Consumption-As-Politics: Taylor Swift Isn’t the Defining Political Issue of Our Times
The following story is co-published with Freddie deBoer’s Substack.
In a controversy that makes me want to strap on a suicide vest, Taylor Swift is now feuding with MAGA world, or I guess they’re now feuding with her. This makes me very, very tired, but I do admit it’s a good vehicle for observing the ever-quickening decay of American empire. The story represents so much of the detritus of a broken culture: you’ve got the replacement of a nuthouse Jesus-is-coming right wing with a paranoiac and obsessive the-Jews-are-coming right wing, the increasingly deranged worship of celebrity, the endless retreat into a exhausting political binarism, the contemporary liberal urge to treat immensely powerful people as underdogs, the era of mandated artistic populism, the triviality of American collapse, the overwhelming fear people in the media have of looking old. But I want to focus specifically on a topic related to all of that, which is treating consumption as a substitute for politics. This is one of the clearer examples of the way that many people, many political people, now unthinkingly presume that their politics is simply a function of their capitalist consumption, their brand affinities. Who you are is what you buy.
The great conservative freakout at Bud Light is prototypical consumption-as-politics. Conservatives were already mad that trans people have become more visible and accepted, then Bud Light hired transwoman Dylan Mulvaney as a spokesperson, so those conservatives had a fit and made their attitude towards Bud Light core to their political identity. There was a bit of a Streisand effect at play in that whole controversy; I never saw a single ad with Mulvaney in it, and might have never known about the campaign, were it not for conservative snowflake tears. But either way, Anheuser Busch at least partially pulled back.
All of this was profoundly stupid. You can buy whatever beer you want, including beer that tastes like dirty water, for whatever reasons you want. You can of course consume things in a way that you think is reflective of your political values. Despite the constant backlash against veganism (which is now far more annoying than vegans), veganism is an attempt to live a particular set of moral values in one’s literal consumption choices. And I have some admiration for that. But vegans have not closed a single factory farm, which is the sort of thing that can actually be accomplished only by true mass political action. Boycotts can be a matter of simple personal integrity, which is fine, but they don’t work. (For one thing, once you politicize not buying, you politicize buying, and the other side can counteract your boycott.) None of that is doing politics. Hating Bud Light is not a political identity. Not buying Bud Light is not a political action. In fact, I would say that the ostentatious, preening refusal to buy Bud Light is an example of something the right-of-center complains about all the time, virtue signaling. They just happen to be signaling a different set of virtues. The embedded critique in the term “virtue signaling” functions just as well for them, which is that they’re engaged in ostensibly political actions or attitudes that in fact have no material consequence and are thus done purely for optics, as a form of self-marketing.
Many smart left-leaning people seem intent on having their own reverse Bud Light moment with this Taylor Swift debacle and its related offshoots. Here’s David French, whose nominal conservatism seems a bit… aspirational, at this point. Or, to pick almost entirely at random, I think sports media figures Pablo Torre, Mina Kimes, and Dan Lebatard are all smart people with good instincts. But it turns out that when you spend your time making fun of the stupid nonsense conservatives are spending their time freaking out about, you are also spending your precious time on earth on stupid nonsense. And it bends you into the shape that Torre bends himself into in that clip, suggesting that Swift is an underdog, however qualified that claim might be. That is… not correct, under any conceivable circumstances. There’s also this inherent, baked-in question of how you oppose this tendency if you don’t have a podcast where you can chortle at the MAGA dummies. The only way to support Swift in this “conflict” is just more consumption, more commerce. You were already streaming Taylor Swift songs, spending your mortgage payment on her concert tickets, and peppering social media with her lyrics, and aren’t you getting a little old for that, Tina? These Swift fans were already a devotee of America’s most passionate civic religion. So what, do they just like her even more now? Isn’t that kind of stupid, really? Or is it only stupid to invest meaningless cultural ephemera with political meaning when you’re a conservative?
I’ve written before about the bizarre way that many white liberals, in the 2000s, made their attitude towards The Wire into a metonym for their racial purity. To a degree that I’m not sure I’ve seen before or since, people just really really desperately wanted you to know that they weren’t racist because they liked an HBO show, yes because the cast was predominately Black but also because the show’s racial politics were considered particularly sophisticated. And of course people have done the same with movies and TV shows and music for a long time. (Amusingly, in years past one of the most prominent of these liberal political stand-in figures was Kanye West.) Of course people didn’t come out and say that they expected their politics, and particularly their racial politics, to be conveyed by the kind of television shows they liked to watch. That would be a very clumsy thing to do. But they wanted that little syllogism to work for them, socially. Well, here we have the same thing breaking out, only now almost no one is being coy about it: you’re a liberal if you support Swift, you’re a conservative if you don’t. Conservatives, for their part, will… I don’t know, get vaguely mad about her and yell about it on “X” like a doofus? There’s zero stakes here, but the fact that so many people are so animated about zero stakes reveals a rot that is itself genuinely high-stakes. I tell people all the time that politics is a thing you do, not a thing you are. It gets a little more bleak when all you are is all you buy.
The problems with wanting artistic and media consumption to be politics are considerable. For one, all kinds of people like all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. Tons of conservative people went on drinking Bud Light in small towns across America because they’re very offline and were entirely unaware that there was any controversy at hand. (The blessed of the earth.) If you search around for even a moment, I’m sure you can find people who are avowed conservatives or even straight-up racists who love The Wire. I can’t remember who it was, but some powerful and adamantly pro-life Republican politician once raved about how The Cider House Rules was his favorite movie of the year; that film is about the moral and medical necessity of access to abortion services. I’m a commie and an anti-nationalist and I love the wildly anti-communist and nationalistic 80s film Red Dawn. All of this is how it should be, for you see, art is art and not politics. But a lot of people seem absolutely intent on making politics this weird transitive process that stems from artistic tastes – I like pop music, you see, and (despite the fact that an absolute army of white men have been and are involved in it) pop music is the music of women and POC and LGBTQ, ergo, I am Good and people who don’t like the same music I like are Bad. This is a child’s conception of moral action, the logic of someone privileged enough to live outside of the material consequences of politics.
I really can’t stress this enough: there is nothing inherently progressive about liking Frank Ocean. Someone who likes Frank Ocean is not inherently more progressive than someone who likes Tool. Those things are politically inert. Sorry.
The deeper issue is simply that none of this can provoke material change, which is the purpose of politics. Where your morals leave your head and enter the physical world is precisely where politics begins. It’s not about the feasibility of your beliefs. There are plenty of things that we want that we will never get, politically; I’m an open borders guy and will never live to see that as policy, for example. But support for open borders entails an endorsement of an actual material change in the world that could theoretical come to pass. Support for Taylor Swift as a political symbol could one day achieve… what, exactly? Making an immensely rich and influential woman richer and more influential? Doesn’t seem like left-wing progress to me. The only way the average person might engage in this pro-Swift movement is with their attention and their dollars, neither of which Swift has been lacking for. If the idea is merely that Swifts fans will vote against Donald Trump and his MAGA movement because of all of this, well, I’m skeptical that will happen and would be a little disturbed if it did. It’s much more likely that, as with championing The Wire in a way that draws more attention to yourself than to the show, all of this is just symbolic politics designed to demonstrate that you’re The Right Kind of Person. Which wouldn’t rankle me so much except for the fact that this increasingly seems to be the only form of politics we have, the politics of pure assortment, divided not by morals or ideas or acts but by types of people.
Perhaps it’s worth saying that this was all written. All of it was predicted. Left theorists have been saying for a very long time that the ultimate outcome of “markets in everything” is a citizenry that can conceive of itself as nothing but consumers in a marketplace. With the labor movement devastated by decades of hostile legislation and the two-party system reducing electoral politics to a farce of limited bad choices, many Americans feel entirely disempowered and disenfranchised. Meanwhile our culture industry, eager for any financial reason to go on existing, sells them on the idea that (say) watching RuPaul’s Drag Race is the same as personally throwing a brick at Stonewall. Jobs like mine are the sharp edge of that sword, writing about politics, arts, and culture for a living and connecting their work with popular media and cultural controversies for the clicks. (Hi!) For decades now, in newspapers, magazines, and websites, we’ve fed impressionable young people a steady diet of media-consumption-as-politics. Half of all the thinkpieces published in the 2010s had headlines like “Does Loving Kendrick Lamar Make You a Fan… Or a Hero??” Those pieces were published because they reliably did numbers. They did numbers because people felt hopeless and telling them that streaming “WAP” was revolutionary filled a glaring emotional need.
Personally, I don’t care for Taylor Swift or her music or her boyfriend’s stupid overly-sculpted En Vogue-backup-dancer beard. That’s just me! Taste is, of course, only taste. I have to make this clear every time this stuff comes up, but I don’t have any ill will towards Swift and am perfectly happy that she’s a pop star. I simply don’t care for her music, myself. I realize that legally speaking I just committed a crime against humanity, by uttering those words, but I’m a 42-year-old man and must live my truth. But so what? If she was normal famous, normal rich, I wouldn’t have any problem with any of it. What I do object to, though, is that her fame has rendered her literally unavoidable, no matter how hard I try; that the devotion of her fans has inspired behavior I find truly unhealthy and concerning, like literally putting off surgery to pay for concert tickets; that with the anti-MAGA narrative having taken hold, her rabid, vengeful stans now have even more pretext for declaring that if you aren’t a Swiftie you must be a fascist. Growing tired of an overexposed celebrity is an entirely common and unobjectionable affair. It’s my right as an American. And yet there’s this whole new genre out there suggesting that there’s no legitimate reason to feel that way.
Yes, it’s true – I was one of those people who was annoyed by the shots of Swift during Chiefs games! Is that really so hard to understand, such that the entire sports media feels it must lock hands to defend the fair maiden? I just want to watch a fucking football game. Does that really make me a reactionary?
I am not a joiner. I instinctively hate any group or movement people are pushing me to become a part of. And lately I’ve been chafing a little bit at the Kelce Family Involuntary Fan Club, which the entire advertising industry seems intent on forcing me into. I see a Kelce’s dipshit face in every ad I’m exposed to now, and I don’t like it. I don’t like it for completely tribal reasons, which is to say, because of what sports is fundamentally about. I also don’t like that Jason Kelce has received the media glow-up routine because his lovable lumberjack persona now seems contrived. Besides I couldn’t support Jason Kelce because he plays for the Eagles and Eagles fans think you should be willing to throw batteries at opposing players during a game, if you really support the team. I don’t like Travis Kelce because he’s literally an industry plant. I don’t like Travis Kelce because Kansas City Chiefs fans are 90% frontrunners who discovered the team in the past five years and the remaining 10% are perfectly willing to excuse Wounded Knee in support of their football team. I don’t like Travis Kelce because he looks like White Claw tastes. But, no! Inveterate racist Colin Cowherd says TayTay is good, and so a lot of social justice types are celebrating him on TikTok. That’s all it takes. Paying appropriate deference to Taylor Swift is now a more rabidly enforced norm than the social commandment to wear pants. I just want to be left the fuck alone, for this woman to entertain her fans and then go count her stacks of million-dollar bills in one of her forty palaces, where I can’t see it. Go with God. But every time a liberal says “hahaha, those conservatives, so triggered by a simple pop star,” they’re engaging in sophistry. Something deeper and weirder has been happening with this phenomenon and you know it.
This isn’t cute. It’s fucking lunacy. It’s toxic and corrosive. Stop celebrating it.
It’s all so strange. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s worshipful piece on Swift in The New York Times Magazine last October could be dissected like the Zapruder film. To pick one issue, Brodesser-Akner repeats the Taylor Swift creation myth, at first appearing to set herself up to debunk it but never actually going through with it. The story of the humble child of a Christmas tree farm who was discovered at an open mic night by a talent scout is considerably more cinematic than the reality. The reality is that Swift’s father is independently a very wealthy man who ran a major investment portfolio for one of the biggest banks in the country, and her parents had extensive connections to the music industry before her career began, giving her an unmistakable advantage. This is not difficult knowledge to obtain, and it’s not like the Times magazine is typically above enforcing details. When I wrote for that publication they fact checked whether I had correctly identified which geographical quadrant of my college’s campus hosted a community garden. For the flattering Taylor Swift mythology? Hey, print the legend. In fairness, that essay is clearly expressed in a kind of elevated vernacular, meant to embody the soul of a Swift fan; that’s every writer’s prerogative and can be a high-scoring game. For me, with this piece, the effect feels something like smoking crank out of a broken lightbulb. Maybe now I really do know what it’s like to be a Swiftie.
That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that Swift’s dominance of American headspace is not normal, the way everyone seems constantly eager to bend the rules in service of her mythos. In the piece I linked to at the top, James Poniewozik admits that “Since 2020, it’s true that her fame level has risen from ‘star’ to ‘molten cosmic supercluster from which galaxies are born.’” He does not tell us whether this is normal or not normal, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, which are precisely the questions that are the most interesting and the most necessary. The media writ large seems divided by those who are already hopelessly devoted to Swift and those who know better than to be seen as getting in her way. Brodesser-Akner starts four sentences in her essay with the word “Witness,” a command that feels quite religious. Near the end a sentence begins, “Witness Taylor Swift….,” and I think of how that has become a kind of communal demand, to witness her as a savior. My response is, honestly, I’m good, thanks. Seriously, I’m good. It’s nothing personal. I promise I don’t need to witness Taylor Swift. She does not need my witnessing. Jesus Christ himself has not been witnessed as much as Taylor Swift. Many, many people are doing the witnessing. Perhaps I could be excused from witnessing, just this once.
The world is a sad and broken place and I forgive people for wanting to invest meaningless symbols with great moral valence. I acknowledge that the collapse of meaning has been real and total and that such lofty celebrity can look, to the adolescent brain (literally or metaphorically adolescent) like a good place to park your beliefs, your need, your palpable longing. As with so many other parts of our culture, the question is whether we want to actively encourage perpetual adolescence. Brodesser-Akner calls Swift fans “a community with a shared, ardent sense of purpose,” and while this is also true of literal cults, I am sympathetic. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with using cultural consumption as a predictor for someone’s politics, if you’re on Bumble or whatever. But liking things is not politics. In a world where multiple pieces have suggested that Bowen Yang maybe making an unhappy face somehow represents an act of queer resistance, we’ve fallen off the map and landed firmly in the realm of make believe. At some point you have to come back to real life, as depressing as it may be. People want to think that Swift speaks to and for us all, and I recognize something beautiful in that, a yearning for real community. But she doesn’t speak for all of us. She really doesn’t. And maybe this ceaseless, white-knuckled insistence that she does is just a little strange. Maybe you could throw us that bone, those of us who do not know the touch of her ethereal and life-affirming grace. Maybe you could go on loving the music and the woman while acknowledging that, at this point, in this Era of Taylor Swift and her trembling fans, things have gotten pretty fucking weird.Your support matters…
Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.
You can help level the playing field. Become a member.
Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.
Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.