What Can We Expect?

An essay about the difference between wanting to love artists who reflect your values and expecting public figures to conform to the morals you've projected onto them. Also about Taylor Swift and Matty Healy, I guess.

What Can We Expect?
pile of cigarettes i saw in portland

I went to see a writer I like a lot talk a little while back and she mentioned something offhandedly that I've been thinking about a lot. I believe it was a comment as part of a response to an audience question about boygenius and the responsibility artists hold to be a force for good. She asserted that people– the general public, fans– have an interest in public figures having the right politics in a way that does not actually promote growth or remaining informed or thoughtful. An interest in people they're a fan of just having correct politics which ends up uncharitable to those public facing people. There was much more to the answer, but the idea of correct politics as a one-dimensional way to perceive an artists' social responsibility has stuck with me.

I think the question of what social responsibility an artist has at all is something that becomes intensely personal to the person experiencing the art really quickly. That's what makes it a really tough question to answer. It's also something people don't want to admit. Of course, I would like the people who make art I like to align with me on certain things. It makes me feel good when Jeff Rosenstock makes a statement before his show about crowd safety and respect. I like when bands I like raise money for causes I align with. I like when there is tangible action attached to things artists I like say about inclusivity and politics.

This essay isn't really about being pleased by artists, though. This is about whatever the fuck has been going on on the internet for the last month or so regarding a few super famous people.

To me, when an artist I like has done or said something I don't agree with, my course of action as a fan sort of follows one of a couple paths:

  1. I can accept the person making the art isn't me and move along enjoying art I love for what it is.
  2. It taints my experience with the art to the point that it's not fulfilling for me to experience it anymore.

Either way, I'll often talk about those objectionable things as I think people deserve to make informed choices in who they support and are a fan of, but my decisions are my own. There's nothing wrong with criticizing the words or actions of a musician or artist or another public figure regardless of where you land in terms of continuing to engage with their works.

I think the weirdest thing about watching people panic about Taylor Swift and Matty Healy is that it's full of people who feel that they are so fundamentally righteous in their outrage because they've invented a person in their head that doesn't exist. I say it's weird, but I guess the Taylor Swift fan reaction– the screaming and crying about who she's dating– is not surprising. She has incredibly intentionally cultivated this perception that she is your friend. You, the fan as an individual, are a central factor in her life. She is thanking you for listening to her versions of the albums even when the Big Scary Nameless Music Industry Executives told her it was a bad idea to record them. She is telling you, the fan as an individual, that she can see you all the way up in the highest part of the stadium that she gave you that light up bracelet because she wants to see you. She's telling you that her songs are her. If that's true, then you do know her. That's the whole branding strategy.

I think it's a weird and culty way to go about it, but it is what it is and if you've read anything Rob Sheffield has written recently, you'll know it was successful. I think it's also part of what allows her to get away with not actually saying anything that ties her to any political or social beliefs. She's a mirror for you and your friends. If you believe in abortion rights and want to fight for the LGBTQ community, then hey! She does too! If you're a TERF, then hey! She is too! If you're a religious conservative tradwife? Guess what! She could be, too!

The whole point is to allow that projection by making Taylor so strategically vulnerable in one aspect that fans fill in the rest without thinking and can become devoted to her. She's a paper doll that you get to design a friend group for. Her only confirmed concern is that she's a victim of misogyny and trusts that you take that seriously.

Right now, she's under fire for dating Matty Healy from The 1975. Matty Healy is a man of many controversies. He's sort of the opposite of Taylor Swift in his approach to being a famous person. He says so many things you almost can't keep it straight. As a fan of his band's music for many years, I think people have always taken him too seriously both on the side of hyperbolically adoring fans who believe he's sooo self aware and socially righteous and critics who refuse to see humor in the lyrics he writes. I've generally always thought the truth of his public persona was something with much more levity than a lot of people were willing to give him credit for.

The crux of the current situation is an appearance on The Adam Friedland Show. There was also a Nazi salute incident, but I don't know if a super literal reading of that is fair due to the context of it occurring during a song in which the lyrical content is a pretty heavy handed critique of Kanye and Trump. I don't personally think it was a wise or super effective thing to do, but it does feel like a misreading to take him 100% literally there. Anyway, I think the Friedland Show stuff is more what people are focused on. The criticism comes mainly from the hosts of the show making shitty, racist jokes toward Ice Spice and Matty laughing. There was an initial backlash when it came out from his fans who are shocked he would go on this foul podcast and it's only grown since he's become connected to Taylor Swift.

I've been around Cum Town and Red Scare fans enough that I knew enough to see Matty Healy was on it and say, "absolutely not" then go on with my day. I'm not one for edgy for the sake of edgy and I already spent a bunch of money fixing a decade long eating disorder so it's not really shit for me. It doesn't surprise me that some rich and famous people participate in it, though. I think the rich and famous live a life unrecognizable to me and get caught up in that sort of boring, ugly shit because they don't have material problems.

Anyway, now it's also Taylor Swift's problem and I'm sure she'd like you to believe that you shouldn't hold your opinion of her boyfriend against her. Remember! She's a victim of misogyny and you need to take that more seriously than anything. And maybe you don't have a leg to stand on if you maintain a friendship with a girl whose boyfriend is a racist piece of shit without criticizing that it might mean something about your friend, but I digress.

I've seen a bunch of truly otherworldly posts about the situation. Swifties are spiraling. There are demands being made of her that she dump him. There is emotional fallout all over TikTok. I watched a 3 part series from a "former Gaylor" (people who insist Taylor Swift is gay and search high and low to find clues) about feeling so betrayed by Taylor for not standing up for anything. She was so distraught she couldn't even be happy about a new Gaylor clue. A woman went on a rant on Twitter about how wrong it was for Taylor to do this that ended with her saying she would, in fact, be going to Taylor's show anyway. People desperately want her to say something as if she's ever said anything.

There was a Matty Healy profile in the New Yorker that Taylor Swift fans are putting on their tin foil hats about saying Taylor Swift's publicist must have forced it to happen to rehab his image. If that's true, she didn't do a very good job. Matty Healy comes off the way he has for 10 years. He's severely interested in what being famous means. To me, that's one of his more interesting talking points as the child of successful actors in England. He also obviously believes that his duty to his fans is in performing, something I think he's always tried to give off, but he's not so interested in saying the right things to make his fans laud him as someone with The Right Politics.

It's really opened up this idea of what do people want from public figures. Beyond whether you think these reactions are silly or warranted or whatever, I look out and what's bleak is how selfish it all feels.

It's not stupid or shallow to be put off enough by an artist that you no longer engage with a certain piece of art. It is stupid and shallow to bitch and moan about it because you're upset you can't feel morally righteous for enjoying it anymore. It's not the same to say, "well now I can't like it because they're problematic" as it is to say, "when I listen to it now all I can think about is this thing they did so I don't listen to it anymore."

Fan driven cancel culture as we've seen it for the last 10 years or so is changing. People are seeing it doesn't work because "deplatforming" only works if there is industry action behind it and often there won't be. Because it doesn't work, cancel culture as we know it online right now just feels more interested in trying to be The Most Ethical Consumer more than it feels interested in genuine safety or positive change. The tides are changing to reacting to that feeling, which I fear is destined to swing all the way to the other side especially as uninvested people watch big pop star stans have these emotional reactions.

It's kind of ridiculous to say people shouldn't have standards for the public figures they engage with. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see your values reflected in the people who make the stuff you like, but that is an active pursuit that has to do with you and your choices to participate in something or not. It's not something that can be found in demanding the stuff you like conform to what you think would be best morally or ethically.

Besides, I think your intimate, personal connection to a piece of art is wholly your own so your reaction to the artist as a person is also yours. The artist as a person doesn't have to be a part of that at all. Taylor Swift– or Matty Healy or whomever– the person is not truly part of the beautiful friendships and memories the music might conjure up for you. Even her shows– just like the most beautiful parts of any show– are about looking around at people sharing an experience with a crowd and with their friends.

So land where you may, but it's nobody else's responsibility to make you feel comfortable with the choice you made. You don't need to leave a seat at the table for the person on stage to prove they're good enough for your self righteous enjoyment. They're not coming and you're gonna be left with your own thoughts anyway.

Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, podcaster and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter to see more thoughts on fan culture: @mirandareinert.  You may also send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo if you want. As always, thanks for reading!