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The Terrifying Cult of Fandom - A Case Study in Swifties

In the realm of modern pop culture, few figures loom as large and captivating as Taylor Swift, and perhaps none boast a more fervent following than her legion of devotees, known as the titular Swifties. With her magnetic blend of catchy tunes, relatable lyrics, and girl-next-door-bestie-from-the-school-band-really-sweet-kind-yeehaw-girl-with-guitar image, Swift has ascended to an untouchable realm of stardom. 

Yet, behind the friendship bracelets and fever dream high in the quiet of the night lies a phenomenon that transcends mere fandom, and veers into the territory of a near cult-like devotion. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of Swifties, and explore the dynamics of their unwavering allegiance to their Mother, uncovering paradoxical intersections of adoration, privilege, and defensiveness that define the terrifying cult of Taylor Swift – following which, extrapolate what it means and what it’s like to be a fan in the current digital sphere of identity politics.

Ps. My Credentials: Avid Folkmore (folklore + evermore) enjoyer. Yes my friends and I carried our section for the Folkmore segments of the Eras tour. Shoutout gang. Therefore this article comes from a place of deep disillusionment and sadness, before anyone accuses me of slander.

… and imma let you finish, but…

Of course we have to talk about Swift's infamous feud with Kanye West. She was, undoubtedly, objectively the victim here. 

Imagine this: It's the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, a night anticipated for its celebration of musical achievements and star-studded performances. Taylor Swift, the rookie darling of the music industry, stands on stage, clutching her award, basking in the glow of her success. Suddenly, the spotlight shifts, and Kanye West storms the stage, snatching the microphone from her hand, and unleashes a tirade that echoes through the annals of pop culture history. Swift's world was turned upside down, her triumph overshadowed by a public act of humiliation. 

And of course, what transpired on that stage was more than just a celebrity feud – it was a stark reminder of the power dynamics at play in our society, where a man felt like his opinion was worth imposing onto a woman’s shining moment of success – a society where the voices of women, especially young women, are often silenced and dismissed. 

Cast as the innocent target of West's ire, Swift emerged as a pitiful victim of an angry, black man. Her reputation ascended to new heights of fame and fortune.

The Emergence of the Cult

Preceding this, Taylor Swift’s career had arguably already been carefully curated to embody the epitome of innocence and vulnerability. She wielded every narrative tool at her disposal to craft a specific image: that of a besieged starlet, relentlessly targeted by nefarious forces, be it the media, tabloids, or other people, seeking to tarnish her illustrious career, painting her as a boy-crazy, serial dater (though of course, she has had actually questionable dating choices, like likely cheating on Tom Hiddleston with Joe Alwyn).

Kanye’s race is important here as it is one of the few instances where the black man was the perpetrator of violence and injustice – and not the white woman, as history has seen time and time again. And of course, the existing racism only all the more exacerbated the severity of the sympathy response in Taylor’s favour. For once, a white woman was the victim at the hands of a black man, and not the years of the opposite, and the world has not stopped apologising to her since.

This portrayal, reminiscent of age-old tropes used to discredit and vilify women throughout history, has cemented Swift's status as the perpetual victim in the eyes of her adoring fans, – creating a protective dynamic between Swift and the Swifties, where the Swifties proactively police narratives about her online, cutting down anyone who dares to utter any degree of criticism of her, under the rationales of “feminism”, and correcting false media narratives perpetuated her.

This created a kind of immunity around her, shielding her from the consequences of her actions and further reinforcing her image as a victim in need of protection. What do you mean she is not an activist because silent on the Palestinian Genocide? Have you even watched Miss Americana, her documentary? She spoke up against Marsha Blackburn, who voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape! She’s a feminist hero! (which of course, Swifties will never admit that perhaps, she was so violently and publicly opposed to Blackburn’s election because it would have direct implications on her own life – while other issues that are not, she’s conveniently silent on) She’s an activist! (she’s not)

Today, there is continuously a lack of accountability of Swift’s actions, even the more objectively terrible ones, which brings me to my next point:

Identity Politics: Who’s afraid of stanning a problematic artist?

Just for reference’s sake, here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that I personally take issue with:

  1. Her carbon emissions. Her climate terrorism

No one is saying she should not own a private jet – it can be argued that for safety and practica;l reasons, it is a necessity for a person of her celebrity. 

However, to be taking multiple SHORT flights… 

To top it all off, she then proceeds to pursue legal action against the person who runs an account which tracks and posts her flight information (public information), who is also a student.

  1. Her hypocritical political silence, while trying to uphold this image of herself as an uber feminist and speaker.

It is quite clear that not only all of Swift’s activism is laughably token, like her song You Need To Calm Down, or the famed Miss Americana Voting scene,  it is also incredibly commercial – all of it has been used to serve and benefit her image in some way. None of these causes are new, or novel, and she does not contribute to the narrative in any real, constructive way. 

If I were to be completely critical, we could also relegate her activism to one borne out of self interest – with all the causes in which she speaks of having a direct impact on her. 

Merriam-Webster defines the word as a doctrine or practice that emphasises direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue. Women’s rights in the first-world context have long been normalised and accepted. What of womens’ issues in less progressive countries? What of the many genocides going on around the world? 

  1. Her (terrible) white feminism

People like to talk about The Man, a song touted as a feminist anthem, despite the fact that it is laughably un-feminist. Or at least, it myopically defines feminism and female empowerment using patriarchal metrics of success.

They'd say I played the field before I found someone to commit to

And that would be ok

For me to do

Every conquest I had made would make me more of a boss to you

While it speaks on how she has been personally victimised by the patriarchy, it perpetuates this narrative that the only valid form of female success can only be achieved through traditional masculine ideals of financial success, of ostensible social status. It is equally feminist to be a housewife, or to want a domestic life, and to suggest that women must adhere to this standard to be admired is deeply problematic.

  1. Her billionaire status… 

Not to mention, Swift's self-fashioned image as a self-made success story, ergo You’re on your own kid, conveniently overlooks the substantial advantages afforded to her by her affluent upbringing. Her narrative of pulling herself up by the bootstraps ignores the inherent privileges bestowed upon her by her socioeconomic status, the parents that supported her heavily (financially and business-wise) that aided her to navigate the cutthroat world of the music industry and become the economic powerhouse and entity she is today. 

And this goes without saying, but these are things that are pretty clearly questionable. So why do Swifties choose to support nonetheless, even with all this knowledge?

I think it can be boiled down to two main things:

  1. The personal connection fans have to her, or at the very least, her music

  2. Identity politics – not wanting to stan a problematic artist

While the first point is self-explanatory, the second boasts a slightly new idea – The idea that with the contemporary identity becoming increasingly represented by one’s interests, should someone they love and support deeply be called out for anything, they would have a personal stake in it – they would rather justify their artist and continue liking them “righteously” than to admit their faults and potentially stop consuming their art, in fear of being cancelled or implicating their own character and morals. 

The fear of being associated with a "problematic" artist and facing social backlash can lead fans to justify Swift's actions or overlook her flaws in order to maintain their own sense of identity and moral values. 

 Additionally, in the era of identity politics, where individuals align themselves with certain ideologies and cultural movements, supporting a problematic artist can create cognitive dissonance. Fans may find themselves torn between their admiration for Swift and the moral implications of supporting someone whose actions or lyrics contradict their values.

Moreover, the fear of social backlash and being associated with a "problematic" artist can drive fans to rationalise or downplay Swift's missteps. Admitting to the faults of an artist one deeply admires can feel like a personal failure or betrayal of one's own values. Thus, fans may choose to justify Swift's actions or overlook her flaws in order to maintain their own sense of identity and moral integrity. 

Ultimately, the bond between Swift and her fans is a complex interplay of personal attachment, cultural identity, and the ever-evolving dynamics of contemporary fandom – and is deeply emblematic of how fandom today has evolved into a political, loaded arena. 

To conclude, in reality, Swift's story is far more nuanced, a tapestry woven from threads of privilege, power, and privilege. To truly understand the dynamics at play, we must resist the temptation to reduce Swift to a mere caricature of victimhood, instead acknowledging the complexities of her privilege and the role it plays in shaping her narrative. 

While we must also acknowledge Taylor Swift's reign as the queen of pop as a testament not only to her musical prowess but also to her mastery of the art of storytelling, we can also look beneath the carefully constructed facade in which lies a more nuanced truth, one that challenges the cult of victimhood and privilege that surrounds her. Only by confronting these uncomfortable truths can we begin to unravel the tangled web of celebrity worship and privilege that permeates Swift's glittering empire, as well as fandom in general, today.

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