For better or for worse, the powerful combination of pop culture and the Internet has long been a large presence in my life. Whereas my parents have distinct memories of a time before computers, my earliest memories consist of afternoons taking turns playing games on the Disney Channel website with my younger sister. And while older generations can spend entire articles and news segments pontificating over how millennials’ brains are fried as a result of our digital childhoods, there is no denying the societal impact of Internet pop culture.
Our generation’s greater demand for accountability from public figures comes as a result of the merging of pop culture and the Internet, which makes news about current affairs and Hollywood equally ubiquitous and consumable. The elevated standard to which we hold public figures begs the question: to what extent should we expect influential people to speak out on or be knowledgeable about social issues to their massive online followings? A prerequisite for fame has now become at least a slight awareness of social justice movements so as not to offend one’s audience, but is it reasonable to ask entertainers to be activists as well?
These questions have become increasingly salient in today’s fraught political times when the combination of nonstop discourse and unprecedented online engagement poses the opportunity for a large payoff for celebrities. Flashpoints like the 2016 election and violence in Charlottesville, Va. have become tests for celebrities who now have a chance to highlight their compassion.
Taylor Swift is a striking and polarizing figure in discussions surrounding celebrity responses to popular social movements. Swift, like most millennials, came of age on the Internet, but unlike most millennials, her online history is laid bare for the entire world to scrutinize. Vestiges of her old self live on screenshots of her Myspace page where she proudly posted about being a Republican.
Swift’s politics since then have been remarkably elusive. She stated her support for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign after his inauguration and has not voiced who she supported in any presidential election since. Despite Donald Trump’s unabashed bias against women and her recent appropriation of fourth wave feminism, Swift’s only comment on last year’s election was a cryptic Instagram photo of her at a polling station encouraging her fans to vote.
A cynical take on Swift’s online presence with regard to her politics is that it is admirably clever marketing. Her noncommittal, inoffensive take on addressing national issues is particularly expedient for someone aiming to bridge traditional, country music audiences with more diverse ones. She is knowingly able to command the public’s attention online by slyly promoting her personal life. Swift’s answer to whether artists should be activists would be a clear and resounding “no.” But when the stakes are so high, it is irresponsible for someone like Swift, who has mastered the art of attention-grabbing and cherry-picking liberal ideology, to remain silent.
Swift and other like-minded celebrities usually manage to be excused by the court of public opinion, which often deems all matters related to the Internet, entertainment and Hollywood frivolous. Dismissing these realms of public life ignores the inextricability of politics, celebrity and the Internet. Were it not for the Obama campaign’s mastery of social media and mobilization of celebrity support, the 2008 and 2012 elections could have gone quite differently.
Excusing celebrities from speaking on political issues also downplays the importance of those issues. We are just a few months into the Trump presidency, and it has already proved to have devastating consequences for immigrants, the trans community and other marginalized groups. While it is unlikely that Swift encouraging her fans to vote for Hillary Clinton would have swayed the outcome of the election, her silence, and our authorization of that silence, encourages complacency and allows us to hide behind the comfort of our privilege.