Taylor Swift: The Activist-In-Progress We Need

Taylor Swift has entered 2020 making her political voice known, with the release of Miss Americana and “Only The Young” last week, and the lyric video for “The Man” this morning. I’ve had this idea for a while, but now is quite the opportune moment to make a case for Taylor Swift as the activist-in-progress we need. 

I first discovered the term “feminist-in-progress” through Jameela Jamil, The Good Place actress and the founder behind the I Weigh movement. She has the label posted in all caps in her social media bios, and I identified with it as soon as I read it. Although I am engaged in world issues and social justice, I feel I haven’t participated in as much action that would earn me the definitive label “activist. The “in-progress” suffix validates the growth that lies before me. There is still work for me to do, ways for me to speak up and physically get involved.

The same goes for Taylor Swift. After years of staying out of politics – a fact we’ll return to in this post – she broke her silence on social media to advocate for the Democrat candidates in the 2018 Mid-Terms in Tennesse. Since then, Swift has embraced a new era of bringing up her opinions and beliefs in magazine articles, interviews, obviously songs, and much of her documentary. 

Let’s start this discussion with “You Need to Calm Down”. For Swift’s first overtly political song, I thought it checked all the boxes. Catchy tune, positive message: what could go wrong? I feel the criticism Taylor Swift received for “You Need to Calm Down” was too harsh. If you’re unfamiliar with the arguments raised against the song, a quick google search will yield countless articles that weigh the duality of this record’s messages. Do I think the summer bop was the perfect advocacy song? No. There is merit to the flaws raised by critics, but I also think the media did not take the song as the feel-good tune she seemed to write it as. Miss Americana shows us behind-the-scenes with Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie while they wrote “Me!” – another song of Swift that was received quite brutally. Taylor says, “I just want little kids to be like, ‘There’s no one like me,'” and I think that sentiment applies to most of the songs she writes, especially ones dealing with the infamous “haters”. Since the beginning of her career, Swift has made an art of writing positive anthems for young people going through hard times. Just a quick skim through her discography reveals “Mean”, “Shake It Off”, and “I Forgot That You Existed” as songs that implore us to stay positive and unbothered. This track record (pun intended!) could imply “You Need to Calm Down” is meant as an anthem young people facing hardships can sing to bolster their spirits. 

But let’s not forget that Swift didn’t just have a verse about supporting her LGBT+ friends in “You Need to Calm Down”, she featured them in the music video. She ensured that they would all receive a VMA when it was nominated as Video of the Year, and when it won all its categories, she made sure to share the stage with Todrick, her co-producer and friend. He accepted the award and talked about what the song, video, and victory meant for him as a gay man. The commitment didn’t stop there, Swift also made sure to direct fans to a petition calling for support of the Equality Act. Swift didn’t just sing empty words, she made sure to pair her awareness with action. She raised the voices of people who’ve been systemically ignored – although her friends are also celebrities, it’s hard to deny the impact of her platform.

Swift sings to give support to people growing up in a world that isn’t always friendly and is, in fact, sometimes bigoted. And as seen in her more recent political songs, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” and “Only The Young”, there is another clear trend: hope. Swift’s anthems inspire hope. She believes that change can come, and she is just beginning to get involved in the conversations that will ripple into that change. 

Some may see a celebrity with such a wide-reaching voice like Taylor Swift, and criticise her for not standing up sooner. In her documentary, she explains she’s had to break down beliefs ingrained into her for years. This is not an easy thing to do! It requires a lot of unlearning and relearning, of questioning your beliefs and your privilege. As I said before, Swift does this with hope. In Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, author Erin Wunker writes “let’s not pretend being hopeful is an easy or [straightforward] pursuit.” She also later adds “it’s not necessarily easy or intuitive to identify yourself as a feminist”. While social media makes it easy to be aware of issues around us, it still takes a great deal of mental effort and conscious education to be an activist. What is interesting to me about Taylor Swift is her use of a particular vocabulary that shows she has been researching and learning how to be a good ally. Before the release of the music video for “You Need to Calm Down”, rumours were circulating that it would end with a kiss between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Fans were obviously not on board with this queerbaiting – a term I’d advise you to look up if you’re unfamiliar with it – but Taylor swiftly (hehe) shut the rumours down. In her words, one facet of allyship “is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting.” These words sound like someone actively trying to educate themselves, just as Swift is.

Swift’s situation reminds me of Emma Watson’s. As she stepped into the political scene as an ambassador for the UN’s gender equality movement, HeForShe, Watson received a lot of criticism for her white feminism. This term signifies the lack of intersectionality that mostly white woman perpetuate in their pursuit of gender equality – another thing I’d suggest you look up after finishing this post! Watson did a lot of reading thereafter to educate herself about race and other privileges she wasn’t aware she wasn’t addressing. In an interview with The Guardian, Taylor Swift says, “a lot about how my privilege allowed me to not have to learn about white privilege. I didn’t know about it as a kid, and that is privilege itself, you know? And that’s something that I’m still trying to educate myself on every day. How can I see where people are coming from, and understand the pain that comes with the history of our world?” She is trying and learning, which is the best thing any of us can ask for and do.

Now, more than ever before, we have the tools to speak up and out. We have the materials to educate ourselves, and we have the means to spread those lessons with others. In my mind, there is no excuse to stay neutral on topics of grave consequence. This doesn’t necessarily mean I look for conflict everywhere, but just that I am doing my best to stand for equality everywhere. One doesn’t become an activist by day; I think it’s essential to embrace the “in-progress” part. As a celebrity, Taylor Swift’s voice and actions are projected for the world to see. Her journey to becoming more vocal and engaged in the politics that matter in a way that still remains true to herself makes her the activist-in-progress we all need. 

PS: Just a little postscript from the author!

I’m aware the post is quite long and often confusing. There is so much context that needs to established in order to fully understand the narrative, and my opinions are always growing: there’s always more to say.

If you find anything overwhelmingly confusing, whether it’s the way I have written it or the context you can’t seem to find, post a comment and I’ll be sure to clarify!

PPS: Here are some links to things mentioned in this post.

Miss Americana, Taylor Swift’s documentary directed by Lana Watson, is available on Netflix, and I highly recommend it!

“Only The Young” was released as a anthem for political youth with Miss Americana. It’s a great song; check it out on Spotify here.

The lyric video for “The Man” deserves an entire post of its own. Watch it here!

Jameela Jamil is wonderful, and I’m so glad I found the “feminist-in-progress” term through her!

Taylor Swift did an interview with The Guardian; I only quoted a small part but I’ve read the whole thing and there are some many important parts!

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