As genocide continues unabated in Palestine and the United States cracks down on political speech in support of Palestinians, two A-list billionaire performers have remained conspicuously silent amid mass death: Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
For good or ill, many other celebrities have released statements or signed letters of support one way or the other, miring them in controversy. At first, the silence may have seemed like shrewd business sense in order to avoid a PR blunder, but the longer Israel’s genocidal bombardment of the Gaza Strip goes on, the more damning that silence has become. As fans and radical leftists, it’s hard to reconcile against a backdrop of decades-spanning celebrity activism and the performers’ histories of speaking up against other injustices.
Fresh off multi-continental legs of the Eras Tour and the Renaissance World Tour respectively, these wildly successful women have managed to stay in the spotlight without saying anything at all about the ongoing genocide. While mainstream media paid little attention to this oversight, the fans (known as “Swifties” and the “Beyhive”) certainly haven’t.
Following the October 7 attacks by Hamas and the subsequent collective punishment continuing to be perpetrated by Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Swifties took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to get “Swifties for Palestine” trending and continue to demand Swift take a principled stance. Demands have included releasing a statement of support for Palestine; urging her to stop attending NFL games until the league releases its own statement of condemnation; and not releasing her Eras Tour film on streaming platforms currently being boycotted over their affiliation with Israel, like Disney+.
While Swift isn’t “like some kind of congressman,” as she sings in her hit song “Anti-Hero,” her success and wealth have nonetheless influenced policy. In 2022, when Live Nation Entertainment’s monopolistic practices resulted in a major malfunction of ticket sales for the Eras Tour (similar difficulties plagued Renaissance tour sales), the Senate held a lyric-filled hearing to strengthen antitrust laws. The Eras Tour grossed $1.1 billion, which not only elevated Swift to billionaire status but also boosted the U.S. economy over the summer, according to Bloomberg. That’s the kind of buying power that could, in combination with mass pressure elsewhere, influence U.S. involvement in a war.
Yet, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) National Committee’s request for the performers’ Eras Tour and Renaissance films to be pulled from Israel amid the bombardment has been met with silence, even though both Knowles-Carter and Swift have refused lucrative offers to perform in Tel Aviv in the past. While it’s unclear whether Swift has done so in solidarity with oppressed Palestinians, Knowles-Carter appeared to have been receptive to criticism from civil rights groups and the BDS movement, canceling concert dates in 2015.
Their political silence has proven useful as a marketing strategy, as the few statements they do opt to offer on social media carry more weight due to their rarity; an Instagram post becomes an event, a video a cause for celebration. They understand the impact their words carry, which makes their choice of silence, particularly when their films are being played in an apartheid state with no public comment, quite blaring.
Further, both performers have increasingly steered their social media presences toward silence in recent years. Knowles-Carter’s brand of regality and centrality, for example, has been carefully cultivated since her solo debut in 2003 and, arguably, since her earlier years as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child. She has since rocketed into the echelon of what people often fawningly call “the celebrity’s celebrity” — a level of exclusivity and influence that is hard to compare to most other entertainers performing currently — when she stopped accepting interview requests in 2013. One of the only other comparable artists is Swift, who curates her own feeds and timelines to leave “easter eggs” hinting at her next big project for fans. She, likewise, hasn’t given interviews for four years up until recently. But her presence isn’t totally politically silent either. The nonprofit Vote.org said its website saw an influx of 35,000 voter registrations in September after Swift urged her millions of followers to register on the site.
On December 6, Time revealed its 2023 “Person of the Year” to be none other than Swift, who throughout the year released two full re-recordings of her previous albums Speak Now and 1989 amid a physically rigorous tour involving a three-hour setlist. Time’s choice couldn’t be starker, compared to last year’s selection of Volodymyr Zelenskyy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To the surprise of no one, the corporate publication has decided to portray one colonialist offensive as heinous by way of Zelenskyy’s place of honor on the cover, and another as somehow excusable by way of its exclusion, even as the death toll in Gaza stood at over 16,200 (it now climbs to nearly 20,000) since October 7.
In her Time interview, rare since her Reputation album in 2017, Swift ignores what’s happening in the world around her, saying, “If I go out to dinner, there’s going to be a whole chaotic situation outside the restaurant. But I still want to go to dinner with my friends.” Meanwhile, at least 75 journalists and media workers have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, a number that should warrant equal acknowledgement by Time.
Swift, while not a radical activist by any means, has not always been such a silent observer of politics. In her documentary, Miss Americana, she tearfully implored her team, including her father, that she wanted to make a public statement against Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn for her voting record on women’s and LGBTQ rights. Swift mentioned regretting “not popping [her] head out of the sand for anything” during the 2020 election, and said that, “I need to be on the right side of history.” Such statements feel empty now that Swift has once again risen to the top of pop-culture ladder but continues avoid even a milquetoast statement on the ongoing genocide of Palestinians.
Swift was spotted alongside fellow celebrity bestie Selena Gomez (whose own cosmetics line faces boycott following Gomez’s poor statement on Gaza on social media) at the stand-up comedy show of Ramy Youseff on December 8. Proceeds of the show were announced to be going to a charity providing humanitarian aid in Gaza. While it could be said that Swift is simply letting her actions speak, some on social media have pointed out that mainstream media and diehard fans are equating the legwork of a comedian of color to Swift simply watching a performance.
“Stick to Singing”
A common defense of A-list celebrity silence in the face of injustice, as political commentator and movement lawyer Olayemi Olurin articulated in a recent post on X, is that the political field is not one befitting of the musician, actor or athlete, and that those calling for support from the world’s most well-known names are directing their attention to the wrong targets. This ignores the enormous impact that celebrity can have on the trajectory and longevity of discussions around oppression, as well as the nearly symbiotic relationship modern media and activism have shared since the 1960s civil rights movement.
A particularly powerful example of this relationship is the airing of “Star Trek” in 1966. The series’ casting was daring for its time, particularly African American Nichelle Nichols’s role as Kenyan Lt. Nyota Uhura. Nichols herself described the show as “liberal” rather than radical in an interview with the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone. She explained that she initially resigned from the show to follow her passion for stage performance. It wasn’t until after she’d met a devoted fan of the show, Martin Luther King Jr. — who told her in person that it was the only show he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, allowed their children to watch (in large part due to her onscreen presence as a Black woman in a respected position of authority) — that she reconsidered.
When recounting this interaction in an NPR interview, Nichols mentioned what King had told her before he’d even learned of her intention to leave the show, and underscored that struggles for justice are fought on multiple fronts:
He complimented me on the manner in which I’d created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, “Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.” He said … “You don’t understand…. You are marching.”
Knowles-Carter, for her part, has done much of her own version of King’s metaphorical “marching.” In addition to personal projects like Lemonade and Black is King that have celebrated Black American and African cultural identities, she and her husband, Sean Carter (more widely known as Jay-Z), paid the bail for many movement for Black lives protesters detained in Baltimore and Ferguson in 2015, to the tune of “tens of thousands of dollars,” per Dream Hampton, via the Guardian. Paired with the couple’s amassing $1.5 million for a number of both national and local grassroots organizations dedicated to racial justice for the Black community, the couple has demonstrated a history of contributing to activistic solutions to police brutality and structural racism without necessarily joining marchers on the streets.
Yet now, in the face of the stark display of human suffering currently being seen in Palestine — and especially in light of how particularly instrumental Palestinians were during the Ferguson uprisings in offering advice on how to counteract police tear gas — even these significant monetary contributions start to ring hollow. Even if one follows the logic that Knowles-Carter has no responsibility to speak out for communities who aren’t her own, one must admit that she at least bears responsibility to her community’s staunch and historical allies.
Strategic allegiances are not new concepts to either Swift or Knowles-Carter, both of whom generate money for the NFL through their romantic and business partnerships with the organization, respectively; an organization that, itself, has come under fire for its harsh treatment of celebrity athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick after he kneeled during the pre-game national anthem to protest police brutality against the Black community.
The two have even gone so far as to embrace each other’s competing film runs, making sure to take ample photographs together in what many see as an attempt to quell the ever-present friction between Swifties and the Beyhive over constant media comparisons of the two that can often verge into racist vitriol. Their silence in the face of both fanbases’ increasingly vehement calls for the performers to use their influence to support a ceasefire or, at the very least, pull their films from Israeli theaters, leaves one with the bitter impression that their advocacy exists only where their potential for personal gain also resides.
As one Swift fan said in a 2019 interview with Vice following her own imprisonment for refusing to join the IDF, “I saw that there were stories that I didn’t hear about in Israeli media. That’s when I started to question it.” That that kind of stance already exists within these two artists’ realm of influence shows the current moment cannot be met with abject silence, particularly from two women whose immense wealth insulates them from on-the-ground consequences.
As they enjoy their wealth and success, they should not forget what occurs in the world beyond that success.
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