Taylor Swift’s public relations armor has been dealt another blow.
In the week leading up to the release of her sixth album, Reputation, Swift’s lawyers received a letter from the ACLU, accusing her and her team of attempting to “suppress constitutionally protected speech.”
The ACLU letter came as a response to a missive that Swift’s own lawyers sent to the small leftist entertainment site PopFront on Sept. 5 in which they referred to a blog post titled “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation” as “defamatory.” Swift’s lawyers demanded that the post’s author, Meghan Herning, “issue a retraction, remove the story from all media sources, and cease and desist,” threatening further legal action.
Why all the to-do? The blog post argues that lyrics in Swift’s recent single “Look What You Made Me Do” seem “to play to the . . . subtle, quiet white support of a racial hierarchy.” It goes on to mention how extreme right-wing sites like Breitbart and The Daily Stormer have rallied around the song and Swift’s work generally.
Herning is not the first to make this argument. The conspiracy theory that Swift is actually a Nazi or alt-right sympathizer has been floating around since at least 2013. That year, a Pinterest user named Emily Pattinson began posting photos of Swift overlaid with Adolf Hitler quotes, reportedly as a joke. But that’s really all it is: a conspiracy theory. Has Swift ever used her music to speak to larger political issues? No. So why would she start using her music to promote Nazism?
But by her legal team attacking a tiny, left-leaning blog for its content, she’s now ensured that hundreds of thousands more people will read the post they want no one to see. At some point Swift has to ask herself, wouldn’t it be easier to just come right out and publicly denounce her neo-Nazi fans and their dubious claim on her? Put another way: Swift chose to threaten to sue a progressive blog rather than speak out against white supremacy.
The letter Swift’s team wrote to PopFront reads, “Ms. Swift has no obligation to campaign for any particular political candidate or broadcast her political views, and the fact that her political views are not public enough for your taste does not give you the authority to presume what her political opinions may be or that her political views correlate to the support of white supremacy.”
They’re right–she’s not obligated to publicize her political views. She doesn’t have to tell us who she voted for or what she thinks of DACA. But neo-Nazism is so extreme, it’s outside of politics. It’s a matter of human decency. In the past, I’ve been the kind of Taylor Swift fan who has supported her right to privacy. That notion is respectable in theory. But this is 2017, and in an America that’s splitting under the weight of systemic racism, fake news, predatory men, and gun violence, the rules are different.
One theory for Swift’s relative silence is that she doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of the many conservative white people who buy her albums and go to her concerts. That means we’re quickly approaching a junction where Swift will have to decide if the loss of some (okay, maybe a lot) of her fanbase is worth the cost of permanently scarring her reputation once we get out of the mess that is the Trump presidency.
Honestly, though, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. If there’s anyone who could rectify this PR nightmare and come out unscathed it’s Swift, the woman who once got a billion-dollar company to change its minds (and even lose money) because of her influence.
It’s not like Swift has never taken a stand before. In 2014, during the lead-up to 1989, Swift spoke openly about being a feminist, telling The Guardian that she’d been “taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” In 2016, she showed solidarity with Kesha, donating $250,000 to help pay the beleaguered singer’s legal fees during her ordeal with Sony and Dr. Luke. And earlier this year, she brought awareness to sexual assault when she sued, for just $1 in damages, a DJ she claimed groped her.
But for all her proclamations of female empowerment (including a controversial tweet about the Women’s March), Swift has repeatedly mishandled situations where her lack of intersectional feminism has been brought to light, like when she turned Nicki Minaj’s call-out of awards show racism into a personal attack. It’s become a predictable pattern for her to always play the victim—a martyr persona she even mocked in her “Look What You Made Me Do” music video. It’s hard to say if she’s actually self-aware or just coyly winking at the media’s perception of her as someone who claims to always be wronged. Either way, by suing PopFront on the grounds that an opinion piece is detrimental to her—eh-hem—reputation, she is, once again, drawing from the same playbook.
It boils down to this: You can’t control what someone says about you (not even you, Taylor Swift), but you can control what you say. And it’s time for Swift (not her lawyers or spokespeople) to start talking. Her music won’t do it for her.