Taylor Swift writes about new love like it’s a daydream: many of her best songs express the feeling with contented sighs and evocations of fairytale enchantment. But for a small and vocal subsection of her fanbase, news of the singer’s rumoured real-life relationship with a fellow musician has been nothing short of a nightmare.
Since it was alleged that Swift is seeing Matty Healy, the frontman of the pop band The 1975, these fans have been up in arms, cancelling orders of Swift’s forthcoming album, posting lengthy reflections on Twitter justifying their attendance (or lack thereof) at Swift’s current tour, and launching a campaign – #SpeakUpNow – implicitly demanding that Swift break up with Healy. (Swift has not publicly acknowledged the relationship, but Healy has been seen at her concerts and the pair have been photographed together multiple times in recent weeks.)
Healy has been a polarising pop cultural figure since long before he and Swift were linked, given his propensity for making what some see as obnoxious or self-aggrandising comments in interviews. The ire of Swift’s fans stems in large part from Healy’s appearance in February as a guest on a podcast hosted by his friend, the comedian Adam Friedland. In the episode, clips of which fans circulated on social media, Healy laughs along as the two co-hosts, Friedland and Nick Mullen, describe the US rapper Ice Spice as an “Inuit Spice Girl” and a “chubby Chinese lady”. The co-hosts then proceed to do impressions of Chinese and Hawaiian accents. (It’s worth noting that a lot of fans are incorrectly attributing a lot of the co-hosts’ comments to Healy.)
Healy later apologised for joking along with the show’s hosts. Fans have also taken umbrage over a show in January during which Healy did a Nazi salute while singing the line “Thank you Kanye, very cool”, seemingly in reference to Kanye West’s praise of Hitler. In a recent piece for the New Yorker, the writer Jia Tolentino described Healy as being “no longer invested in the project of being publicly correct”.
In the #SpeakUpNow letter, circulated by a number of Swift’s fans and reported on by a handful of major news outlets, the authors urge Swift to “reflect on the impact of your own and your associates’ behaviour”, “advocate for inclusivity, celebrate diversity, and promote empathy and understanding”, and “actively engage in this process of personal and social transformation”. Although never explicitly stated, the letter’s message is clear: Taylor Swift needs to dump Matty Healy in the name of racial justice.
If you’re not well-versed in the intensity and politics of stan Twitter – “stan” is internet lingo for fan, by way of the Eminem song from 2000 – this will probably read as massive, incomprehensible overreach: an example of people acting in a bizarrely paternalistic and proprietorial way over a star whom they supposedly love. If you do follow stan Twitter with any regularity, you know that this behaviour now passes for business as usual. The star/fan dynamic has almost inverted in recent years: many musicians now take their cues from social media. To some degree, pandering to your core base is a necessity of the job – even the most omnipresent star can no longer assume that they have a captive audience whose attention won’t be directed elsewhere when they’re about to release something new.
Fans increasingly expect their desires to be serviced constantly, and retaliate fiercely when the art or the artist doesn’t fit into their own idea of how someone’s career should be progressing. Policing musicians’ relationships is the natural next step for young fans who have grown up with the expectation that stars have to have good politics, and whose para-social relationships with artists were stoked during pandemic years, when artist engagement on platforms such as TikTok went into overdrive.
Swift does take certain cues from her fanbase – just last week she released an extended version of a Lana Del Rey collaboration as per her fans’ wishes. So the #SpeakUpNow letter, for a certain kind of person, probably seems like a totally normal interaction with a celebrity – despite it being exactly the kind of intrusive, judgmental behaviour that so many fans purport to defend their favourite stars from. Neither Swift, nor Healy, has commented on the letter.
By way of admission: I can relate to how lots of fans are responding to the stars’ relationship. I used to be that kind of fan, thinking that an intense devotion to someone’s art should translate into some level of input on their day-to-day life. In 2018, when I was 20, I wrote an opinion piece criticising the musician Grimes’s relationship with Elon Musk, arguing that it was in direct opposition to her political leanings. At the time, what Grimes had done really felt like a betrayal; I thought that relationships and politics should fit in together neatly, like pieces of a puzzle, a misconception I would like to attribute to my age.
So I don’t blame some fans for having that worldview: a lot of the people who spend hours online posting about their favourite artists are extremely young – younger than you would expect. But I’m also certain that a lot of people should know better, at this point, than to make demands – or threats – over who a pop star chooses to date. While Swift’s music may be fans’ business, her life needs to remain her own.