A decision every aspiring musician faces as they build their career and brand is whether to publicly express or promote their personal political views. Commercially, it makes financial sense to refrain from doing so, as endorsing one political party or candidate may alienate fans who support another. A few recent and historic examples of politically active celebrity musicians may help explain why some choose to use their platform in this way.
While fellow pop superstars Katy Perry and Lady Gaga actively campaigned for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general election, Taylor Swift refrained from any political expression until just this week, when she endorsed Democrats Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper for the Tennessee midterm elections next month in an Instagram post. The post caused a noticeable spike in voter registration and prompted criticism from President Trump. Willie Nelson, a longtime Democrat and supporter of causes such as marijuana legalization, surprisingly faced backlash from some conservative fans over his support of Beto O’Rourke for Senate. His response: “I don’t care.” This outspokenness on the parts of Swift and Nelson will likely not cost them dearly, as both are already firmly established commercially and culturally in the United States. On the other hand, some popular musicians in the country and rock field have become arguably more known for their often-offensive views than for their music.
Hank Williams Jr., son of one of country music’s founding fathers and himself a successful songwriter and performer, infamously compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler in a 2011 television interview, and promptly had his Monday Night Football theme song removed by ESPN (though it was reinstated last year). Since then, he has become even more outspoken, recording songs with titles like “Keep the Change” and “Take a Knee, Take a Hike” which are unlikely to appeal musically to anyone who does not agree with the explicit views taken in the lyrics. Similarly, rock musician Ted Nugent has expressed support for apartheid, used misogynistic language to refer to politicians Hillary Clinton and Dianne Fienstein, and made veiled threats on President Obama’s life. While he has been renounced by some fans and had concerts canceled over his outrageously abhorrent statements, he was recently invited to meet with President Trump, someone who shares many of his views, at the White House.
Ultimately, the impact that being overtly political will have on an artist depends on several variables, such as the genre, geographical location, and intended demographic. Furthermore, a fanbase’s response may change depending on the way one’s views are expressed. For example, fans of Nugent or Williams may not have taken issue with them identifying as conservatives, but absolutely draw the line when these artists make unambiguously racist statements. Any boycotting or backlash faced by Taylor Swift will be negligible, given her status as one of the world’s most successful stars. However, for a far less famous songwriter or musician, the way in which one presents oneself at an early stage in one’s career may help or hinder the growth of their audience. The real question, then, is whether it is worth the risk to stand up for what you truly believe in, and hope your message changes some minds.