India Crawley discusses the recent political flare up between pop-culture superstars Taylor Swift and Kanye West, and what it means for celebrity dynamics within American Politics.
The ‘celebritization’ of American politics is no great shock to anyone; after all, the most self-promoting, seasoned celebrity of our era now holds the highest office of power. But how far should the opinions of famous singers, rappers and actors impact elections which bring to power those who can change the very fabric of a country? As a new Cold War of sorts, the two opposing superpowers are now the popular culture icons Taylor Swift and Kanye West, and their chosen battleground this time round will not be backhanded lyrics or stage-storming, but an attempt to influence the politics of the United States.
On October 8th, Taylor Swift broke her self-proclaimed political silence in an Instagram post to her 112 million followers, directly endorsing Democratic candidates in Tennessee, Phil Bredesen for the Senate and Jim Cooper for the House. Swift cited her revelation as an impulse predicated by personal events that have occurred over the past few years as well as the extremely polarised political climate in the US. Her lengthy Instagram post also urged first-time voters to ensure they are registered before the upcoming congressional elections on November 6th, leading to over 60,000 new voters between the ages of 18-29 registering overnight. Whilst this can certainly be celebrated as a great success in terms of mobilising a young group of voters, can it also be read as an attempt to sway the youth – the group that largely makes up her fan base – to subscribe to her view on politics and society?
Trump, in typical Trump fashion, has already responded to her endorsement of Democratic candidates by saying he ‘likes Taylor Swift’s music 25% less’ now. However, given Swift’s recent history of famously suing a DJ $1 after allegedly groping her, combined with Trump’s history of bragging about his sexual harassment of women, I struggle to believe that Swift will lose much sleep over the loss of the President’s admiration.
The real question is: how far is celebrity endorsement of political candidates an exercise in free speech? Or are posts like these the work of celebrities attempting to pilot a young, impressionable audience to follow their line of belief unquestioningly?
This controversy came just hours after an outburst from Swift’s arch-pop culture rival, Kanye West, on Saturday Night Live. Kanye’s performance was, as usual, equal parts confusing and controversial. For his musical performance, he dressed up as a giant water bottle before storming the stage donning a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap and launching into a full-scale rant defending the Trump administration, and attacking the Democrats for breaking up African-American families. Contrary to the backlash that greeted this, Trump tweeted his support of West, saying, “He’s leading the charge!”
As one of the few celebrity endorsements of the controversial President, it is not a shock that Trump has enlisted Kanye to continue fighting his corner. Kanye recently attended the White House with the intention of discussing criminal justice reform policies with the President, but this turned into yet another hyped-up press event that covered nothing of substance except Kanye’s 10-minute rant on the benefits of a hydrogen plane over Air Force One. Kanye’s conscription illustrates Trump’s acknowledgement of the importance of celebrity endorsement in today’s political climate, and many are picking up on Trump’s almost callous use of the rapper’s public meltdown to garner more attention, further complicating whether these figures should be given such a platform.
Kanye’s wife Kim Kardashian West is also no stranger to political influence, having last year convinced President Trump to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, who spent the last 21 years in prison over a non-violent drug offence. Given the Trump administration’s harsh ‘War on Drugs’ rhetoric, and many members of his own administration being staunch critics of the pardon, this seems a rather incredible feat, giving further credence to the opinion that certain celebrities are the only voices successfully reaching the President. As someone who has always dealt in the celebrity arena of appearance and influence, these still seem to be – worryingly – the only tools Trump recognises whilst governing the country.
The US political arena has become a ‘war by proxy’ between the super-celebrities Kanye West and Taylor Swift in their very own Cold War, with various high-profile individuals weighing in on both figures’ involvement. Politics has become yet another battleground for the Swift-West rivalry. Are political institutions an appropriate place for such petty pop-culture conflicts?
Of course, it is wrong to say that West and Swift, and by extension all celebrities, should keep their political affiliations quiet. In many ways, it is commendable that they are able to mobilise groups who would otherwise be apathetic to midterm elections and politicians that govern their state and country. However, it certainly should not descend into a tool used by public figures trying to elevate their own voice in order to enhance their own public standing.
Criticism of both celebrities’ activism has taken a partisan inflection, like much else in the current US political climate, with Democrats lambasting West’s rants and Republicans criticising Swift for overstepping her place. Whilst it may seem relatively impossible to receive unbiased commentary of US politics at the moment, let it be said with unpartisan confidence that if this line of the ‘celebritization’ of politics continues on the path it is going, we will not have to worry about Reagans, Schwarzeneggers or even Trumps in power, but rather Wests, Kardashians or even Hiltons in the White House.