Is Taylor Swift revolutionary or is she just white?

By Hadera McKay

With the upcoming re-release of Taylor Swift’s award-winning album Red on Friday, it’s about time to investigate exactly why we love this white woman and her mediocre singing voice so much. 

The easiest conclusion would be that we like her catchy music; but that’s not hard to achieve when she has experienced writers and producers like Jack Antonoff and traditional country producer Nathan Chapman on her team. It could be because of her country roots, which really aren’t all that country when you realize she was born in Pennsylvania

It could even be her songwriting, which from the very beginning of her career has been dedicated to narrative storytelling that draws listeners in. She makes us feel like we are right there with her, experiencing and struggling through the very same things. 

The fact is, Taylor Swift is a white feminist who exists in a bubble where race, class, and everything else that’s different from the white, straight, privileged status quo is swept under the rug. She favors a narrative where the only thing that matters is cardigans and “champagne problems.” Fortunately, this is the reality of many of Swift’s fans: young white women. 

It has become increasingly common for Swifties to praise and worship Swift as the pinnacle of contemporary feminism, and on the surface, it’s not hard to see why. From the very beginning of her career, she faced backlash for writing about her past romantic relationships in her music. Swift pushed back at these critics by continuing to write music about what she wanted, no matter the consequences. 

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Although this is commendable, plenty of female artists—particularly from historically marginalized groups, i.e., Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, or any female rapper ever—have done the same. Yet, none of these talented artists have received the same level of praise that this white woman has. Taylor has been called a “feminist icon,” was the first-ever recipient of Billboard’s Woman of the Year award in 2019, and has consistently been backed up by her fans in confrontation with direct comments of misogyny. What is the merit of these accolades when women of color have been doing the exact same things (and more) with little to no recognition, and in some cases, outright criticism? 

Not to mention, each of the previously named artists were able to do so without a reliance on aesthetics. Taylor has gone from country, to pop princess, to the bad-girl during her Reputation era, and finally the cottage-core reinvention used to brand the albums “folklore” and “evermore.” These transformations seem less like natural artistic evolution and more like meticulously curated identities that come off painfully inauthentic and consumer driven. 

Furthermore, it makes me question if everything Swift does is performative. Does the malleability of Taylor’s musical identity have any implications for her ability to isolate her white feminine identity from the intersectional feminism that I understand as gender equity? Is Taylor’s activism even real? 

In some ways, I am tempted to say that it is. Swift is a victim of sexual assault who continues to proudly advocate for sexual assault victims today. While I do honor Swift’s experience as a woman and survivor, Swift failed to acknowledge the privilege she holds as a white woman. Her capability to verbally manifest her anger at her assailant in her testimony, using blunt language and curse words, would have been problematically perceived as stereotypical and damaging to a Black victim’s case. 

Instead of acknowledging this inherent inequity, Swift claimed a spot on Time Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year issue, “Silence Breakers.” The cover sparked particular controversies in its erasure of the experiences and efforts of BIPOC activists, one of these figures being Tarana Burke, the founder of the #metoo movement. 

And who can forget the 2009 squabble on the MTV Video Music Awards stage, when Kanye West stepped up to applaud Beyoncé’s video over Swift’s. Yes, West’s actions were disrespectful, inappropriate, and had lasting effects on Taylor’s career. However, there is something to be said about his argument that in this world white women are constantly given recognition for half the work a Black woman does, while she receives little to no recognition. 

Swift has made it a point to use Black women when it benefits her career. In the music video of her most streamed song to date, “Shake it Off,” Swift saddled herself up with gold chains and a leopard print puffer and crawled beneath a line of twerking asses with the Black one front and center. If that isn’t a blatant perpetuation of Black stereotypes in order to appropriate and profit off of Black bodies and cultures, I don’t know what is. 

The same can be said for her “Wildest Dreams” music video, where Swift romanticizes colonialism and perpetuates the erasure of African culture in favor of the single story. One in which the culture and peoples of Africa are an uncivilized monolith that need the romantic guidance of aryan saviors. But don’t worry because at the end of the video it’s noted that all of the proceeds from the video are going to wild animal conservation efforts through the African Parks Foundations of America, effectively nailing the coffin in Swift’s promotion of neo-colonization. 

Sure, Taylor Swift is a feminist, but she is a feminist without any explicit tie to the connection of feminism and race, class, sexual identity, or disability. We applaud her for her appropriation, for her erasure of diverse identities, and for her single white experience of gender inequality. Without any true attempt to understand, address, or advocate for an intersectional view of the marginalization of women, can we really call that feminism? 

I understand why her music is popular. Like most of you, I too screamed the lyrics to “Mean” at my non-existent cheating, lying boyfriend. I sobbed to “Teardrops on My Guitar,” and wailed the lyrics to “You Belong With Me” with my friends at sleepovers. I cranked my hand-me-down iPod touch at the pulsing bass beat of “I Knew You Were Trouble.” I know the pop classic feel of “Style,” the feeling of intense unending madness in “Out of the Woods,” and the lovely painted dreamscape of “Wildest Dreams.” Just like you, I know and love it all. 

This is not a call to reject nostalgia, or to disregard an artist you love for the sake of my opinion. It is a call to infuse the things you love with nuance, to work to honestly critique these things and understand why you love them. In my own case, I’m a lower income, 19-year-old, cis, straight, Black woman, and I loved Taylor Swift because she talked about things in her music that were comfortably unattainable for me. 

Her music was an opportunity for me to escape into an alternate privileged reality where my biggest worry could be getting noticed by the guy I liked and dancing under the starlight. You may love Taylor because she talked about an experience that was chiefly yours, or her music became a specific form of expression for you. At any rate, it’s important to question honestly: why do you love Taylor Swift?