Why Does Taylor Swift Make People Insane?
MAGA fans are the latest group to experience Taylor Swift-related psychosis. But they're hardly the first.
It has been nearly 15 years since Kanye West stormed the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to protest Taylor Swift’s win over Beyoncé in the “Best Female Video” category. His shockingly rude interruption was a preview of his own descent into madness. It was also a preview of how large swathes of America would descend into madness over Swift.
The most recent Taylor Swift insanity is the suggestion by conservative media figures that she is faking a relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce as part of a plot that also involves rigging the Super Bowl with the end goal of re-electing Joe Biden. These people are mostly not the brightest bulbs in the conservative movement — though Harvard-educated businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has questions he’d like answered about the subject — and some conservative commentators, like Erick Erickson, would like to dismiss the Swift fixation as a purely online phenomenon kicked up by charlatans like Jack Posobiec. But Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini says “Taylor Swift is probably the biggest dividing line between MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans other than Trump himself,” and he has data to back it up — as of last June, before Swift and “Mr. Pfizer” had even started dating, 25% of Republicans who described themselves as primarily supporters of the party had an unfavorable view of Swift (similar to the 23% figure among all likely voters), while 46% of Republicans who identified primarily as Trump supporters viewed her negatively.
There is something about this woman that bothers a lot of Trump supporters, and in pandering to that sentiment, grifters like Posobiec have demonstrated once again that they have a better understanding of the new GOP base than traditional social conservatives like Erickson. Fox News has gotten in on the act, too, in content aimed at its elderly and not-necessarily-very-online viewer base; for example, a segment last month explored whether Swift is a “Pentagon asset.” It seems there is real demand out there for this sort of nonsense.
And yet, not every breathless statement in this montage that led The Recount to declare that “Taylor Swift has broken Fox News” can be blamed on the conservative fever swamps. When Fox host Jesse Waters told his viewers “the New York Times just speculated she’s a lesbian,” he was saying something true. Or, at least it was very close to true — last month, the Times really did run a feverish and interminable (4,776 words!) essay consisting of an opinion editor’s desperate hopes and speculations on behalf of her fellow “Gaylors” that Swift is bisexual, as can apparently be learned through a close reading of hidden messages in Swift’s videos, lyrics, and public statements. In one instance, the author cites Swift’s explicit statement that she is not part of the LGBT community as a possible sign that she is in the closet. In another, she suggests Swift would have come out by now if not for the unfortunate distraction of Scooter Braun buying her masters. The essay truly must be read1 to be believed — when I tell people this essay exists and was published not on LiveJournal but in the most prestigious newspaper in the world, they initially think they must have misunderstood what I was saying. But what Jesse Watters and I are describing actually happened, with multiple employees of The New York Times Company having decided it was a good idea.
And that’s just insanity from January. In December, when Swift was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Donald Trump apparently grumbled to associates that he should have been given the award, since he’s more famous and has more fans than her. Meanwhile, left-wing activist Saira Rao — most famous for charging $5,000 to yell at liberal white women over dinner for being racist — had a different complaint. She said on Twitter that Swift was a “white American woman billionaire who could end the genocide of Palestinians with on [sic] IG post” but that she doesn’t because of “white love of Black and brown genocide.”
For years before that, Swift faced bizarre accusations about her failure to bring about liberal ends in American politics, which Politico Magazine covered in 2017 as “The Weird Campaign to Get Taylor Swift to Denounce Donald Trump.” For her silence, the Guardian newspaper attacked her as “a musical envoy for the president’s values.” Swift later explained her reluctance to get involved in the 2016 campaign by saying she thought yet another celebrity endorsement for Democrats would only feed Trump’s narrative of fighting against the elites. But she also changed her mind — saying she regretted not having spoken up, and making Democratic endorsements in later election cycles, including for former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen’s Senate campaign in 2018 and Joe Biden’s presidential run in 2020. Bredesen lost by 11 points, and I think Swift’s initial instinct — that her megacelebrity was not likely to do much to sway voters’ choices — was the correct one. That said, because I am not insane, I know it is Taylor Swift’s prerogative to make political endorsements if she feels like it, just as much as it’s her prerogative not to make them if she doesn’t feel like it.
Beyond politics, coverage of Swift’s love life has also been unhinged, going back well before her romance with Travis Kelce or anyone’s contention that it is an “op.” Last year, Swift was romantically linked to Matty Healy, the lead singer of the band The 1975, who has a history of making (seemingly intentionally) offensive statements. I understand why people might not care for Healy, but just check out the possessive and demanding tenor of the coverage from Stephanie Soteriou of Buzzfeed News about fans’ outrage over the fact that Swift would dare to date him:
Needless to say, many of Taylor’s fans were left hurt and disappointed by her decision to associate with Matty considering his problematic history. Understandably, Black, Asian, and Jewish Swifties were particularly devastated.
But as exposé after exposé on the concerning things that Matty had done started to emerge, Taylor remained defiant. Despite constantly teasing that she sees everything that her fans say about her online, she made a point of ignoring the growing offense that her relationship was causing…
In a pointed statement, the star hinted that she was unfazed by the online discourse, saying: “I’ve just never been this happy in my life — in all aspects of my life — ever before.”
“Taylor remained defiant”? She’s not your daughter, ma’am, and she doesn’t owe you a response to your “online discourse.”
These examples offer us two sets of delusional fantasies about Swift. Some are fantasies of power. She controls who wins the Super Bowl. The Pentagon and the CIA rely on her. She could end the war in Gaza with an Instagram post, but she chooses not to. And some are fantasies of intimacy. She must know what we’re saying about her on the Internet. She owes me an explanation of why she’s dating a man I disapprove of. She is sending me secret messages about how she is queer. When she says “I’ve just never been this happy,” that’s a personal attack on me. The fantasies of power are not limited to her detractors — see the liberal fans who were so desperate for her to enter politics to help their side — and the fantasies of intimacy are not limited to her fans. As sports broadcaster Colin Cowherd describes, a lot of the recent Swift-Kelce rage comes from “weird, lonely, insecure men” who are taking out their rage for all the women who rejected them on Swift, as though she were somehow personally involved in the slights.
The roots of all this derangement are also the roots of her success.
Back in the fall, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a remarkable account for The New York Times Magazine of her trip to Swift’s Eras Tour stop in Santa Clara, California — a reporting approach she had to take in lieu of interviewing the pop star, since Swift is now too big for magazine interviews, unless they’re related to naming her Person of the Year. As Brodesser-Akner describes, the women and girls — it’s mostly women and girls — who come to see Swift don’t just adore her; they relate deeply to her, seeing her struggles as theirs and mapping the “eras” of Swift’s career onto their own lives.
What has made Swift a star is her rare combination of superior talent, immense work ethic, and deep relatability.2 It’s also easy to see why this combination would make her work so emotionally rewarding for her fans — it allows them to feel seen by someone important, as in the case of one fan who cried when telling Brodesser-Akner about how Swift shows we do not need to be “ashamed of our eras” any more than she is. Brodesser-Akner herself writes that the way Swift sings is how she would sing if she could, and the topics she sings about are the ones she would sing about, too. And of course, different fans can react to the same Swift song or album or “era” with different interpretations — her music is an invitation for listeners to project their feelings and hopes and experiences onto her and see it reflected back, which allows her to have an extremely broad appeal.
But it’s also easy to see how this formula can become deranging. After all, here’s one of the most famous people in the world, and it feels like we know her, and she’s talking to us, and she’s our friend. But she’s not our friend — she’s a famous stranger, and that means that sooner or later she’s going to fail to uphold the obligations of a real-life friendship. Or maybe she doesn’t feel like our friend. For some of us, she feels like someone we hated in high school — someone who was too successful, or who was too popular, or who wouldn’t have sex with us. Via either route, that can all add up to people feeling: Taylor Swift is so famous and so powerful, and I know her, and maybe she even knows me, and she’s not doing what I want. And then they go insane.
In a way, the least insane version of this reaction to Swift is the one that has come from MAGA Republicans. Of course, the idea that she could rig the Super Bowl is insane. And picking a fight with one of the biggest celebrities in the world does not enhance a presidential candidate’s odds of election. But since MAGA is already itself a fandom — not, as Ron DeSantis learned to his great frustration, particularly interested in whether a president can produce conservative policy outcomes, but very interested in hearing the right angry statements and pissing off the right people on the other side — then a beef with Taylor Swift works really well as a fun way to get attention and make people mad. Once you accept that the MAGA world is in a parasocial relationship with Donald Trump — the sort of parasocial relationship you might expect someone to form with a celebrity who picks a lot of beefs, like Azealia Banks — then it follows logically that they would look for opportunities to stan him in a dumb fight with someone even more famous than he is.
Politics-as-fandom is also a worsening problem on the left, as distinct from the liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party. I go back to Saira Rao’s demand that Swift end the conflict in the Holy Land with an Instagram post. This sort of thing has been a major goal of pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S.: getting people who have no control over events in the Middle East to say a magic word, “ceasefire.” They show up at school board and city council meetings to demand resolutions for “ceasefire.” In some cases, those resolutions pass — the city councils of Chicago and Seattle have officially demanded “ceasefire,” as have the Ann Arbor Public Schools. For the people of Gaza, this does nothing. But as fan service — as a project to benefit people who simply enjoy having their own opinions said back to them — it works. Like so many fans, they just want to hear lyrics they can relate to come from Taylor Swift’s mouth.
Of course, centrists are generally not vulnerable to this sort of nonsense because we do not look to famous people to validate our worldviews. There’s something about getting your way on public policy most of the time — it fills you with the confidence not to need to be told over and over again how right you are. We can set politics aside and just enjoy Taylor Swift for her music — unless we’re subject to one of the non-political sources of Taylor Swift derangement, in which case, all bets are off.
I’ll be back soon with thoughts on the latest jobs report.
Not in its entirety, necessarily — it’s so long.
I’m not saying Swift is the only pop star whose fans have ever had parasocial relationships with her, but she does enjoy a different style of megastardom than, say, Beyoncé or Madonna. What makes them stars is what sets them apart from us, and what puts them at a remove. Does anyone go to a Madonna concert and say “she’s so me”?