With the current political uncertainty of Brexit, a massive question-mark over the future leadership of the United Kingdom and the US general election coming up next year, it is fair to say that politics takes up time out of our day-to-day lives– whether we want it to or not. However, what is unclear is what the place of influential public figures in the media, such as musician Taylor Swift, is in political advocacy.
During the lead-up to the 2018 US midterm elections, Taylor Swift sparked controversy with a social media post incentivising young people to register to vote. The post expressed her own preferences for candidates Phil Bredesen for the Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives and gave reasons why she was not supporting Martha Blackburn, a Republican running for the Senate in Swift’s home-state of Tennessee. The post became a controversial issue as it raised a very pertinent question: should musicians keep their political views and music separate?
Swift, as the winner of various prestigious music awards including multiple Grammy, MTV Music and Billboard Music Awards, is clearly an influential public figure. From an essay she wrote for Elle in March, it seems that Swift intends to make better use of this influence to increase voter participation in elections. Swift revealed that her new album, due to be released in 2020, the year of the next US general election, will have ‘political undertones’. This very powerfully demonstrates that Swift is not an artist that believes she has to keep her political views separate from her music. In fact, it shows she is willing to use her music as a political tool. In a 2012 interview for Time, Swift said: ‘…I don’t talk about politics because it might influence other people. And I don’t think that I know enough yet in life to be telling people who to vote for.’ Thus, Swift is revoking her previous stance on making her political views public and using her platform to influence her massive social media following comprised of around 119 million on Instagram alone.
However, Swift is not the first artist to use her platform to bring attention to political issues through art. The 20th and 21st centuries are full of examples where art was politicised to bring attention to the struggle and suffering of people around them. The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Bob Dylan, was commended for his poetic expressions in the American song tradition. However, part of Dylan’s power as a musician came from using his music to spread messages. Dylan was inspired by the changing political environment in the US during the 1960s. It was a time of great political activism with many people campaigning for Civil Rights for all as well as protesting US involvement in Vietnam. His song The Times Are a-Changin’ was intended to capture the rapid change going on in America and encourage people not to get left behind by the change. The opening lines are ‘Come gather ’round, people/ Wherever you roam/ And admit that the waters/ Around you have grown’. The water acts as a metaphor for rising change, threatening to drown the people who don’t ‘start swimmin’. Dylan is not inspiring political protest, he is singing to encourage people to accept the change that is happening whether they like it or not. He appeals to politicians in particular to move with the times, ‘Come senators, congressmen/ Please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway/ Don’t block up the hall’. Whilst Dylan’s political message is very different to Swift’s, his message of the acceptance of change is one that is fundamental even over fifty years later. His song was brought to life again in the 2018 by Jennifer Hudson and the D.C. choir as part of the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. The rally was led by Parkland students affected by a school shooting and it demanded an end to gun violence in America. ‘The Times Are a-Changin’ took a different subject but carried the same meaning it did in the 60s, a plea for people and politicians to accept the issues of a changing world.
Whilst it is clear that Taylor Swift has done nothing that other artists have not done before her and will probably continue to do after her, it still begs the question whether an artist should lend their artistic works and platforms to politics. I firmly believe that they should, predominantly because they are people with opinions and I think they deserve the right to share what they feel. As a secondary, but also key reason, I believe that young people today have become very disillusioned with politics and incentivising them to have their say in politics is a difficult job. Using the influence of music and other art forms should be a tool to encourage young people to register to vote and research candidates who represent their views. As long as public figures express their opinions and don’t encourage the spread of propaganda and fake-news, I believe there is real merit in figures such as Swift speaking about politics and I look forward to her new album.