Well, look what he made her do.
On Friday, as a fourth day of protests unfolded in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was seen on video pleading for air as a white police officer knelt on his neck, Taylor Swift spoke out. She did so in a tweet calling out Donald Trump for a message in which the president referred to demonstrators as “thugs” before using the phrase: “The looting starts, the shooting starts.” (That language has its own history and was previously used in 1967 by a Miami police chief.)
“After stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence? ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’??? We will vote you out in November,” Swift wrote. She also tagged Trump’s Twitter handle, @RealDonaldTrump, at the end of her message.
To say that Swift’s tweet resonated would be an understatement. It immediately earned thousands of likes and shares. By Friday afternoon, it had been liked more than 800,000 times and retweeted more than 200,000 times. Alyssa Milano, Ben Platt, Adam Rippon, and many more praised Swift’s decision to speak out against the US president by “using [her] voice for good” (Milano’s words).
Swift’s message was striking for two reasons. It was striking on the surface, because it referred directly to white supremacy and racism – words that many actors in the public discourse, including some media outlets, have been hesitant to use in connection to the president’s actions. And it was striking because it came from an artist who, for years, declined to take a political stance, and only did so after much agonising.
There was once a time when Swift’s political opinions were a topic of speculation. During the 2016 US presidential election, while stars such as Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry publicly supported Hillary Clinton, Swift didn’t endorse a candidate. She eventually came out as a Democrat in October 2018, to throw her support behind two Democratic candidates in the Tennessee midterms by way of an Instagram post.
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” she wrote at the time. “I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of colour is terrifying, sickening and prevalent.”
Swift’s Instagram post was anything but trivial. It was met both with praise and with speculation that taking such an overt political stance would negatively impact her career. The singer, after all, is from the same country that erupted after the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines dared criticise then-President George W Bush during a concert in March 2003.
Shortly after US forces invaded Iraq under Bush’s leadership, Maines told the crowd at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London: “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.”
Her remarks were met with an uproar. There were calls to pull the Dixie Chicks’ songs from radio stations and calls to boycott their music altogether. Protesters destroyed their CDs. The same band that had performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl just two months prior to the controversy became vilified. The Dixie Chicks released another album, Taking the Long Way, in 2006 then took a 14-year hiatus before returning with Gaslighter in 2020.
Swift has been spared such dire consequences, although some have made it clear they don’t appreciate her political opinions. After her latest tweet directed at Trump, one person wrote back: “You’ve lost a lot of fans T S. Must be nice to live out of the normal everyday struggles of the American people while you sit high and judge others. I’ve brought my girls to several of your concerts, never again.”
Anyone looking to understand why Swift chose to share her beliefs when she did should watch Miss Americana, the 2020 Netflix documentary documenting several years of her career. In a particularly intense sequence, she’s seen discussing her desire to speak out on the Tennessee midterms, despite risks for her popularity and for her personal safety.
“I’m sad that I didn’t [speak out] two years ago, but I can’t change that,” she says in an apparent reference to the 2016 election. “I’m saying right now, that this is something that I know is right, and you guys, I need to be on the right side of history.”
Not long afterwards, Swift is seen nervously publishing her Instagram post. It’s clear that her decision to break her political silence came after much agony. Judging by the overall reactions to her latest tweet, though, it seems that fans are ready for pop stars – and country stars – to stand up for what they believe in.