Taylor Swift sent fans and critics alike into a frenzy on Sunday night as she took to Instagram to unload a passionate statement about the upcoming midterm election. In the post, Swift threw her support behind Tennessee Democratic candidates Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives, adding that Republican Marsha Blackburn’s voting record “appalls and terrifies” her.
Social media quickly divided into two sides in evaluating the mega star’s unexpected jump into the political fray: #betterlatethannever and #toolittletoolate. I’m neither.
Both camps imply that celebrities owe us an explanation of their politics. And while it’s certainly inspiring when stars use their massive platform to support a cause, it’s not a job requirement. In fact, this idea that pop stars should speak out about politics is still relatively new.
President George W. Bush’s runs for office and his subsequent reelection were left publicly unchallenged by the era’s megastars like Christina Aguilera, Usher and Jessica Simpson, and they weren’t put through the ringer for their silence during the Iraq War. When stars did speak out, it was met with controversy. See: The Dixie Chicks. After criticizing Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, their songs were pulled from country radio, with one station in Kansas City, Missouri even hosting a party where critics were encouraged to dump the group’s CDs and concert tickets into trashcans.
Kanye West, too — whose current politics have inspired their own excess of thinkpieces — found himself in the middle of a media circus after proclaiming that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a telecast for Hurricane Katrina relief.
On the opposite side, Britney Spears caught heat for making a pretty tame, albeit positive, statement about Bush: “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes,” the then 22-year-old said in a clip on CNN which was later featured in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Conspiracy theorists went as far as questioning if the starlet was on the administration’s payroll.
In less than two decades, attitudes have completely changed and pop stars are expected to take a stand. Everyone from Adele to JAY-Z to Madonna rallied behind Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, and stars who rarely open up about politics, including Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Drake, have critiqued Donald Trump in some form since he took office. This made Taylor — who kept quiet on her politics — an easy target, with several condemning her silence and some going as far as accusing her of being a Trump supporter or, without merit, a white supremacist.
While critics will still whine that she’s late to the party, this particular endorsement couldn’t be more impeccably timed. The chorus of celebs who spoke out about Trump wasn’t enough to stop him from taking the presidency; the combined power of Beyonce, Marc Anthony, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg and Demi Lovato didn’t tip the scales for Clinton. Taylor is undoubtedly influential, but her voice would have surely blended in with the rest.
Instead, she saved her headline-making superpower for a less buzzy (but still important!) occasion, effectively forcing every major media outlet to cover Tennessee’s close midterm race — and inspiring an enormous wave of voter registrations (more than 65,000 people registered to vote in the 24-hour period following Swift’s post according to Vote.org. It was also the site’s second busiest day of the year, after National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25).
Swift’s post is also noteworthy in its thoroughness. Rather than copy-and-paste a hashtag to appease #woke trolls, Taylor laid out her beliefs in an airtight, well-researched, pointedly detailed message that was impossible to misinterpret. “I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG,” Swift said in the Instagram post. “I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love.”
She also encouraged fans to do their own homework in selecting a candidate that fits closest to their values and lamented that, “We may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway.” That last bit is especially important, as liberal-minded people learned two years ago.
According to a NBC News/GenForward survey from late August, just 55 percent of millennials say they either probably or definitely will vote in November. A quarter says they aren’t sure if they’ll go to the polls or not, and 19 percent say they probably or definitely won’t vote. These low numbers are especially discouraging given that 59 percent of millennials would prefer that Democrats take control of Congress in the midterms, and just 16 percent approve of how Congress is handling its job.
In essence, young voters want change but aren’t inspired to go to the polls. Will Taylor be the encouragement they needed? “To the extent that celebrities can make a difference, she is the type who can,” Anthony Nownes, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, told Billboard.
Given Vote.org’s data — of the 5,183 new registrations in Tennessee so far this month, at least 2,144 came in the 36 hours following Swift’s post — it seems Taylor’s foray into the world of politics was right on time.