Why did Taylor Swift suddenly get all woke? She capitulated to our one-note cultural landscape
Finn McRedmond: Without dissenting voices, all we are left with is hitmakers’ vaguely political pop
Sinead O’Connor rips up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Photograph: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty
It has been nearly 30 years since pop’s most famous iconoclast, Sinéad O’Connor, tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, garnering her a reputation as “crazy”, to use her own word. Such unabashed statements of protest were not expected – or tolerated – of stars at the time. Professionally speaking, her reputation looked set to never recover.
In 2003, just over 10 years on from that controversy, country group the Dixie Chicks fell afoul of a similar fate. Criticising George W Bush and the invasion of Iraq, vocalist Natalie Mains said in a concert in London: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” In the wake of the comments, their single Landslide tumbled off the charts. They were blacklisted by country radio stations in their thousands. And two DJs in Colorado received suspensions for playing their music.
The Dixie Chicks and Sinéad O’Connor were not unique in leveraging their status to make political points. But the vague liberalism of Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan’s anthems like Blowin’ in the Wind, never saw them face such backlash. Perhaps it was Dylan’s non-specific lyrics – “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” – allowed him to avoid severe pushback from opponents. The song may well have been a disavowal of the Vietnam War, but its lyrical ambiguity allowed it to maintain broad appeal.
Speaking to the New York Times recently, O’Connor said: “The media was making me out to be crazy because I wasn’t acting like a pop star was supposed to act. It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison. You have to be a good girl.” At the time of her stunt this seems incontrovertibly true. The politically outspoken singer was one ready to deal death blows to their recording career.
But in the 2010s the industry underwent a sea change. As the language of identity politics established itself in the mainstream throughout the decade, musicians were afforded space to talk directly about racial and sexual oppression on a scale previously unseen. Out of this landscape came works like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Critic Miriam Bale described Lemonade as a “revolutionary work of black feminism”. One track on the album quotes Malcolm X. It went triple platinum and earned an Album of the Year Grammy nomination. Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, became the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize.
But even Taylot Swift, one of the most powerful stars in the world, eventually capitulated
Finding authentic inspiration in political crisis was immensely rewarding for these artists. But it heralded a new cultural phenomenon, to the detriment of plenty of others. Taking a stand against perceived injustice was once a career-ending taboo. Now, as critic Jason King put it, “staying woke and politically engaged has become an imperative, rather than an option, for an increasing number of musicians”.
As protest music became a dominant genre of the decade, remaining silent was understood as a tacit endorsement of the status quo.
Taylor Swift kept quiet about her political affiliations for over a decade, seemingly worried about maintaining that fine balance between pop superstardom and not losing her significant base of country fans. The fate of the Dixie Chicks must have loomed large in that decision. But even Swift, one of the most powerful stars in the world, eventually capitulated. First she self-declared as a Democrat, eventually infusing her music with the saccharine and blandly risqué (You Need to Calm Down, a song about gay rights replete with the line “cos shade never made anybody less gay”, or Only The Young, a song about youth empowerment against the forces that be in the White House).
The problem – and Swift is not alone – is that this is not meaningful protest when the pressure of the culture means stars have no other option. Rather it is hopping on a bandwagon – one that exalts the notion of “speaking out” as the default ambition of an artist – just as it leaves the station. What is right for Beyoncé is not necessarily achievable – nor should it be – for everyone. And we ought to be suspicious of “activist” music that is easy to swallow but lacking in complexity.
Lana del Rey, doyenne of the sad-girl pop scene, has been torn apart in the media for her casual insouciance in the face of this new era of ethical showboating
Swift’s music has not benefited from adhering to these demands. But, if the project is to be thought of as the right sort of person, then she may well have achieved her aim. And it is not her fault that we have engendered a culture where being the right sort of person is a commodity in itself. It sells records, after all.
Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests gripped the US and further afield, it became incumbent on stars to turn to social media to voice their support for the movement for fear of losing their younger, hyper-woke fan base. It is quite the volte-face from the days of the Dixie Chicks and Sinéad O’Connor. But it is a flimsy version of activism, and not one we require from musicians in the first place.
There are some who have yet to bow to the demands of the artist-as-a-moral-actor industrial complex. Lana del Rey, doyenne of the sad-girl pop scene, has been torn apart in the media for her casual insouciance in the face of this new era of ethical showboating. In January this year, Insider published a “complete timeline of how the singer ruined her own reputation” while Teen Vogue lamented del Rey’s failure to keep up with the vertiginous changes of modern day feminism.
But her music is, at its best, incompatible with the moral purity the mainstream has come to expect of artists, specifically women. Her lyrics about sexual misadventure and domestic abuse seem designed to irritate the type of person who believes it’s an artist’s job to set the world to rights. But the amoral universe that del Rey has created is a far better vehicle for art than the milquetoast chart-toppers encouraging young people to vote.
Without dissenting voices like del Rey, all we are left with is hitmakers pushing out increasingly bland and vaguely political pop. And a one-note cultural landscape that fails to teach us anything other than that our pop stars are good people. It is probably a good thing that artists no longer have to forsake their career to take a stand against injustice, but perhaps they should be reminded that it is not their only function.