Taylor Swift spent the first decade of her career building a brand of political apathy ensconced in a world of glittery guitars, red lipstick, and glamorously homey Fourth of July parties. She’s the kind of celebrity that stands in for an identity. I spent the middle six years of my life cataloging her every move on a Twitter account named after her cats, and I would introduce myself as a Swiftie first, Puerto Rican woman second, and eventually, a Democrat third.
The point? Until recently, Swift profited off of silence. While I was 15 and procrastinating chemistry homework by drafting an 18 point conspiracy theory to determine she voted for Hillary Clinton, the alt–right was doing the same thing for their preferred candidate. While they pointed to an alleged 2008 MySpace post where Swift claims “Republicans do it better” and a history steeped in simple Get–Out–The–Vote sentiment, all I had was that she maybe voted for President Obama in 2008 and the fact she’s friends with Lena Dunham. Taylor Swift’s political compass matters because she matters to a lot of people, even in a relational way. It was cool to hate her. Then it was cool to love her. It’s always cool to do what Swift is and isn’t doing, so through the transitive property, it’s cool to vote for who Swift is and isn’t voting for.
So when her political voice began to squeak, it was too little too late. “You Need to Calm Down,” the second single from last year's Lover, was a shameless gambit for the gay pop anthem of 2020. The track was released during Pride Month, and it makes dangerous comparisons between her brief brush with internet cancel culture to the real persecution queer people have faced for centuries. Ultimately, it serves as a last–ditch effort to remind listeners that she’s the victim, all Equality Act activism aside.
Meanwhile, “Only the Young,” barely passes as a political effort, with platitudes about young people changing the world set to the kind of beat you’d hear in the teen section of a Kohl’s. Penned after the 2018 midterm elections, it's meant to reflect the despondence many young people felt after their desired candidate lost, but it lacks any real meaning. In my lifetime, the Democratic party has always been the one of youthful ambition, of acceptance, of feminism, so Swift’s embrace of them as she careens into real adulthood feels obligatory. As those beliefs become sacrosanct to a large swath of the mainstream, it has left her with little choice but to speak up.
Ultimately Swift’s pro–equality, anti–homophobia defense of democracy is simply a public acceptance of the liberal status quo. The celebrity left has moved on. While Cole Sprouse is getting arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest in Santa Monica and Blake Lively is donating $200,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense fund, Swift is stuck championing a lesson I learned when I was 15 and my Trump supporter boyfriend called me a racial slur as “Bad Blood” played on the radio: the president of United States should be empathetic.
So then, how did a Taylor Swift song become the sudden anthem of the insurgent left?
On Sept. 1, Sen. Ed Markey (D–Mass.), a co–sponsor of the Green New Deal, decimated establishment Democrat Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D–Mass.), a congressman best known for being related to a dead president and the subject of a meme about chapstick, in a senate primary. This race should’ve operated like the ones that catapulted a laundry list of Kennedy's to political stardom: Kennedy, a handsome but dedicated public servant, was supposed to defeat Markey, a 75–year–old incumbent too steeped in Washington bullshit to lead a younger demographic.
But no one—not even Kennedy himself—could come up with a reason for running other than a sense of antiquated entitlement and impatience, so the race divulged into a modern-day version of The Tortoise and the Hare, with Markey positioning his victory as something larger than the defeat of a plucky politician: It was the fall of the Kennedy empire, and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of the end for moderate Democrats.
Upon careening to victory with a 10.6% margin over Kennedy, the Markey campaign blasted Swift’s “Last Great American Dynasty” at his Zoom victory party. Pundits ran with it. The Huffington Post used the title to open its newsletter section about the race, and the Swifties–turned–political–scholars of Twitter lionized Taylor as some sort of lyrical FiveThirtyEight pollster, calling elections like it’s her job.
Whatever intern picked this song was a smart one. It’s a multilayer burn spanning both the personal and political. “The Last American Dynasty” sits on the lighter side of Folklore, Swift’s eighth studio album. It’s a sparkling folk ditty about the original owner of Swift’s oversized Rhode Island estate Rebekah Harkness, a socialite/philanthropist/artist who married Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness and pissed away his money on glamorous things like “boys and the ballet” according to Swift. The song spins a web about eroding old Hollywood charm, the same charm that initially catapulted the Kennedy's to fame, where its subjects are best known for “ruining everything” marvelously. Transposed onto a political narrative, it's foreboding. The bridge mentions how Swift bought the house and became the aughts version of Harkness, her youth and impatience ruining everything, not unlike Kennedy did when he broke his family’s record of 13 straight senatorial wins.
An added bonus? Swift briefly dated Kennedy’s cousin, Conor, for two months in 2012, which adds an extra layer of zest to the whole thing.
That said, this spectacle is less about Taylor Swift’s political leanings and Ed Markey’s newfound penchant for shade and more about the desire we have to project fantasies onto the lives of the well–known. Nothing about Swift is political in the same way that nothing about Markey’s win is historic. Celebrities swim out of the depth and politicians lose all the time. The two, however, rarely coincide, making it the perfect fodder for a progressive teen’s fantasy.