Baez, Spring­steen… now Tay­lor Swift how mu­si­cians found a po­lit­i­cal voice

A sur­pris­ing in­ter­ven­tion in the US midterms by the princess of coun­try pop is all the more pow­er­ful be­cause she is so un­like the gen­er­a­tion who sang against Viet­nam. If only Bri­tish artists would fol­low her lead, writes Ed Vul­liamy

The Observer - - Focus -

To a list that could be­gin with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Jef­fer­son Air­plane, Marvin Gaye and Step­pen­wolf, now add… Tay­lor Swift. It may seem a jump-cut, and in some ways it is, but Swift be­comes the lat­est in a roll call of top-flight, mass-sell­ing mu­sic stars to take a stand in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics – again, as in­vari­ably, from a quar­ter which could be called the moral left.

She hardly held back. In an In­sta­gram post to her 112 mil­lion fol­low­ers she en­dorsed two Demo­cratic can­di­dates in next month’s midterm elec­tions. “I be­lieve in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der is WRONG. I be­lieve that the sys­temic racism we still see in this coun­try to­wards peo­ple of colour is ter­ri­fy­ing, sick­en­ing and preva­lent.” Strong, brave – and true.

The co­gency of her in­ter­ven­tion is twofold: its rel­a­tive rar­ity, and the fact that Swift is who she is – not Joan Baez get­ting ar­rested on a peace march, or Paul Kant­ner urg­ing “Gotta Rev­o­lu­tion!”

Swift is the princess of coun­try pop; adored across main­stream Amer­ica, role model for a hun­dred mil­lion self­ies; ap­par­ently of no dan­ger to the es­tab­lish­ment, hith­erto silent on the pol­i­tics tear­ing Amer­ica apart. She is as ac­com­plished, tal­ented, and as much a per­fec­tion­ist as the Ea­gles – but Patti Smith she ain’t.

Con­sider the rar­ity point first. If there’d been news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to re­port ev­ery out­cry from mu­si­cians against Pres­i­dents Lyn­don John­son and Richard Nixon, or Mayor Richard Da­ley of Chicago, there’d have been room for lit­tle other news.

But big-time rock’n’roll’s in­ter­ven­tions in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics de­creased markedly dur­ing what the Chilean writer Roberto Bo­laño called “the abom­inable 80s”, apart from a few shin­ing lights: Baez never went away, Steve Earle ap­peared, and Bruce Spring­steen be­came more, rather than less, out­spo­ken. Rage Against the Ma­chine was just that.

Rap rapped, but was al­ways torn be­tween dis­sent and mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the ghetto. Now, the white rap­per Eminem moves against Don­ald Trump, while Kanye West veers in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

But Swift speaks out in a dif­fer­ent time to that of yore. We all know there’s no over­stat­ing rock, folk and soul mu­sic’s im­pact on Amer­ica dur­ing the 1960s and 70s. Colonel Oliver North spoke a rare truth when he said that war in Viet­nam was not lost in Viet­nam but on the cam­puses of the United States, and mu­sic was es­sen­tial to that de­mor­al­is­ing of the home front. But the great rock’n’roll names to mould Amer­i­can pol­i­tics then sang largely to their own – at first, at least.

This is man­i­festly not true of Swift, who will now ei­ther con­fuse her Repub­li­can, Trump-lov­ing fans, else make them think, or else dis­gust and lose them. (Luck­ily for her, she’s with the in­de­pen­dent Big Ma­chine record la­bel – a con­glom­er­ate might be more wor­ried.)

Fol­low­ing mu­sic’s rel­a­tive si­lence af­ter the 60s and 70s, the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq was the mo­ment when rock stars put their heads above the para­pet to stand against the cur­rent, and many of their own fans. I re­mem­ber be­ing on Patti Smith’s deck while she worked on the sear­ing Ra­dio Bagh­dad; she was scathing about how few artists had come for­ward to be counted. “Where is ev­ery­body? Just think back to the time of Viet­nam, which was no worse or bet­ter a crime. You had pretty much ev­ery se­ri­ous artist mak­ing a point. Now – well, there’s …” “Neil Young,” pitched in a mu­tual friend.

“Yes, Neil Young, Gra­ham Nash … it’s not a long list”.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young per­formed the lat­ter’s en­raged al­bum Liv­ing With War, of which Young ex­plained that “if no one else is go­ing to do this, we’ll have to”. A DVD of the tour shows its im­pact on au­di­ences: in At­lanta, half booed and hissed at a song called Let’s Im­peach the Pres­i­dent, many walked out, spit­ting fury at the band’s “po­lit­i­cal bull­shit”.

Gra­ham Nash pon­dered, years later: “These peo­ple came to lis­ten. Now, why would you buy a ticket to see us four, play­ing from an al­bum called Liv­ing With War, and be up­set? Be­cause we are talk- ing about the sit­u­a­tion? What did they ex­pect? They were the peo­ple vot­ing for Bush then, and for Trump now, and I don’t un­der­stand why they like our mu­sic!” Among new bands of that time, the same was true of the Dixie Chicks, who be­came more fa­mous for tak­ing their stand against George W Bush, lead­ing to for­mer fans stag­ing rit­ual de­struc­tion of their CDs (rem­i­nis­cent of “Bea­tles burn­ing” af­ter John Len­non’s quip about be­ing “more

‘Where is ev­ery­body? Just think back to the time of Viet­nam … You had pretty much ev­ery se­ri­ous artist mak­ing a point’

Patti Smith

pop­u­lar than Je­sus”), than for any song they sang.

Spring­steen sang and sings to au­di­ences that must in­clude many who wil­fully mis­un­der­stand his words. I re­mem­ber him singing about the “rob­ber barons” of bank­ing be­hind a gang of lads rock­ing out in re­gatta anoraks marked “Aberdeen Wealth Man­age­ment”.

Now into that weird irony: en­ter Swift, without a dis­cernible overt po­lit­i­cal stanza in her oeu­vre, and the is­sue of who she is and who loves her. To my own sur­prise, I saw Swift once. She was play­ing a bas­ket­ball arena next to the ho­tel where I was stay­ing in Ok­la­homa City while cov­er­ing the 15th an­niver­sary of the mur­der­ous bomb­ing of a fed­eral build­ing in 1995. She was great, her ex­pert band even bet­ter.

Her au­di­ence com­prised mainly girls want­ing to look like and be Swift, their par­ents pre­tend­ing not to love it, twen­tysome­thing boys who wanted to marry her, and older men who prob­a­bly should have been ad­mir­ing the looks of a singer their own age. It could not have been more dif­fer­ent to the great un­washed at Wood­stock who gath­ered to hear Baez and the Air­plane – or, for that mat­ter, those con­verg­ing on Vic­to­ria Park in Lon­don, for Rock Against Racism eight years later – or on the Bow­ery Ball­room in New York to hear Patti Smith on Iraq. But Swift has not come from nowhere; there’s been a sim­mer­ing “Amer­i­cana” coun­try­roots move­ment typ­i­fied by Ryan Bing­ham, which might sound red­neck but is po­lit­i­cally quite the re­verse. None of those in the Bing­ham mould, how­ever, had such white teeth or care­ful locks as Swift; they tended not to adorn high-school locker doors. In an­other way, Swift also fol­lows a trail blazed by Wil­lie Nel­son, whose coun­try mu­sic is ubiq­ui­tous through­out bars wherein no black or Mex­i­can pa­tron even en­tered, for good

rea­son. But Nel­son has en­raged many by en­dors­ing, at this election, the dy­namic Beto O’Rourke, Demo­crat chal­lenger and cham­pion of im­mi­grants and mi­grants in Texas.

Nel­son has been rid­ing that di­chotomy for decades, though; Swift en­ters this fray a hith­erto po­lit­i­cal “vir­gin” – that’s what makes her stand so re­fresh­ing, and dan­ger­ous to Trumpville, USA.

Her in­ter­ven­tion forces peo­ple to join the dots; her re­marks about racism and sex­u­al­ity can cut deep into Amer­ica’s re­luc­tance to do this, to con­front the con­tra­dic­tions be­tween what they be­lieve and what the mu­sic is about, be­tween their lives and the peo­ple they vote for – what Thomas Frank calls the syn­drome of “small farm­ers joy­fully vot­ing them­selves off the land”.

Con­sider where I saw Swift play: Ok­la­homa City – apart from Na­tive Amer­i­cans, heart of the white­bread Bible Belt – just a few hun­dred miles from Swift’s home state of Ten­nessee. A city tar­geted in 1995 by Amer­i­can “pa­tri­ots”, killing Amer­i­cans in the name of Amer­ica, yet it voted for the pres­i­dent who de­clined to dis­tance him­self from the very neo-Nazis whose move­ment blew up their chil­dren.

Into that stub­born con­tor­tion – and sim­i­lar but less ex­treme po­lit­i­cal ironies and delu­sions across Amer­ica – Swift as­serts her­self against the grain, and it may well be that some­one like her can do so louder than any politi­cian or sea­soned cam­paigner on rock’s po­lit­i­cal trail. Time magazine sug­gests Swift could even “change the Se­nate race” in Ten­nessee.

The dis­course stirs a 500lb go­rilla in any Bri­tish record­ing stu­dio, for sure. What about our artists at that level, dur­ing Bri­tain’s Brexit Trumpery? Si­mon Schama con­nects Trump and Brexit as “a Drey­fus mo­ment” in which you stand up and be counted or you’re on the other side, and he’s right. Swift spoke out just as Bob Geldof sent around his es­timable let­ter damn­ing Brexit, so­lic­it­ing some laud­able sup­port: Si­mon Rat­tle, Bobby Gille­spie and other names as pre­dictable as they are praise­wor­thy. But the list was shock­ing for its brevity and omis­sions.

On the roll of dis­hon­our: where are you, Thom Yorke? Adele, Ri­hanna? Of the old guard: where’s Mick Jag­ger (af­ter that fine video, Eng­land Lost)? I sup­pose Sir Paul McCart­ney is too much to hope for, and we know Roger Dal­trey is a Brex­iter, but Pete Townsend, Eric Clap­ton, Steve Win­wood… and the rest? Maybe Sir Bob didn’t reach you, but if you want to throw your hat into his ring, he’s not hard to find.

Swift’s bold stance il­lus­trates a stark, painful con­trast be­tween the ar­tic­u­late con­fi­dence, cre­ativ­ity and con­stituency of the op­po­si­tion to Trump and our own mori­bund Bri­tish dic­tum of shut up, “keep calm and carry on”.

Peo­ple across Trump-vot­ing, “fly­over” Amer­ica who may not heed Beto O’Rourke or Ge­or­gia’s Stacy Abrams, much less Hil­lary Clin­ton, may lis­ten to what Swift says be­cause they love lis­ten­ing to her sing what she sings. That’s the in­ter­est­ing bit, and the brav­ery of her stand. Bravis­sima!

Ed Vul­liamy is the au­thor of When Words Fail: A Life with Mu­sic, War and Peace, pub­lished by Granta


Joan Baez per­forms at a protest against the Viet­nam war in Trafal­gar Square on 29 May 1965.

Pho­to­graph by Kevin Mazur/ Getty

RIGHT The Dixie Chicks play Ohio in June 2016. LEFT Don­ald Trump hugs Kanye West in the Oval of­fice on Wed­nes­day.


BE­LOW Tay­lor Swift at the Amer­i­can Mu­sic Awards in Los An­ge­les last week.

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