In September, a blog called PopFront published a post headlined “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor Swift subtly gets the lower case “kkk” in formation with ‘Look What You Made Me Do.’” The writer, Meghan Herning, criticized the Swift’s lead Reputation single, asserting that its lyrics speak to “white anger and [affirm] white supremacy.” Herning also pointed out that Swift has fans in the alt-right movement, and argued that she had not done enough to distance herself from them.
PopFront, which aims to cover culture from a leftist perspective, is a decidedly independent operation, with an extremely small audience. The site’s Twitter account has 76 followers at the time of this writing, and its Facebook page has just over 1,000 likes. It seems likely that very few people read the alt-right post when it was published. It would be easy for Swift to ignore the criticism, but instead, her lawyer responded with a strongly-worded demand that PopFront retract the post, with a threat to pursue litigation if it were to remain online.
The Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is working on Herning’s behalf, published the letter this afternoon. It is addressed to Herning from William J. Briggs, II, an attorney at the law firm Venable LLP. “The story is replete with demonstrable and offensive falsehoods which bear no relation to reality or the truth about Ms. Swift,” it reads in part. “It appears to be a malicious attack against Ms. Swift that goes to great lengths to portray Ms. Swift as some sort of white supremacist figurehead…As further shown below, PopFront is substantially liable to Ms. Swift for defamation.”
PopFront’s criticism of “Look What You Made Me Do” focuses largely on just a few lyrics, as well as an image from the music video of Swift behind a podium, which Herning interprets as being visually similar to a Nazi rally given by Adolf Hitler. She spends several paragraphs with the line “I don’t like your kingdom keys / They once belonged to me,” which, she claims, “is another way of saying, I will not be replaced and anger over white dispossession of power.”
It’s not exactly a damning portrait of Swift as a closet neo-Nazi. It doesn’t even strike me as a particularly fair analysis of the song. But it’s also not the first time Swift has been publicly criticized for echoing the uglier elements of the American right. At New York magazine, Mark Harris called “Look What You Made Me Do” the “First Pure Piece of Trump-Era Pop Art.” “Is Taylor Swift to blame for anything? How can any of us know? There was violence on many sides, many sides,” he wrote, echoing the president’s much-maligned response to the murder of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville this year.
Whether or not you agree with Herning’s criticism of “Look What You Made Me Do” as having white supremacist undertones, the First Amendment protects her right to make it. And the fact that legal counsel for Swift were willing to threaten a court battle against a writer at a website no one has ever heard of–who simply made a more strident version of an argument that has been levied against Swift several times before in larger publications–is instructive about how musicians could approach handling the press. Venable’s letter to Herning included the claim that publishing its contents would constitute “a breach of confidence and a violation of Copyright Act.” In other words, her lawyers not only made a legal threat in order to silence criticism of their client, they preemptively attempted to silence discussion and criticism of the threat itself as well. (A Swift representative did not respond to a request for comment from SPIN.)
The songs and visuals we’ve heard and seen from Reputation so far seem to present Swift as the embattled victim of a press that has a malicious agenda against her. Thanks to the ACLU’s publication of the Herning letter, we know that Swift’s team is not above using its vast resources to fight back against her perceived enemies in the media, who generally have far less power than she does. It’s those apparent qualities–not some crypto-racism supposedly espoused in her lyrics–that make her most like Donald Trump.