Taylor Swift’s Post-Reputation Approach to Politics

The pop star’s call for fans to “get out and vote” in the midterm elections has caused a stir—one that’s best understood as a set of responses to Swift herself.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Taylor Swift is not, necessarily, about to swing the midterm elections. Nor is she exactly finding her political voice: Though her silence during the 2016 presidential election fueled intense speculation about whom she was voting for, she has commented on issues like gun violence and sexual harassment before. What the pop star has done, with a viral Instagram post on Tennessee’s upcoming election, is encourage political action in its most basic form—calling not for protest or explicitly for a takedown of the mighty, but for the modest yet incrementally powerful act of casting a ballot.

“Please, please educate yourself on the candidates … and vote based on who most closely represents your values,” she urged her 112 million Instagram followers on Monday. And on Tuesday night, at the American Music Awards: “You know what else is voted on by the people? It is the midterm elections on November 6. Get out and vote. I love you guys.”

That’s not to say Swift didn’t take a clear stand with her post (she condemned racial and gender discrimination, and endorsed specific Democratic candidates in Tennessee) or that she can’t prompt civic engagement (though there’s no way to verify the causes of the spike, Vote.org counted 102,000 new registrations by people under 30 within the first 48 hours after Swift directed fans there). Still, the statement the musician has made is strikingly simple for all the hubbub around it. These responses—the breathless, the skeptical, the exasperated—are perhaps best understood as responses to Swift herself: a star whose public image has always been as fraught as it is polished.

Swift is massively popular, the winner of multiple Grammys, and yet is frequently spoken of with the mixture of dismissal and mild embarrassment often applied to music that teenage girls (among others) happen to love. In a decade of stardom, she’s transformed her persona—and the version of womanhood it represents—from wholesome country ingenue to confident synth-pop seductress. She’s become an embodiment of girl power to fans, a symbol of shallow feminism to some critics, and, strangely, an “Aryan goddess” to far-right forums (whose members now feel betrayed by Swift’s post). Her most recent album, Reputation, is ostensibly a rejection of public expectations, of all the pressures and projections that come with fame. “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one,” she laments on “I Did Something Bad,” the song she performed at the AMAs on Tuesday. “So light me up!”

The narrative Swift is telling here, in her lyrics and in her Instagram post, is one of release: She is tired, she suggests, of managing people’s perceptions of her, of keeping things to herself. “In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions,” she explained, “but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now.”

Yet this very statement is a deployment of her image—of the woman fans adore and want to emulate; of her own past silence, which amplifies her current message. It’s a deployment, for that matter, of her literal image: The photo that accompanies the post is a black-and-white Polaroid of Swift staring pensively into the camera, dressed in casual clothes and ready to level with you. Compared with the other posts on her feed, it’s understated in a way that feels self-conscious, and effective: This isn’t Taylor, the star. This is Taylor, the person. She has opinions, just like you, and she’s asking you to vote.

Swift hasn’t cast off her public persona, but merely adjusted it—and, in the past few days, directed it toward the worthy goal of encouraging young people to participate in democracy. And while some conservative fans of hers have indeed said they feel alienated by her support for Democrats, some of their liberal counterparts are celebrating, claiming they suspected Swift’s leanings all along. Both the limitation and the power of the musician’s political voice is its vagueness: the mild yet sweeping pronouncements that let her fans and critics detect their own values broadcast from her megaphone, in the same way they might recognize their own hurts and heartbreaks in her songs. You might find Swift’s voice relatable; you might find it annoying. Either way, it can get stuck in your head.