taylor swift's giant inflatable snake is named karyn (part 2)
miss americana & the millionaire vote
Part one is here. This is both a long time coming and quite long, I know, but I promised neither regularity or a paywall. I have some more things in the pipes to do with Zoom theater, anti-communist Catholic propaganda, etc., so stick around if you’re so inclined. I do promise this newsletter isn’t just about Taylor Swift.
The most fascinating moment in Miss Americana, Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary released this January, is about an hour in. She sits on a loveseat with her mom Andrea while her cat Meredith Grey looks on from an armchair, in a green room face-off against her dad and other men on her management team about her political silence. She wants to endorse former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen in the 2018 senate midterm race against Republican Marsha Blackburn.
"She votes against fair pay for women, she votes against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,” Taylor says, “which is basically protecting us from domestic abuse and stalking. Stalking!” gesturing to herself.
The documentary’s point in this scene is crystal clear: Taylor Swift has been silenced by men her whole life. Right before this, she offers her quick oral history of The Chicks, and what it was like to start in country music with their specter looming overhead. But the “stalking!” exclamation, and how she leads with the 1994 Violence Against Women Act—signed by Bill Clinton and co-sponsored by Joe Biden—steers Miss Americana close to the conflicting interests the national Democratic Party cannot accommodate, and a loss of faith in electoral politics that has voters divesting from the system entirely.
Miss Americana’s arrival at the beginning of 2020 is comic: a political debut by a 30-year-old millionaire just as a pandemic and recession turn an immiserated public against celebrities, whether for cringe John Lennon covers, that menacing nude “get out the vote” ad campaign, or a thrilling, simmering, justified anti-capitalist bloodlust. This documentary was marketed as “the making of an activist,” and as much as I think “activist” means next to nothing, I turn to it as a case study for individual political education that makes me both patient with and frustrated by liberalism, and an emblem of just how little we need celebrity activism.
In March 2019, at the start of the Lover era and before the cursed “ME!” music video dropped, Taylor wrote a listicle for Elle magazine called “30 Things I Learned Before Turning 30.” Lesson #28 is a classic Swiftian Easter egg, a precursor to Lover’s two political-ish songs and Miss Americana:
I’m finding my voice in terms of politics. I took a lot of time educating myself on the political system and the branches of government that are signing off on bills that affect our day-to-day life. I saw so many issues that put our most vulnerable citizens at risk, and felt like I had to speak up to try and help make a change. Only as someone approaching 30 did I feel informed enough to speak about it to my 114 million followers. Invoking racism and provoking fear through thinly veiled messaging is not what I want from our leaders, and I realized that it actually is my responsibility to use my influence against that disgusting rhetoric. I’m going to do more to help. We have a big race coming up next year.
I forgive her some things. Political education is hard. As a fellow product of private Christian schooling, I wasn’t confident in my understanding of government when I graduated either. Forgetting the activist label and the specific slice of her life Miss America covers, I’d say the timeline of Taylor Swift’s discernible politics starts on the narrow turf she considered safe for her to speak to: music royalties.
Try to imagine a sequence of events in 2014, with 1989 in the works and Spotify growing by the day, that leads Taylor Swift to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called “The Future of the Music Industry is a Love Story.” It’s both light on detail and a classic example of Taylor Swift’s long-game album release press strategy. “It's my opinion that music should not be free,” she wrote in July, four months before she pulled her catalog from Spotify and filed lyrics like “this sick beat” and “cause we’ll never go out of style” with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.
Her music returned to Spotify in 2017, after she had already entrusted it to Tidal and Apple Music. This was ahead of reputation’s release which, as previously mentioned, was also Taylor’s first time beefing up her Target-exclusive CD releases with collectible extras to encourage her most loyal fans to buy multiple copies. Two volumes of reputation magazine were followed by four distinct lyric and bonus content books with Lover. With the pandemic, literally in *this* economy, she sold folklore’s eight (eight!! 8!!!) limited CD and vinyl editions through her website while supplies lasted, subsequently releasing the hitherto physical-only bonus track “the lakes” on streaming services. At this rate, there will be 16 deluxe editions of folklore’s follow-up and 32 deluxe editions of TS10.
A fair if reductive response to this is to call it greed, and Taylor Swift a stone-cold capitalist, as you would any millionaire. But I forget that cis womanhood is a nightmare of its own, and when she sings “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?” on folklore, I think of how liberal women of any race, who climb the ranks of patriarchy only to perpetuate patriarchy themselves, start out by defending what little power and property they have. Taylor Swift is keenly aware of what she owns and what she’s earned, so her dispute with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun over her master recordings only makes sense. Her signing with Republic Records after over a decade with Big Machine is consciously absent from Miss Americana. The closest thing to acknowledgment we get when she and director Lana Wilson discuss internalized misogyny:
TAYLOR SWIFT: Sorry, that was a real soapbox. “Sorry,” why did I say sorry?
LANA WILSON: Because we’re trained to say sorry.
TAYLOR SWIFT: Yeah, we legitimately are. We’re like, “sorry, was I loud?” In my own house. That I bought. With the songs that I wrote about my own life.
This single sentence contains so much: a steely rage borne of ownership from one of our greatest writers (period), and, tangentially, an utterly casual wealth that boggles my mind: her multi-home ownership that colors both the “Cornelia Street” rental and “the last great american dynasty.” In Miss Americana, there’s an exchange between Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie that’s probably meant to be fun and light where they commiserate about their respective stalkers, and Brendon Urie’s reaction to hearing about a man breaking into Taylor’s apartment and sleeping in her bed is “You can have that apartment,” a flippant joke about disposable wealth and property that’s plain nuts to me.
Real estate aside, her master recordings and songwriting are the nucleus of the big machine that produces eight editions of folklore whose only distinguishing markers are different images of Taylor Swift. When I consider the scene I described at the beginning where Taylor Swift indicates her own body to punctuate “stalking,” it’s now coupled with Emily Ratajkowski’s essay published by The Cut last month. “All these men, some of whom I knew intimately and others I’d never met, were debating who owned an image of me,” Ratajkowski wrote. And later on, as she and her former agent scramble for a model release from years ago: “If I hadn’t been protected during my shoot with Jonathan [Leder], what did that mean for all the other thousands, maybe millions, of photos of me that had been taken over the years?”
In a June 2019 Tumblr post, Taylor Swift wrote, “This is what happens when you sign a deal at 15 to someone [Scott Borchetta] for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” after Borchetta sold Big Machine to Scooter Braun. “And when that man says ‘Music has value’, he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.”
Ratajkowski gave up pursuing legal action against the photographer who assaulted her and continues to profit from her image due to the expense, the exhaustion. As much as Taylor Swift’s wealth remains incomprehensible to me and I’ve rolled my eyes at “The Man” for over a year now (wow), its bridge reminds me of Andrea Dworkin’s assessment that “On every economic level, the meaning of money is significantly different for men than for women,” in 1981’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women. “In the hands of women, money stays literal; count it out, it buys what it is worth or less… Money in the hands of a man signifies worth and accomplishment; in the hands of a woman, it is evidence of something foul, unwomanly ambition or greed.”
It’s worth noting how Taylor Swift’s statements regarding her masters repeatedly single out men (and eventually blow some major dog whistles by naming the Soros family that seems to have flown under the radar, but okay). She’s on a similar financial playing field to Scooter Braun, so it’s a war of genders. But there’s a gulf of wealth and fame between her and Emily Ratajkowski, a difference I weirdly argue is legible in how Ratajkowski is a Hot Girl for Bernie and Taylor’s out here baking Biden-Harris cookies. “I was still holding on to a faith in our system,” Ratajkowski wrote about her legal battle, “a system I had thought was designed to protect people from these kinds of situations.”
Miss Americana covers Taylor Swift’s 2017 sexual assault civil lawsuit, four years after a radio DJ groped her during the Red tour. She recounts her experience of giving testimony over watercolor courtroom illustrations:
I was so angry. I was angry that I had to be there, I was angry that this happens to women, I was angry that people are paid to antagonize victims, I was angry that all the details had been twisted. You don’t feel a sense of any victory when you win because the process is so dehumanizing. This is with seven witnesses and a photo. What happens when you get raped and it’s your word against his?
It matters that Taylor Swift won this civil suit and walked away with a symbolic $1, because as much as she seems to recognize how fucked up the American legal system is, it worked and has worked in her favor. She still has faith. The documentary’s courtroom sketches are followed by her “Clean” speech from the reputation tour’s stop in Tampa, a year later to the day. “I think about all the people who weren't believed, or the people who are afraid to speak up because they think they won't be believed,” she said at the piano. “I just wanted to say that I'm sorry to anyone who ever wasn't believed.”
Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden is just one point of tension between voters and non-voters, and it's certainly not anyone’s place to question how Taylor Swift or any survivor deals with this presidential election. For what it’s worth, Taylor’s enthusiasm, and that of liberal women closer to me in life, seems to be reserved for Kamala Harris, and she never mentions Biden without her. “The change we need most is to elect a president who recognizes that people of color deserve to feel safe and represented, that women deserve the right to choose what happens to their bodies, and that the LGBTQIA+ community deserves to be acknowledged and included,” her endorsement in V Magazine goes, to which I say: what the hell does that mean?
Nevermind Biden or Harris’ records and promises on any of these fronts. What does “deserve” mean?
Taylor Swift’s experience of the courts and cops is that they keep her, her loved ones and her property safe, which wouldn’t be the case if she wasn’t one of the world’s highest-paid women. And she thinks everyone deserves to feel the level of safety and freedom she enjoys, and better, as guaranteed by the law—the classical liberal to idealist philosophy of right. But poorer people, even poorer famous people, know the law protects the interests of rich, by design. Taylor Swift took her time learning out of a sense of responsibility to her fanbase, and my plea is for that paternalism to be obsolete because we consume pop culture and pursue political education separately, and—ultimately—recognize millionaires as adversaries. No matter if they taught us everything about feeling feelings and writing feelings and feel like an older sister and it feels like we grew up with them.
This thing is a long mess that really went nowhere, but the last thing I’ll point to is the essay “Voting is Not Harm Reduction: An Indigenous Perspective.”