The youth of America has always been, in part, raised by its idols. We mark the passage of time with songs and films. In our restless years we’re more inclined to heed the words of our favorite artists than those of our parents. Today, there is no one more influential in shaping the collective social consciousness than the biggest star in the world: Taylor Swift.
Dismiss her at your own peril because, over the course of her career, Swift has redefined the job description of pop star into committed philanthropist with a progressive social agenda. She represents not only the most effective and sustainable business model in music, but the new archetype of superstardom, one in which speaking out and giving back will become the expectation instead of the exception.
You’d be forgiven for not taking Swift’s ascent to power seriously because we’re only just now being trained to see its effects. It used to be that our most galvanizing activist entertainers whipped up the masses through protest songs, massively organized demonstrations, and divisive public acts. We identify our demi-saints and firebrands by the grandeur of their activism or the number of powerful people they manage to piss off. Nina Simone sang out about racial inequality. Bob Dylan was the poet of the anti-war movement. Madonna sexually liberated popular culture. And Bono—well, Bono has been trying, almost single-handedly, to save the world for years.
But rather than sponsor a Live Aid concert or spearhead a charity anthem featuring a cohort of British musical legends, the 26-year-old Swift has executed a slow-burn campaign of social awakening, a kind of conscientiousness by inception, defined by almost compulsive beneficence and a narrative of female empowerment embedded in everything she does and says. And while her music is apolitical and often desexualized, her entire ethos is an inherently political act. She doesn’t just take the stage, she strides forward, owning her art and enjoying her success every single time she accepts a new award—which is often. That behavior has the potential for lasting impact on her young female fans. She may not have her own version of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or an incendiary “Like a Virgin” MTV moment, but Swift celebrates all that she has amassed for herself by sharing that success with others.
She has been DoSomething.org’s most charitable celebrity in the world for four straight years. In 2013, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened its Taylor Swift Education Center after she signed over a $4 million endowment. In addition to supporting many organized causes like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Swift also writes a lot of personal checks, like the $50,000 she gave to a leukemia patient’s GoFundMe page or the $250,000 she delivered to industry colleague Kesha to help with legal bills. And then there’s Swiftmas, when she roots out superfans on social media so she can send them elaborate, personalized Christmas packages.
The way Swift utilizes Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram to affect change is a compelling indicator that good-doing is shifting away from the old, Bono-style version of extravaganza activism. With a cross-platform social media following in the hundreds of millions, Swift can infiltrate the conversations of her fans on a one-to-one level while exerting the kind of power that extends into the real world. She used her Tumblr account, for instance, to censure Apple for shortchanging artists on its music streaming service, spurring the company to publicly apologize and change its operating policy. And now, one year after Swift issued her Tumblr spanking, she’s become a promotional centerpiece for Apple Music—the very platform she threatened to boycott if Cupertino didn’t pay songwriters their fair share. Yes-please-thank-you, Ms. Swift.
But here’s the really good news: This tactic of living the message is becoming standard practice beyond Swift. Real change requires critical mass, and the community of high-profile models, writers, and performers that have sprung up around Swift reinforces the fact that to be relevant and responsible in the social media-fueled ouroboros of fans and idols, you must also stand for something bigger than yourself. As Swift’s fanbase grows with her, they will mature into the next set of power brokers in business, politics, human rights activism, environmental policy, and so on, and they will have done so with a sorority of cultural tastemakers telling them that standing for something isn’t just what’s right. It’s what’s expected.