we asked taylor swift stans how they feel about her popularity with the alt-right
After being crowned an “Aryan goddess” by members of the ‘alt-right’, and threatening to sue a blogger who wrote about her work in this context, Taylor Swift’s failure to ‘loudly denounce’ the alt-right has put her reputation on the line.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that they were taking on Taylor Swift and her lawyers, after they threatened to sue a small, left leaning pop culture blog called PopFront. The blog, which had 78 Twitter followers at the time (it has 300+ now), had published an opinion piece titled Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation, which interprets elements of Taylor's recent single Look What You Made Me Do as "dog whistles to white supremacy” -- a ‘dog whistle’ being a type of coded communication that appears to mean something benign to the general public, while its true meaning can be understood by a particular group (often one with beliefs that the general public would find offensive, such as ‘alt-right’ and white supremacist groups).
Long story short, Taylor’s lawyer sent a letter claiming the article was defamatory, and the ACLU fired back, describing that letter as a “completely unsupported attempt to suppress constitutionally protected speech” -- that is, author Meghan Herning’s First Amendment right to discuss politics and critically review the work of a public figure. The ACLU’s response included serious legal language, as well as a number of Taylor Swift puns, such as, “Criticism is never pleasant, but a celebrity has to shake it off, even if the critique may damage her reputation.”
Meghan’s blog post had noted that far-right website Breitbart -- reportedly once described by its executive chairman (and Trump’s sacked chief strategist) Steve Bannon as “the platform for the alt-right” -- had latched on to Look What You Made Me Do, tweeting all of its articles with the song’s lyrics the day after it came out. Meghan also gave her opinion that, at one point in the video, “Taylor lords over an army of models from a podium, akin to what Hitler had in Nazis Germany [sic],” adding that, “The similarities are uncanny and unsettling.” Of course, Breitbart’s use of Taylor’s lyrics to promote their articles, and therefore their point of view, absolutely is not proof that she intended the lyrics as a dog whistle to the alt-right (even if they have interpreted it that way); and it’s just an aesthetic opinion that she looks like Hitler at a rally in the video (the two women in black militaristic garb flanking her probably didn’t help).
It's important to note that there is no evidence to suggest that Taylor Swift is herself a white supremacist, nor that she is a member or supporter of any 'alt-right' or other neo-Nazi group. She has never been accused of expressing these views herself, nor of condoning such groups, and her lawyer has asserted that his legal letters to offending publications -- including PopFront -- serve as an “unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the alt-right”.
It is a fact, however, that white supremacists adore Taylor Swift, and this has been written about plenty before, including in this Washington Post article, and in a 2016 report by Broadly (which *disclaimer* was written by Mitchell Sunderland, who was later sacked after his personal ties to the alt-right were exposed). In the Broadly article, Andrew Anglin, author of white supremacist blog the Daily Stormer (named after the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer), explained the adoration: "Firstly, Taylor Swift is a pure Aryan goddess, like something out of classical Greek poetry. Athena reborn. That's the most important thing,” he said, adding wildly, “It is also an established fact that Taylor Swift is secretly a Nazi and is simply waiting for the time when Donald Trump makes it safe for her to come out and announce her Aryan agenda to the world.”
While it is absolutely not an “established fact that Taylor Swift is secretly a Nazi” -- an oxymoron if ever there was one -- many people have found her denunciations, issued through letters from her lawyer, unsatisfactory. “Ms. Swift has not remained silent regarding this issue,” her lawyer asserts in his letter to PopFront, adding that, “she has made clear that she does not approve of any association with such repugnant groups or their beliefs”. “Contrary to the statements in [the PopFront] story,” he continues, “Ms. Swift has repeatedly and consistently denounced white supremacy when she has faced these disgusting accusations.” What many people find problematic, however, is Taylor’s failure to speak out publicly and in person to make such a denouncement of white supremacy, and of the alt-right groups who consider her an “Aryan goddess” -- that is, to “loudly denounce white supremacy,” as her lawyer himself defines it.
"In America 2017, silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor.” -- PopFront
Some have speculated that her reluctance to make such a ‘loud denunciation’, either in voice or on social media, might have to do with the country-singer-turned-pop-star having a large fanbase in rural America, which is often characterised as being particularly racist. As such, in her PopFront article, Meghan concludes by claiming, “Taylor’s silence is not innocent, it is calculated. And if that is not true, she needs to state her beliefs out loud for the world -- no matter what fan base she might lose, because in America 2017, silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor”.
In light of Meghan’s clarion call, i-D exchanged Twitter messages with four self-confessed Taylor stans to get their opinion on her alt-right fans, the PopFront article, and whether they think Taylor should issue a ‘loud denunciation’ of white supremacy. “I feel the same way about it [that] Taylor Swift does,” asserts 19-year-old Gaby, a black, bisexual woman tweeting from Montreal, who tells me I should ask each fan about their identity, to show how diverse Swifties are (which can be hard to tell, as many of them use an image of Taylor for their profile picture). “Taylor has made no indication of being of the alt-right,” Gaby continues, noting, “I also find it funny that this hate group would think that Look What You Made Me Do is for them when the music video features men of colour [dancing] in high-heels -- that should make their racist and homophobic heads explode more than applaud.” Which is an excellent point.
All four fans considered the letters from Taylor’s lawyer to be denunciation enough, but as further evidence, several pointed me to a long Twitter thread by @BurningRedLips, which begins by stating, “Taylor Swift isn't a Trump supporter, a white supremacist or a neo-nazi no matter how much you want it to be true.” The thread lists evidence, including: a 2009 Rolling Stone article where Taylor implies she was happy Obama won the election; a friend’s Instagram post of Taylor at a lunch that uses hashtags supportive of Hillary Clinton; her friendship with vocal Democrat Lena Dunham; and two tweets about Charleston. Taylor posted the first tweet on reading news of the horrific massacre by a white supremacist of nine black people worshipping in church, saying her “heart dropped” and calling it “an unbearable loss of lives and innocence”. The second, about the Bridge to Peace march held in honour of the victims, included aerial images along with this arguably quite egotistical comment: “I've seen a lot of breathtaking crowds this year but I wish I could've seen this one in person. #charleston #peace.” Fans have taken the latter as proof that she supports both gun control and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, though critics note that she has never explicitly said either of those things.
"Clearly none of this is proof that Taylor supports Trump or white supremacy, but ‘hints’ can easily be imagined by those who want them to be true, just as they are by fans who want to believe she has Democrat and anti-racist values."
I ask Rosalinde, a 22-year-old straight, black woman tweeting from Namibia, why she thinks Taylor didn’t explicitly show support for the BLM movement, and her response is surprisingly candid: “The tweet was from 2015 [when Taylor] was a bit more active on social media and really at the height of her 1989 era ‘cause she was on tour, so I'm assuming it had to do with her not wanting to draw any polarising attention towards herself at the time while simultaneously showing support.” Which perhaps neatly sums up the criticism: If Rosalinde’s theory was right, why would she be so worried about alienating people who find the statement “Black Lives Matter” offensive? Would the money of people who don’t think black lives matter be a good enough reason to keep so quiet about your politics that the alt-right can believe you support their ideology, albeit in secret? If it isn’t, the benefits of “loudly denouncing” them are obvious.
I ask Gaby whether she can understand how Taylor’s reluctance to loudly denounce the alt-right might seem fishy to critics, and she too is pragmatic: “I understand it might seem a bit fishy to people. But it doesn't mean she's a Trump supporter or a white supremacist.” Even if it was about money, Gaby says, “I still don't think it warrants being compared to Hitler. At worst she's a smart business woman.” PopFront’s Hitler reference also went too far for Josh (not his real name), a 16-year-old Canadian boy, who is straight and was tweeting from Ontario. “I am Jewish myself, and seeing the Nazi flags [raised] during the Charlottesville rally this summer shocked me and scared me to the core,” he says, noting that this is why he was so offended by the article: “Minimising the suffering of Jews just to attempt to discredit Taylor? No one should put up with that.”
I ask Josh why he thinks Taylor has never publicly said “Black Lives Matter”. “I find it strange that people must be spoon fed the exact words ‘I am not a Nazi’, ‘I support Black Lives Matter’, ‘I am against white supremacy’, when if you actually look at her actions it is quite apparent she is against Nazis,” he says, adding, “AND by her saying she wanted to be [at the Charleston march] and applauding the protest -- a protest AGAINST white supremacy -- she stood alongside those protesting”.
For sure, there are plenty of hints that Taylor tends to the Democrat side of politics, and fans are used to decoding them. When Taylor wore a cold-shoulder top to vote, for example, it was seen as an homage to Hillary Clinton. But the issue is that the alt-right believe they see the hints too. Breitbart news saw the lyrics “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time / Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time” as relevant for the promotion of a story about a loophole used to buy AR-15 rifles -- the type of gun used in a number of mass shootings -- without registering them. And, while PopFront interpreted a scene in the video as a reference to Hitler, there is also a scene where Swift directly references the famous Shakespeare line “Et tu Brute?” (on the pillars, and arms of her throne) spoken by Roman dictator Julius Caesar, a charismatic leader whose rule was based on a ‘cult of personality’ -- the contemporary mass-media-created, fake news propagandist parallel, of course, being Donald Trump. And it certainly doesn’t help that Taylor’s management team’s Twitter account is called @TaylorNation13.
“To the fans who thinks Taylor is a white supremacist: they're not fans. Swifties know Taylor." -- Claire, Taylor Swift fan
Clearly none of this is proof that Taylor supports Trump or white supremacy, but ‘hints’ can easily be imagined by those who want them to be true, just as they are by fans who want to believe she has Democrat and anti-racist values. Clare, a 21-year-old Asian woman tweeting from the Philippines, says, “To the fans who thinks Taylor is a white supremacist: they're not fans. Swifties know Taylor,” explaining to me that she feels a “deep connection” with the star. “Taylor grew up with me and vice versa with nothing but love and support for each other. Through the best and worst days of our lives,” she asserts. Gaby feels similarly: “Taylor is a woman of actions, not words and she has shown me in every way possible that she is not one of them,” she says, noting Taylor’s $250k donation to Ke$ha’s sexual assault case legal costs, and that she watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary about racism and the prison-industrial complex, 13th, with family and friends on Thanksgiving.
“If you have to say ‘I’m not a racist’, you’re probably a racist… ever heard of that phrase?” Josh asks, in answer to my question about why he thinks Taylor won’t make a loud denunciation. “I don’t think she wants to dignify them [with a response]. I don’t think she wants even the association with white supremacists,” he adds. But unfortunately for Taylor, in the face of such wide coverage, she no longer has a choice. As Pitchfork senior editor Jill Mapes wrote on twitter, “The [rumour] that white supremacists love Taylor Swift is out there, and the internet didn't hear it from this blog no one's heard of. [Taylor] can clear all this up in one single tweet, yet she'd rather go after some small blogger behind the scenes,” Jill continues, asking, “If she's so concerned about how this damages her reputation, why has she not addressed it directly?”
In a slogan used to promote her just-released new album, reputation, Taylor states: “There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation.” It is a policy that she is clinging to tightly, and it makes sense in response to claims she lied about which famous boyfriend a particular song is about, for example. But when it extends to refusing to loudly denounce the white supremacists who hail her as an Aryan goddess, her reputation -- beyond the bubble of the stans -- is becoming less tenable all the time.