural critics working overtime to convince themselves of the truth of what they were writing.
And so, the basic point of my piece was pretty simple: Do not ascribe this much cultural power to a figure that hasn’t earned it or deserves it! It was stupid to read the NYT treat a thoroughly middling songwriter like the second coming of Bob Dylan. And this obnoxious treatment was on top of the fact that Swift is otherwise sucking up every available pocket of pop culture oxygen. It seemed inevitable that a backlash would arrive — even if it’s fair to say Swift didn’t necessarily ask for all this undue attention.
Considering anyone who’s dipped a toe in social media in the last week has probably had their eyes fried by all-caps discussions of whether or not Swift and her relationship with Superbowl-bound Travis Kelce is a “psyop” designed to change the outcome of the 2024 election, you might be inclined to think that moment has arrived.
At least on the surface level, shouldn’t the idea that Swift dumped her previous English rockstar boyfriend to fall in love with an all-American football star be something conservatives applaud? If nothing else, the imagery of the pretty blonde girl rushing from the stands down to the gridiron to smooch her victorious boyfriend is the stuff of ’80s teen movies and Norman Rockwell. As Ross Douthat puts it in a New York Times column Wednesday on “Taylor Swift, Donald Trump and the Right’s Abnormality Problem”:
The cultural valence of the Swift-Kelce romance isn’t just normal and wholesome and mainstream in a way that conservatism shouldn’t want to be defined against. It’s normal and wholesome and mainstream in an explicitly conservative-coded way, offering up the kind of romantic iconography that much of the online right supposedly wants to encourage and support.
I wholeheartedly agree with this and must say that Douthat does an elegant job discussing the contours of the putative controversy. However, I have some not-so-small caveats, starting with the observation that the politics of this iconography map onto reality in messy ways. For instance, Taylor’s ex, the fey English guy, was running around wearing merch from alt-right podcasts, where the all-American football guy was controversial for being a Pfizer spokesman well before Swift entered. When Kelce took $20 million to promote Covid vaccines, taking heat over the controversies surrounding how the public was lied to throughout the pandemic — which is hardly a conspiracy theory — had to be priced in.
Further, as long as we’re talking about election psyops, it’s worth noting, as Douthat does, that the Biden administration is quite publicly floating that they desperately want her endorsement. That, in turn, prompts the need to remind people, particularly since we almost never have discussions about how voters on the left routinely and broadly believe demonstrably wackadoodle things, that Taylor Swift herself promoted a laughable election conspiracy at the height of the 2020 election.
“Trump’s calculated dismantling of USPS proves one thing clearly: He is WELL AWARE that we do not want him as our president,” Swift wrote on Twitter. “He’s chosen to blatantly cheat and put millions of Americans’ lives at risk in an effort to hold on to power.” The idea that Trump was sabotaging the Post Office to prevent ballots from being mailed in was misinformation with zero basis in reality, but Swift is allowed to undermine confidence in our elections because, well, I guess when you’re a star they let you do it.
Anyway, to bring this back to Douthat’s larger point, speaking as someone who has suffered the slings and arrows of bluntly criticizing Swift, I’m not actually sure the right is abnormally hung up on Swift or any related conspiracies surrounding her.
First, it’s worth noting that at the outset of the initial Swift-Kelce relationship, conspiratorial talk was, in fact, pretty mainstream! The emergence of the Swift-Kelce relationship was pretty crazy — it came on the heels of a tour so successful that Swift was literally causing earthquakes when she performed, and it seemed there was absolutely nowhere left for her fame to go, having completely subsumed the basic double XX chromosome pumpkin spice demographic and depleted all its financial and cultural reserves.
And then when she is seemingly at the absolute pinnacle of fame, Swift comes in and steals the thunder of America’s preeminent male cultural redoubt, the NFL? There was a lot of open speculation about how the Swift-Kelce relationship might be one of those fake relationships arranged by publicists, e.g. “Four celebrity PR experts weigh in on whether the Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce relationship is actually real or not.”
This was followed by all kinds of mainstream takes on what the benefits of a fake relationship might be, such as the boomlet of stories about Swift dating Kelce and attending a New York Jets game to manipulate SEO results to bury all the criticism surrounding the carbon emissions from her frequent private jet use. Frankly, that SEO nonsense doesn’t seem any less ridiculous than floating the idea that Swift becoming the girl in the bleachers (SWIDT, Swifties?) for a heartland NFL team is part of some kind of plan to predispose conservative voters to her eventual endorsement of Biden. (For what it’s worth, I have no trouble believing their relationship is real, and if nothing else came out of a Kelce-Swift marriage, an album that wasn’t full of bitter laments about bad choices in men would be nice.)
Now, having said all that, it’s worth noting that the locus of the “Swift is a psyop” discourse on the right is still centered around a handful of online influencers such as Benny Johnson and Jack Posobiec who are pushing the idea. In their defense, it is edgy and fun to talk about — and as I can personally testify, taking on Swift will get you attention, whether you seek it or not.
The closest thing I’ve seen to a more mainstream voice on the right flirting with this idea is this tweet about admittedly “wild speculation” from Vivek Ramaswamy. Rolling Stone also has this story about how Trump allies are pledging a “holy war” against Taylor Swift and Trump is grousing privately about her popularity. But we entered a silly season eight years ago where no anonymously sourced garbage is too ridiculous to print if it involves Trump. So color me unimpressed.
Further, it’s not like these are necessarily dominant voices, either. Some of the biggest pundits on the right, such as Matt Walsh, have dismissed the controversy out of hand: “If I were to make a list of the most degenerate and objectionable pop stars who have done the most harm to our culture and the most damage to young minds, Taylor Swift wouldn’t even make the top 50. Not sure why she has become the focus of our wrath.”
Still, I don’t know why Walsh seems to be conceding the point that the right is obsessed or angry with Swift. This is all still a very online matter, and there’s no real proof social media is at all representative of reality on most things, let alone this. Douthat gamely tries to marshal the scant data that’s out there and ends up citing a poll from last year that still shows a majority of “Trump-first Republicans” are either favorable or indifferent to Swift, albeit less favorable than ordinary Republicans.
But as of now, there’s no real evidence that large numbers of people are upset about Taylor Swift, much less believe she’s the lynchpin of an insidious plan to help Joe Biden get reelected. Besides, isn’t this out in the open? No one would be surprised if she endorses Biden at some point — she came out against Trump in 2020 and has attacked GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn. She’s clearly a Democrat. You don’t have to concoct a conspiracy here.
At most, you will find some sports fans annoyed that they keep cutting away from NFL games for reaction shots of Swift, and that is a) a fair complaint and b) probably something Swift has no control over. Then there’s the more general issue that conservatives, indeed at this point all Americans, have very good reasons to believe they are pretty much being lied to and manipulated constantly. But that’s a much more generalized problem than Swift’s current role in the national conversation.
It’s hard to draw any concrete conclusions here, and as of now, I suspect that if there is a psyop here, it’s that there’s been a psyop to convince the public that large numbers of Republican voters believe Taylor Swift is a psyop.
I suspect the supposed conspiracies and discontent over Taylor Swift aren’t really representative of public opinion on the right, left, or center. It’s far more accurate to say we are a rootless society that has lost sight of the transcendental values of truth, unity, beauty, and goodness that would otherwise be used to define good art, ground our politics, and infer any connection between the two.
And in the absence of understanding those values, we’re having another meta conversation about Taylor Swift, and I am all too aware that I am walking a very fine line in allowing myself to become part of the problem by adding to the discussion.
So let me just yet again implore you not to ascribe this much cultural, let alone political, power to a figure that hasn’t earned it or deserves it. She’s a pretty girl who writes catchy, if unremarkable, songs. Let that be enough.