Taylor Swift said nothing last year. While America started to buckle under the weight of the rising political candidacy of an unhinged narcissist named Donald Trump, the wildly famous and influential singer remained silent. Even as Trump proved himself to be in direct opposition to LGBTQ issues, feminist values, and various other causes Swift has, at least tangentially, been a supporter of, she kept quiet. The closest she came to dipping her toes into the political waters was on election day when she Instagrammed a photo of herself in line at a polling station, with the caption, "Today is the day. Go out and VOTE." She included the American flag emoji, but failed to lean either way on the candidates. Instead, at a time when her loyal army of millions was willing to listen, she simply smiled and said absolutely nothing.
There are a couple of theories as to why Swift kept her political views to herself. Many have posited that she is a closeted conservative, privately harboring the desire to Make America Great Again. This theory has certainly been welcomed by the Trump-loving white supremacists and neo Nazis of America, who have taken her refusal to denounce the Trump agenda as a tacit endorsement. White supremacist sites like The Daily Stormer have adopted Swift as their Aryan goddess since, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, she looks like a pop star imagined by Hitler in a wet dream.
Another theory is that her silence is a means of protecting her business interests. Swift is, first and foremost, a businesswoman, after all. Her every move is a calculated decision aimed at reaching the broadest possible consumer base and advancing her brand, a strategy which has earned her a net worth of over a quarter billion dollars. Playing politics would only risk alienating sections of her base. Why denounce Trump when his followers are paying customers like everyone else? And why distance yourself from hate groups when they stream your songs too? Their Swastikas may be red but their money is still green.
Whatever her reasons, Swift said nothing throughout 2016 on social media, at her concerts, or in her lyrics. Her fellow pop stars spoke out against the aspiring fascist Trump, or at least threw support behind his opponent Hillary Clinton. Everyone from Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to power couples like Jay Z/Beyoncé and John Legend/Chrissy Teigen made their opinions known. Her frenemy Katy Perry even penned a pro-Clinton anthem. But Swift's voice was noticeably absent. Celebrities are under no obligation to be politically vocal, of course, and in some cases, they are better off remaining silent than opening their mouths to reveal how woefully ignorant they are. (Feel free to Google "celebrities + all lives matter.") But Swift wielded a unique amount of power in the 2016 election. She is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, if not the biggest, and her fan base leans heavily towards white women, a demographic that went for Trump at the polls by 53 percent, despite his lifetime of misogynist statements, an unearthed recording of him bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, and repeated incestuous comments about his own daughter like, "If Ivanka weren't my daughter, perhaps I'd be dating her." There's no way of guaranteeing that a Swift condemnation would have singlehandedly changed the course of the election, but her All-American image could have reasoned with the heartland in a way the Big City Liberal Celebs couldn't. If nothing else, the incredibly protective Swifties would have been turned off by President Twitter Fingers who, almost assuredly, would have been online within the hour snapping back at their idol. The tweet writes itself. "Taylor Swift, who many say is very overrated, is attacking me to boost her failing album sales after her messy breakup with Calvin Harris. Sad!"
It's a pointless endeavor to hypothesize about the direct impact Swift could have had on the election, though, because what's done is done, and we're now stuck with a Trump presidency where each day Americans wake to a hellscape more nightmarish and embarassing than the day before. Levels of post-election stress and anxiety have spiked dramatically across the country for people of all political affiliations as a tidal wave of problems has arisen from sitting in the backseat of a car recklessly driven by a dangerously under-qualified huckster in an ill-fitting red hat. Americans fear losing their health insurance, being deported, or getting nuked into oblivion by North Korea if its equally unstable leader is rubbed the wrong way by Trump, a man who couldn't even meet with the Boy Scouts of America without fucking it up so badly that the organization had to issue an apology. Clashing ideologies have turned particularly volatile recently. Racists have felt emboldened enough to march proudly through the streets, and violence has erupted between them and the protestors who've taken a stand against them. Blood has been shed, lives have been lost.
It's in the middle of this national pressure cooker that feels poised to blow at any second that Swift has chosen to return with new music, giving the world a glimpse into what has been occupying her headspace over the last the year while the world has burned around her. And surprise surprise, it's still all about her.
Last week, she teased her return with a pair of ten-second videos of a CGI snake, a ridiculously ham-handed foreshadowing that she was ready to play the villain and strike back at those who had wronged her, tossing the whole "haters gonna hate/shake it off" positivity bullshit she'd been leaning on out the window. An album announcement soon followed for her sixth album, Reputation, and, sure enough, it featured Swift on the cover with a decidedly edgier rebrand. With her dark lipstick, choker necklace, and shirt carefully accentuated with a rip on the shoulder, she's pulling off a brooding persona with even more comically unconvincing results than when Olivia Newton John smoked a cigarette in a leather jacket in Grease.
Soon after the album announcement, a lead single followed, "Look What You Made Me Do." But it's unclear what Taylor was made to have done since the song is, to quote one of the President's large dipshit sons, a nothingburger. Lyrically, it lacks the specificity an effective diss track typically possesses, and makes her targets vague to keep listeners guessing as to whom in her tall stack of rivals she's addressing—Katy Perry, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, the press, take your pick. It's general enough that listeners can even project their own vendettas onto her words, as the right-wing garbage heap Breitbart did after the song's release, tweeting the song's lyrics alongside links to their blog posts. It's hard to say how a website with a history of xenophobic commentary might interpret a lyric like, "I don't like your kingdom keys, they once belonged to me. You asked me for a place to sleep, locked me out and threw a feast," but use your imagination.
Instead, the video for "Look What You Made Me Do" does Swift's dirty work, and is jam-packed with layers of visual clap-backs at her enemies. Some are fairly frivolous, like when she holds a Grammy Award while sporting a blonde, Katy Perry-like hairdo, flexing that she's won ten Grammys but Perry has yet to win one. Other times, they are more vicious and mean, like the sequence where she's in a bathtub full of jewels (valued at $12 million), making a gun with her thumb and forefinger, which seems to mirror the scene described by Kim Kardashian last October in Paris when she was robbed of her diamonds at gunpoint while the captors forced her into a bathtub.
Even when unintentional, Swift can't get out of the way of her own pettiness. As many quickly pointed out, Reputation's launch date is set for the death anniversary of Kanye West's late mother. (A label rep claimed this was a coincidence.) And even when Swift (or presumably someone on her publicity team) first tweeted the link to the video for "Look What You Made Me Do" during the MTV VMAs, it was done while the mother of Heather Heyer, a woman killed by a vehicular attack while protesting white supremacists in Charlottesville, was speaking on stage. While likely unintentional, the unfortunate timing is emblematic of how utterly detached from the world Swift is.
This is the self-obsessed, insular bubble Swift inhabits. In a cultural climate packed to the brim with dire, pressing problems, she uses her massive platform to rehash tired grudges that she thinks the world has been eagerly waiting to be settled, completely oblivious to the actual concerns of everyday people. Instead of evolving as an artist and a human, she wallows in the petty beefs with fellow millionaires that the public might have had the headspace for in 2015, but most definitely do not anymore. It's easy to say that Reputation is two years too late and that Swift is stuck in the past, but that's not quite accurate. She's stuck in Taylor Time, an alternate plane of existence where she is perpetually the center of the universe.
Particularly selfish about Reputation's rollout is that, as horrendous as the last year has been, the one positive residual effect is that many artists on all levels have come out to champion pressing causes and effect positive social change. Even artists who have historically kept their personal beliefs to themselves have been galvanized into action. The front was so united against Trump that he had a miserable time finding people who would perform at his inauguration and eventually had to settle for wash-ups like Three Doors Down. But now that momentum is being eclipsed by the cloud of toxic smoke emanating from Swift Industries. Swift's mere presence sucks all the air out of the music industry, and with a nearly three-month album rollout ahead, she'll monopolize the press cycle through the holiday season, and well into 2018.
The Swift takeover has already begun with a few key sponsorship deals. She's partnered with Ticketmaster #VerifiedFan to encourage fans to participate in "boost activities" that improve their place in line for concert tickets. But in "a really fun way." These boost activities, of course, require pledging loyalty to her #squad, typically in the form of cash. Fans can purchase t-shirts and gold snake rings or pre-order the album to swear their allegiance to Lord Taylor. She is also doing a deal with UPS to make sure people buy physical copies of the album. Target is also offering an exclusive version of the album which includes copies of two collectible magazines.
This carefully orchestrated commercial blitzkrieg will net Swift millions. "Look What You Made Me Do" has already broken YouTube and Spotify records with the biggest debut in history. This is why she had no interest in rocking the boat with politics. Drama is the central product of the Taylor Swift business, and business is good. As the CEO of Drama, Inc., she had her bottom line to look out for, but, instead of picking a feud with the biggest possible target in Donald Trump, she continued to punch down, where it was safe.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.