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The Memo: The politicization of Taylor Swift

A presidential race likely to be fought between two old men could be shaken up by the nation’s most famous 34-year-old woman.

Taylor Swift’s astronomical popularity and her willingness to speak up on political issues could make her a significant player in the 2024 race.

The New York Times reported Monday that President Biden’s reelection team is actively seeking Swift’s endorsement. The musician’s backing could go some way to boosting enthusiasm for the 81-year-old Biden, especially among young voters.

Meanwhile, conservative annoyance is rising, fueled by some combination of Swift’s perceived social liberalism, her past criticisms of former President Trump, her outspokenness about gender-related double standards and her cultural ubiquity.

This conservative ire now burns hot enough to fuel conspiracy theories that are far unmoored from reality.

Swift’s romance with Travis Kelce, tight end of the Kansas City Chiefs, has driven the right to new heights of apoplexy as the Super Bowl looms. Kelce’s Chiefs will be pitted against the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 11.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the former presidential candidate, is among those who are implying that the Super Bowl is rigged to give Swift more prominence for an eventual Biden endorsement.

“I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month,” Ramaswamy wrote Monday on social media. “And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall.”

There is no evidence the Super Bowl is rigged. There is also no evidence that Swift — whose “Eras” tour is the first in history to gross more than $1 billion — requires any more prominence than she has already earned for herself.

“Conservatives used to talk about Trump Derangement Syndrome, and now I think we have Taylor Derangement Syndrome,” Chris Willman, senior music writer and chief music critic at Variety, told this column. 

“It’s a real thing. People think she is destroying the NFL and the U.S. government at the same time — quite an accomplishment,” Willman added dryly.

There’s no mistaking the feverishness of the anti-Swift sentiment on the right in recent days.

Newsmax host Greg Kelly complained of “idolatry” toward Swift from her fans, adding, “If you look it up in the Bible, it’s a sin.”

One America News host Alison Steinberg suggested Swift is being “owned by [George] Soros,” a longtime hate figure on the right because of his support for liberal causes.

Somewhat more mildly, Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro on Monday during an appearance on “The Five” urged Swift not to “get involved in politics” because of its capacity to “alienate your fans.”

There is not much evidence to suggest Swift will heed such advice.

Her first notable political intervention came in 2018, when she endorsed Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

In an emotional video apparently filmed in the lead-up to that decision, Swift is seen arguing with her father about why she feels it’s imperative for her to speak up.

“I need to be on the right side of history, and if [Bredesen] doesn’t win, then at least I tried,” Swift says.

Citing specifics of Blackburn’s record (“she votes against fair pay for women”) and contending the senator supports homophobic positions, Swift adds, “It’s really basic human rights, and it’s right and wrong at this point.”

Part of Swift’s political potency is simply her huge popularity. But her mainstream image also makes it harder for those who dislike her views to dismiss or marginalize her.

“Ever since she has become famous, she has been painted as ‘America’s Sweetheart’ or the girl next door,” said Katherine Jeng, a junior at Rice University who teaches a course at the college titled, “Miss Americana: The Evolution and Lyrics of Taylor Swift.”

Jeng posited that some of the ferocity of the right-wing criticism of Swift could stem from the fact that “she has been breaking the mold from that, especially with her willingness to speak out on politics.”

Beyond speaking out on explicitly partisan issues, the mere fact of Swift’s success as a female solo artist has sometimes been political in the broadest sense.

As far back as early 2016, accepting her Grammy for Album of the Year for “1989,” Swift addressed “all the young women out there” for whom “there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”

But “you will know that it was you,” she added.

During the years when Trump was in the White House, Swift was apparently unpopular in the building itself.

A former member of the Trump administration, Olivia Troye, later said that a colleague asked her if she was “trying to get fired” by blasting Swift’s music from her office. When Troye expressed confusion, the colleague allegedly said of Swift, “I don’t think she’s a fan of Trump’s.”

Some observers suggest that, if Swift does get involved in this year’s election, her influence on female voters could be especially strong. 

“In this new post-Dobbs era, someone like Taylor Swift has the potential to motivate a group of politically unengaged women around the issue of women’s reproductive rights,” said Shirli Brautbar, a history professor at Nevada State University. “Her advocacy could convince them to become more involved as voters and could make enough of a difference to sway the outcome. This could be an important factor for both her younger and older fans.”

Peter La Chapelle, the author of “I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly and Country Music,” suggested that part of Swift’s political relevance lay in her capacity to raise awareness of political issues among people who are not otherwise following every twist and turn.

“She can appeal among people who are probably less up to date on current events,” La Chappelle, who is also a professor at Nevada State, said. “She can bring visibility to issues in a way that they might think are important.”

The most tangible measure of Swift’s appeal, from a political standpoint, came last September when she urged her Instagram followers to register to vote. 

The nonpartisan website to which she directed her followers, Vote.org, clocked more than twice as many registrations from 18-year-olds than it had done on the previous National Voter Registration Day.

Swift has not tipped her hand as to whether she will indeed make any endorsement in this year’s presidential election.

Given her famous tweet of May 2020 accusing Trump of “stoking the fires of white supremacy” around the time of the murder of George Floyd — and promising “we will vote you out in November” — there’s not much suspense around which side she would come down on if she endorses.

Unlike most other celebrities, she could actually make a difference.

“She has become the one singular entertainer that does have this kind of sway over many millions of people,” said Willman.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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