“It must be exhausting, always rooting for the anti-hero”, sings Taylor Swift on her latest album Midnights. Yet, the stadiums of her Eras super tour are filled with a crowd that feels anything but exhausted: social media overflows with footage of both Swift and her fans having a great time.
Until the Nashville shows. When the 1975’s lead singer, Matty Healy, attended all three concerts of the newly single Swift, her fans started to vocally worry that the two were dating.
Problematic Matty Healy
A romance between Swift and Healy felt unpalatable to many of her fans. Healy’s messy, amoral rock stardom, and frequent instances of public controversy, collided with Swift’s carefully crafted good girl image.
Swift’s fans took offence at what they believed was Healy’s sexist, racist and antisemitic behaviour. In an episode of The Adam Friedland Show podcast, for instance, Healy was recorded laughing along with racist jokes ridiculing rapper Ice Spice. On stage, he was seen doing what looked like an offhand Nazi salute while giving Kanye West a shout-out.
Healy perhaps assumes his fans understand him to be joking, but also does not seem to care much. If politics have become a joke – so Healy seems to think – you might as well joke about them. In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino describes Healy as a post-woke celebrity, a persona switching between tenderness and trollishness.
His attitude irked Swift’s fans. Their rumoured relationship felt like a political oxymoron to them: how could a progressive, feminist celebrity like Swift fall for someone so problematic? Some fans accused Swift of performative activism: perhaps she, herself, had really not cared all along.
Social media filled with tweets from fans urging Swift to break up with Healy, followed by articles in Forbes, Rolling Stone, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, in which journalists, too, argued about Swift’s relationship with Healy.
In every iteration, their relationship was decidedly framed in political terms: by dating Healy, Swift condoned his hurtful statements and actions.
Breaking her silence
American celebrity has become an increasingly politicised institution in the last decade. When Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency in 2015, many celebrities opposed him. Swift stayed quiet at the time, which led to confusion about her political viewpoints. It facilitated the hijacking of Swift’s persona by the alt-right, who believed she had an “Aryan spirit”.
In 2018, Swift broke her silence and spoke out in support of progressive values. Swift’s statements were more explicit than the political flirtations of other celebrities: she named specific conservative politicians she opposed in a 2018 Instagram post, urging her audiences to not vote for them.
In an interview with Vogue from 2019, she said “rights are being stripped from basically everyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender male.”
The song You Need To Calm Down added a catchy sound to Swift’s newfound political voice. Through her politicisation, Swift gained new fans. Although not everybody believed her sudden change of heart, most applauded her for it.
Swift emphasised the importance of developing a political and social consciousness, potentially offering white women a blueprint out of political passivity and into action.
The politics of cultural consumption
When Swift’s audiences fight over the meaning of her stardom, and in extension debate the political values of her fandom, they are confronting the question of what a “good” pop star really looks like.
To those critical of Swift’s associations with Healy, this has to be a socially engaged, politically responsible celebrity who leads by example. The anti-Healy sentiment signals a craving for a star who legitimises rather than forecloses our desire for a better, more just and fair world.
Though celebrities can form an important source of joy, there are dangers in outsourcing our politics onto their individual, albeit, charming shoulders.
A framework in which Healy symbolises all things bad, with Swift personifying all things good, obstructs a more structural engagement with the issues at stake here. It falls into a trap of individualisation: presenting sexism, racism and antisemitism as individual character traits rather than historically anchored structures of violence.
In this narrative, getting rid of Healy would somehow allow Swift’s audiences to see Swift as whole again – as morally and politically pure, somehow not implicated in these structures of oppression Healy so carelessly embeds in his persona.
To focus solely on political evaluations of individual celebrities like Swift and Healy paves the way for a situation shaped by anti-politics, in which policymakers and political institutions get a free pass.
If individual celebrities are framed as the rotten apples causing moral and political chaos, it would mean that inequality and oppression could be solved by simply tossing those individuals out rather than focusing on the crucial need to fight misogyny, racism and antisemitism in structural, sustainable manners.
Not long after, Healy was seen kissing a security guard at his own concert. The internet let out a collective sigh of relief. Some fans celebrated the break-up as a victory; the fruit of their digital labor. Entertainment Weekly reported the two had come to realise they are not compatible. A day later, The Daily Mail wrote the two had actually never really dated.
But none of this seemed to matter much to those who had been arguing about the two for weeks now. Their relief and happiness about Swift being politically virtuous remained. Now that this issue had been resolved, the internet could finally go back to being a gathering place for uplifting concert videos from Swift’s Eras tour.
The post “how fans turned Taylor Swift’s short relationship with Matty Healy into a political statement” by Simone Driessen, Assistant Professor in Media & Popular Culture, Erasmus University Rotterdam was published on 06/13/2023 by theconversation.com