Today, confessional country songstress turned savvy pop-stylist Taylor Swift dropped her sixth studio album, Reputation. And while it’s likely to address her exes and pop-rivals, there’s still something that Swift has never addressed: her popularity among neo-Nazis and so-called “alt-right” white supremacists. Her silence has left some cultural critics wondering why she has stayed quiet. After all, is it that hard for her to simply say, “I denounce my white supremacist fans”? Or does she derive some pleasure or benefit from letting them revere her as their “Aryan queen”?
Swift’s popularity among white supremacists and neo-Nazis first came to widespread attention in a May 2016 article by Vice writer (and one-time Milo Yiannopoulos co-conspirator) Mitchell Sunderland, entitled “Can’t Shake It Off: How Taylor Swift Became a Nazi Idol.”
Sunderland notes that Andre Anglin, the founder of neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer (a site so reviled that it’s been ejected by Google and GoDaddy), thinks Swift is the racist savior of the white race:
The entire alt-right patiently awaits the day when we can lay down our swords and kneel before her throne as she commands us to go forth and slaughter the sub-human enemies of the Aryan race. It’s an established fact that Taylor Swift is secretly a Nazi and is simply waiting for the time when Donald Trump makes it safe for her to come out and announce her Aryan agenda to the world.
The Daily Stormer published 24 mostly praiseworthy posts about Swift, although one was entitled, “Aryan Goddess Taylor Swift Accused of Racism for Behaving Like an Ape in a Music Video.” There was also once a Facebook page called Taylor Swift for Fascist Europe that boasted over 18,000 members.
Around 2013, a teenage girl named Emily Pattinson (@poopcutie on Pinterest) began posting images of Swift with Adolf Hitler quotes superimposed on top of them as a controversial form of “satire.” Around the time those images went viral, Pattinson explained she doesn’t condone hateful behavior and that those “inspired” by her Swift-Hitler mashups had completely missed the point. Her images have since been removed from Pinterest.
But it’s easy to see why white supremacists love Swift: She’s blonde-haired and blue-eyed, grew up in Pennsylvania and she began her career singing country music, a genre popularly (and reductively) associated with white conservatives.
In 2009, while attending Katy Perry’s birthday party, Swift took a picture embracing a fan who was literally wearing a huge swastika on his shirt. Her reps claimed, “Taylor took pictures with about 100 people that night … she doesn’t know who this guy is and she didn’t realize what was on his shirt.”
Let’s be clear: We wouldn’t dream of arguing that Taylor Swift is secretly a Nazi, or even that her lyrical or video content contains subliminal nods affirming white supremacists. But her refusal thus far to personally disavow racist fans and ideology is notable, especially as white supremacists have become more emboldened and active in the age of Trump.
Whether deliberately or inadvertently, Swift has also been criticized for positioning herself as a star who openly benefits from black culture while also playing a victim to her black pop-rivals, namely musicians Nicki Minaj and rapper Kanye West.
In an extensive thinkpiece, Buzzfeed writer Ellie Woodward wrote that the image of Swift standing by while West seized her mic at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards , decrying Beyoncé’s loss to her, perfectly embodied “the ‘threat’ of an ‘angry’ black man terrorizing the ‘innocent’ white woman,” a popular trope used for centuries by white supremacists to justify the fear and lynching of black men who are disrespectful of white women.
This trope found new life when West said in his 2016 song “Famous,” “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” West and his reality star bride Kim Kardashian claimed that Swift had personally approved of the lyrics over the phone, something Swift denies, stating that she’d never heard the final product and felt “humiliated” by the song.
Woodward also points out that at least two of Swift’s videos hint at fetishization and commodification of black bodies: First, in her 2014 music video for “Shake It Off,” in which “she wears a bomber jacket and gold chain and attempts to twerk, before crawling through the legs of the mostly black dancers,” and again in the 2015 video for her song “Wildest Dreams,” which seems to romanticize Europe’s colonial rule over Africa in a 1950s celluloid love story starring an all-white cast.
We reached out to Swift about her refusal to disavow white supremacists over her currently preferred social media platform, Tumblr.
She has yet to respond, and some fans frankly think she doesn’t have to.
“[Responding] would be stupid,” writes one fan on Facebook. “The public shouldn’t control what you do or what they think you should do. Just cause [white supremacists] relate to her doesn’t mean she’s for them.”
Another fan asserts that Swift has spoken out against white supremacy by proxy through her legal representatives. In 2013, Swift’s lawyers demanded that Pattinson, the creator of the aforementioned Hitler-Swift images, remove her work from Pinterest. In their letter to Pattison, they wrote:
The association of Ms. Swift with Adolf Hitler undisputedly is ‘harmful,’ ‘abusive,’ ‘ethnically offensive,’ ‘humiliating to other people,’ ‘libelous,’ and no doubt ‘otherwise objectionable.’ It is of no import that Ms. Swift may be a public figure or that Pinterest conveniently now argues that the Offending Material is mere satire or parody. Public figures have rights. And there are certain historical figures, such as Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and the like, who are universally identified in the case law and popular culture as lightning rods for emotional and negative reaction.
But that letter didn’t come from Swift directly. It has nothing to do with disavowing racism and has everything to do with protecting her reputation. Her lawyers recently issued a similar letter to a blogger who linked Swift to the Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right.
One can argue that Swift’s critics see her however they want to, whether that’s as a masterful media manipulator or a low-key racist. Neither is entirely fair nor wholly encapsulates her public persona.
But because she herself has never used her own voice to come out against racism, something seemingly of minimal effort, her silence has become notable. Especially because — as Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC’s On the Media, points out — white supremacists and neo-Nazis “view any silence as approval.”
“People can take whatever they like from [Swift’s] silence,” Gladstone says, “and she gives them the power to do that.”
Arguably, Swift benefits from her silence because it lets her have it both ways. Perhaps she doesn’t want to alienate the conservative fans who have stuck with her since her earliest country music days. After all, her previous album, 1989, extensively toured Southern states and suburbs won by Trump in the 2016 election, another point Sunderland points out during his On the Media appearance.
And Swift has made a decade-long career of playing a victim to unwanted male affection. Could she not easily write off her legions of white supremacist fans as another hoard of obsessed men using her for their own ends? It certainly fits her brand.
Times have changed though, and Taylor Swift refusing to disavow white supremacist fans in an age where neo-Nazis publicly protest the existence of black people and immigrants doesn’t seem like a smart marketing move. It seems like silent approval.