IMHO: Taylor Swift appears to have discovered allyship—here's what she (and other new allies) should do next
Author Michael Arceneaux discusses Taylor Swift’s remarks in Vogue about becoming a more openly political ally, and what he hopes she—and other folks who have newly discovered allyship—will do now.
I am fairly agnostic about Taylor Swift, but I’m familiar enough to know the singer-songwriter, who turns 30 later this year, was never exactly apolitical.
It’s a point Abby Aguirre makes in her cover on Swift for the September issue of Vogue, and I’m inclined to agree with complaints about the cover itself. I’m no Vogue expert, but I have seen The September Issue previously and I have purchased September issues of Vogue, so I am confident in joining the chorus of people shouting that this cover ain’t it. Everyone—readers, Swift, and September issue enthusiasts—deserved better.
But, at least the cover story is good.
To the credit of both Aguirre and Swift, it’s an actual profile rather than the celebrity-penned essay or celebrity-controlled Q&A. In that profile, Aguirre argues that Swift has made political statements in the form of pulling her catalog from Spotify in 2014 over questions of artist compensation, taking on Apple the following year when the company said it would not pay artists during the launch of its music service, and her “blunt testimony during her 2017 sexual-assault case against a radio DJ—months before the #MeToo reckoning blew open.”
However, while her actions benefited others, these were all issues that directly impacted Swift.
She is only recently using her power to advance causes that do not directly serve any benefit to her identity. Say, introducing a petition in support of the Equality Act and posting a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to vote for the measure. Or, before that, taking a more explicit stance during the 2018 midterms by going on Instagram to endorse Democrats in the Tennessee legislature, and calling out then GOP senatorial candidate Marsha Blackburn. About Blackburn, Swift wrote, “She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values.”
As for why she did not do any of this in 2016, Swift claimed in Vogue, “Unfortunately in the 2016 election you had a political opponent who was weaponizing the idea of the celebrity endorsement. He was going around saying, I’m a man of the people. I’m for you. I care about you. I just knew I wasn’t going to help. Also, you know, the summer before that election, all people were saying was, ‘She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar.’ These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability? Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women. Literally millions of people were telling me to disappear. So I disappeared. In many senses.”
Her rationale for not speaking up is clear, but the clarity does not blind us to the reality that her voice might have made a difference.
She elected not to use it, which more or less comes across as too much of a fixation on image rather than on right and wrong. And although it would be ideal for a celebrity’s involvement (or lack thereof) in politics to not matter so much, a reality star is president. Thus, regardless of how you feel about Taylor Swift, I’m glad she’s recognized that every little bit helps when dealing with a tyrant in training.
Having said that, her road to better grasping what support for the marginalized looks like it is somewhat bemusing. In spite of what are described in the Vogue feature as “subtle nods” to queer people in her music videos dating back to 2011, Swift acknowledged that her own gay friend had to make clear to her that many people had no idea as to where she truly stood on queer folks.
Referring to her friend Todrick Hall, Swift recounts, “Maybe a year or two ago, Todrick and I are in the car, and he asked me, What would you do if your son was gay? The fact that he had to ask me…shocked me and made me realize that I had not made my position clear enough or loud enough,” she added. “If my son was gay, he’d be gay. I don’t understand the question.”
We ask because we can never be certain, for those still unclear.
“Why yes, welcome to allyship, Taylor Swift. Fancy you arrive right when the Trump era calls for all hands on deck.”
“If he was thinking that, I can’t imagine what my fans in the LGBTQ community might be thinking,” Swift concluded. “It was kind of devastating to realize that I hadn’t been publicly clear about that.”
Swift also appears to be clear on the fun fact that she doesn’t have to be a member of the LGBTQ community to do her part to help it: “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of.”
Why yes, welcome to allyship, Taylor Swift. Fancy you arrive right when the Trump era calls for all hands on deck. Nevertheless, Swift is obviously becoming more vocal, but continues to worry about doing the wrong thing. “It’s hard to know how to do that without being so fearful of making a mistake that you just freeze,” Swift told Vogue. “Because my mistakes are very loud. When I make a mistake, it echoes through the canyons of the world. It’s clickbait, and it’s a part of my life story, and it’s a part of my career arc.”
Taylor Swift has all the access in the world; if she wants to better familiarize herself, she has the ability to do so. No one is expecting her to discuss queer theory in between interludes on her forthcoming album or with Robin Roberts in a future GMA interview. People will pick her apart no matter what; she needs to get used to that, and preferably, be secure in her good intentions.
“People will pick her apart no matter what; she needs to get used to that, and preferably, be secure in her good intentions.”
Take the video for “You Need To Calm Down,” which some did argue featured Swift centering herself. I personally saw some of the nods to the LGBTQ community as hokey and gimmicky, but I also realized it was not just a pop music video, but a Taylor Swift video. I set my expectations accordingly and ultimately focused on her intent along with the overall helpful impact of a star of her stature being so queer-friendly in that medium.
Swift can improve on messaging and learn to better advocate for a given cause with practice and effort. The point is to recognize that much of the ills of society—racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia—cannot be tackled solely by those who bear the brunt of its consequences. Swift is far wealthier than most people, but her newfound awakening about such a thing as allyship sounds generally, uh, mighty white—meaning a lot of you folks reading this article or her Vogue interview might be where Swift says she used to be.
Swift herself said in the interview, “Rights are being stripped from basically everyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender male.”
And even though she worries about what to say and how to say it, she no longer fears enough to not say something at all. I hope much of her fan base and those reading that interview reach a similar conclusion.
Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of the newly released book I Can’t Date Jesus from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, The Guardian, Mic, and more. Follow him on Twitter.