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
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’
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.
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.