Pop culture is the new politics as Taylor Swift calls out to new voters and Kanye West greets the president

In 2018, the line between pop culture and politics is blurred -- and just as divisive.
(Left: Justin Lane /EPA-EFE/REX; Right: Birdie Thompson / AdMedia / Zuma Press / TNS)
Television Critic

The seventh sign of the apocalypse has arrived. It is not Hurricane Michael, nor is it reports that a rising tide due to global warning will wash us away sooner than expected. And it isn’t the black-is-white absurdity of #HimToo.

It’s a triangulation of illogical events that would give the “Twilight Zone’s” Rod Serling reason to pause: an urban rapper shilling for David Duke’s party of choice while a country-rooted pop star advises Middle America to vote blue. Meanwhile, the POTUS is busily talking about the two as our divided nation threatens to split apart over whatever he says next.

Longtime rivals Kanye West and Taylor Swift, forever connected by West’s attention-seeking interruption of Swift’s 2009 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech, not to mention his crude references to her in song, again shared headlines this week.


Kayne West jumps onstage after Taylor Swift won the female video award during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Now, their beef has moved into the political arena.
(Christopher Polk / Getty Images)

PERSPECTIVE: Taylor Swift is pop’s loudest diarist. Now she has a new soapbox »

But this isn’t your standard “Entertainment Tonight” fare. Or maybe it is. In 2018, the line between pop culture and politics is increasingly blurred — and just as divisive. Our views and our votes are expressed to all well before we enter the private ballot box via the shows we watch, the celebs we follow and the artists we listen to on and off record.

This was clear as the West-Swift drama moved onto the wide stage of politics thanks to an unprecedented presidency where TMZ fodder, hashtag hysteria and beltway machinations all share the same lane.

President Trump and his closest advisor Jared Kushner are scheduled to meet with Yeezy (aka Yeezus, aka Black Skinhead, aka Mr. Kardashian) Thursday at the White House to discuss … does it even matter?

The meeting was announced this week when the embattled West quit Twitter — for the second time — following his pro-Trump tirade on the “Saturday Night Live” stage. Continuing his public meltdown that started more than two years ago, a rambling West addressed the studio audience after the broadcast wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap.

“It’s so many times that I talk to a white person about this, and they say, ‘How could you support Trump? He’s racist,’ ” said West in footage from that evening that was posted to social media. “Well, if I was concerned about racism, I would have moved out of America a long time ago.” He also alleged that “SNL” producers tried to bully him into taking the hat off during the show.

Trump tweeted that West was “great” and “leading the charge” and that “SNL” was “no longer funny.”

Meanwhile on Instagram, the long-apolitical Swift urged her 112 million followers to register to vote. She then endorsed two Democratic congressional candidates from her home state of Tennessee. The influence exerted by her first dip into politics was easier to measure than West’s 1000th confused proclamation since asserting “slavery was a choice” earlier this year., a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that, among other initiatives, allows citizens to verify their voting status or find voting locations, tracked 2,144 new voter registrations in Tennessee in the hours following Swift’s post, bringing October’s total so far to 7,554. It’s a sharp increase from 2,811 registrations in September and 951 in August.

Trump found time to talk to reporters about Swift too, despite an encroaching storm (the weather front, not the midterms), nationwide women’s protests and the swearing in of the most unpopular SCOTUS nominee in modern memory. The Leader of the Free World let it be known that he likes “Taylor’s music about 25% less” now. We are never, ever getting back together, he seemed to say.

The political implications of those particular comments are unclear, but there’s still plenty of time for Rachel Maddow to connect the abrupt resignation of Trump’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley with the Swift snub. Nothing should surprise us at this point.

Kanye West and then-president-elect Donald Trump speaking with the press after their meetings at Trump Tower in New York in December 2016.
(TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP/Getty Images)

The disturbing truth that West and Swift are of national concern to the White House is emblematic of a presidency in which pop culture allegiances are now of Oval Office importance.

Past presidents knew how to brush off West, even when the rapper was a relevant and vital voice who held sway in the hip-hop community and beyond.

President Obama called West “a jackass” — twice — after the rapper crashed the MTV Awards stage during Swift’s acceptance speech and said Beyoncé should have gotten the prize. Swift, then a teen, cried. “But he’s talented,” said Obama.

Obama’s predecessor also had choice words for West. The rising artist became a household name in 2005 when he said during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” West’s approach was clumsy, but his aim was clear: to draw attention to those neglected and suffering in water-ravaged New Orleans.

Bush later referred to West’s accusations that he was a racist as a “low point” and “disgusting moment” in his presidency.

Now, Trump and West have found a brotherhood in their desire for attention at any cost. The “dragon energy” West says he shares with his “brother” Trump is so strong it’s allowed the former crusader for black equality to embrace this president. This despite Trump’s reticence to condemn white separatist groups and what many view as xenophobic policies. The war on women who aren’t Kim Kardashian is another matter entirely, and one that isn’t likely to sway the artist behind such songs as “Gold Digger” and “Perfect Bitch.”

It’s no wonder red-state sweetheart Swift finally broke her silence and threw in for the side Trump and West weren’t on. A girl can only take so much before it no longer becomes an option to just shake it off.

Swift performed Tuesday night at the American Music Awards, where she broke records for the number of awards won by a female artist. Swift appeared to be apolitical again, looking surprised by her wins and thanking fans despite the fact that she achieved world domination years ago.

Only this time, she did come with a message: “I just wanted to make a mention at the fact that this award and every single award given out tonight were voted on by the people, and you know what else is voted on by the people is the midterm elections on Nov. 6,” she said to applause.

RELATED: Taylor Swift gets political, but she has long used her voice »

But it’s clear she’s no longer that pop sensation whose career got a sympathy bump a decade ago when West interrupted her on stage with his arguments of institutional racism (he later tried to take credit for her fame).

Swift is now taken more seriously as a social crusader than West.

He’s mostly unhinged bluster these days, recklessly wading into delicate issues that are ripping the country apart with an astounding lack of empathy or direction. It’s the Kanye show without the former talent and brilliance.

And yet it’s in this diminished state that West has finally received White House praise and a sit down with the president.

Perhaps the four horsemen of the apocalypse are waiting to see what transpires at that meeting of the minds before they saddle up. But if West has any chance of becoming the nation’s next questionable policy maker in a revolving-door administration that’s full of them, it’s best if they start riding now.