Words and art by Rachele Preto

This piece first appeared as a featured article in volume 95, issue two of Pelican. You can view our print archive here.

Every so often, I find myself in conversations with acquaintances, friends, and family over the unavoidable topic of Taylor Swift. Unavoidable because, in 2023 and 2024, it seemed as if Swift was everywhere and everything.

She was named TIME‘s Person of the Year, embarked upon the monumental ‘Eras Tour’, won four Grammys, and made global waves over her relationship with National Football League (NFL) player Travis Kelce. This was also the first time I began hearing about ‘The Swift Effect’. Suddenly, stuffy journalists in ironed collars were diverting their gaze towards a popstar – and taking her incredibly seriously. As someone who has never been a fan, I can say that before 2023, I would only expect to hear about Taylor Swift every so often either because she released a new album, or she got entangled in some controversy (think Kanye West). Regular popstar news, you know?

Now, journalists are furrowing their eyebrows and trying to wrap their heads around ‘what the kids like’, coming up with strange terms like ‘The Swift Effect’, which sounds more like a physics theory, and refers to the way Taylor Swift’s relationship with Travis Kelce led to an unprecedented increase in the number of female NFL viewers. According to Forbes, one game experienced a “63% jump in viewership among women aged 18 to 49.”

But what does this level of fame and iconicity mean? How has Swift responded to her recent spike in fame, and what is she doing with it? Other than increasing the number of female NFL fans.

Much like how we can all agree that huge companies like Meta have a responsibility to keep social media platforms safe and ethical, I think we can acknowledge that if a company has a moral responsibility—so do individual people. Besides, the figure of Taylor Swift is not that far off from a business like Meta—except she is the product itself.

It’s not just her own merchandise that she sells. Swift has always, like every celebrity, endorsed other brands like Starbucks, Stella McCartney, and AirAsia to name a few. When it comes to companies that do not give her the cut she wants, she is unafraid to speak out and take matters into her own hands—like how she famously criticised Spotify. Most recently, she bought the ownership rights to her own albums from her old record label Big Machine Records, paving the way for other artists, especially female artists, to take back control over their own music – proving herself to be one of the most competent businesses in the music industry.

Personally, I see no issue with any of this. Swift has every right to fight for fair treatment within the music industry. I am with her when she says that artists should be paid properly, have the ownership rights to their own music, and that female artists especially, should not be afraid to demand for such. But Taylor Swift is not just any artist asking for a fair cut. She is a billionaire.

Suffice to say—Taylor Swift is a lot richer than you (assuming you aren’t Oprah Winfrey) This is precisely why it feels strange to congratulate and applaud Taylor Swift for being a ‘girl-boss’ artist. Don’t get me wrong, I love propping another woman up, but a billionaire? In the case of billionaires, shouldn’t it be the other way round?

To give Swift some credit, she does give substantial amounts to charity. Also, many of her charitable acts are directed towards individual ‘Swifties’ like Vitoria Mario, who was given £23,000 to fund her university degree. Nevertheless, I would still like to point out that these donations often feel more focussed on enhancing her para-social relationship with her fans.

In my opinion, billionaires don’t deserve pats on the back for donating millions of dollars. These donations are scratches off the surface of Swift’s income, money that she could never possibly need. Therefore, even if Taylor Swift’s philanthropy has undoubtedly positively impacted the lives of many, it still falls glaringly short.

Taylor Swift has always toed the fine line between being political enough to be viewed as socially aware, but not too political that she would risk losing too much of her global consumer audience. She willingly gets her hands dirty in American politics, endorsing Democratic candidates in her home state as well as Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election. She is outspoken over her support of LGBTQ rights, and especially the sexual assault of women (thinking of her sexual assault trial against David Mueller). She also took to Twitter against Donald Trump after he incited violence against Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020.

Swift herself feels a sense of responsibility to society. She understood the importance of her home-state Tennessee in the midterm elections, recognised her power to prevent hardcore conservative Marsha Blackburn from winning, and acted. She goes as far as to name the Dixie Chicks as inspirations for her newfound political openness, referring to 2003 when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines famously said: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” What Natalie Maines was referring to was America’s invasion of Iraq, sanctioned by President Bush following 11 September 2001.

Hence why, Taylor Swift’s silence over Israel’s US-backed assault on Gaza and a plausible genocide is deafening. It seems unbelievable that four years ago Swift was drawing parallels between herself and Maines considering that since 7 October, she has not said a word about Palestine. This February at the Grammys, Swift had a golden opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Maines and say anything against the violence currently taking place in the world. Yet, she failed to do so.

Amidst all this talk about ‘The Swift Effect’ and a serious dialogue around Taylor Swift’s influence, leading up to this year’s American Presidential Election – I believe a critical view of Taylor Swift is needed, but also an angle of criticism that needs to be markedly different from the misogynistic hate Swift received in the 2010s.

The public is not buying Taylor Swift’s ‘woke’ and ‘progressive’ politics. It is impossible to reconcile statements like this made by Swift in her documentary: “I need to be on the right side of history… It really is a big deal for me.” with her radio silence over Palestine.

I know it is so easy to make Swift the villain in this story and construct her as a ‘conniving b**ch’ – a sexist stereotype that has followed her throughout her career. Truthfully, she is just one of many billionaires, musicians and celebrities who fall short of the mark—all well deserving of critique. But what sets Swift apart is that she is a cultural icon. She permeates our ears, our conversations, and our imaginations. Historians fifty years from now will probably see Taylor Swift as the defining representation of our generation – much like how The Beatles were for the Baby Boomers. I would go further to say, Swift is also a cultural representation of America. Her upward climb from aspiring country artist to mega popstar evokes the ideals of the American Dream. She embodies a picture-perfect American: tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and star-spangled in glitter. Heck, she dates an NFL player. She is Miss Americana.

Within this position Swift has the special power to try and shift American culture and politics. Why should she embody a culture rooted in racial superiority, colonialism, and capitalism? Why not call things out? She has before.

Perhaps I am filled with false optimism and putting too much hope into a billionaire to enact any change. However, I see some hope in Swift. Watching Miss Americana, I am reminded of her humanity. She makes self-deprecating remarks, she feels deep anxieties about the world, she laughs, and she cries. I honestly found her hard not to like. Her song-writing is emotive and raw, and seems to come from a genuine place. She does not seem like another psychotic blood-thirsty billionaire.

So, to end this off, I would like to wonder what Taylor Swift is going to do next. How is her image going to change and transform with her as she approaches her forties? What does one do with a billion dollars? Taylor Swift and billionaires alike, cannot be allowed to live in impunity and live in the lap of luxury while the rest of the world suffers. The reality is that everyone, even icons, have to be held accountable, and it is absolutely necessary for the future that the rich and famous harness their popularity and money in order to do better for the world.

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