Taylor Swift Is Just the Latest Subject in a Long History of Pop Conspiracy Theories

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You’d have to go back to the peak years of Bob Dylan’s cultural relevance, when one critic cum stalker started searching the songwriter’s garbage for clues about his lyrics, to find a musician who attracts as many amateur code breakers as Taylor Swift does. Swift has fed the frenzy by declaring that her songs, her liner notes, her social-media posts—basically everything around her—might have hidden meanings embedded in them. As she told The Washington Post in 2022, she and her fans have “descended into color coding, numerology, word searches, elaborate hints, and Easter eggs.”

That scavenger-hunt mentality can lead would-be decoders in directions the singer might not prefer, as with the “Gaylors” who search for signals that Swift is secretly queer. Now a different subculture is getting in on the act: A chunk of the GOP has been conjuring alleged evidence that Swift is a deep-state psy-op, and that maybe—we’re just asking questions here—the NFL is in on it.

This theory got its first burst of mainstream attention last month, when Fox’s Jesse Watters aired a video that, he claimed, shows that “the Pentagon psychological-operations unit floated turning Taylor Swift into an asset.” The person speaking in the video was not in fact from the Pentagon, she was citing Swift as a generic example of celebrity influence, and this all happened years after Swift became super popular anyway, but Watters still seemed to think it might explain “why or how she blew up like this.” He then interviewed a former FBI agent, who said that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign would like Swift’s support (which is true) and that she could move substantial numbers of votes into Biden’s column (which is not the track record that pop-music endorsements have historically had in American politics).

The psy-op rumor mutated into its most infamous form a few weeks later. Vivek Ramaswamy, until recently a presidential candidate himself, posted on X, “I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month. And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall. Just some wild speculation over here, let’s see how it ages over the next 8 months.”

Yes, that was a reference to Swift and her boyfriend, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. I’ve heard many ruminations over the years about both rigged elections and rigged Super Bowls, but this might be the first time I’ve seen someone imply that plotters might rig an election by rigging the Super Bowl.

Other than that new wrinkle, though, none of this is unprecedented. In fact, as weird as the psy-op story may sound, it’s just a few short hops away from a rather popular way of thinking about culture. To hear some people tell it, pretty much all pop is an op.

Conspiracy theories about the music industry come in many flavors. A century ago, to give one of the uglier examples, Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claimed that a “Jewish combine” was suppressing gentile music and promoting jazz. “Popular music is a Jewish monopoly,” the paper declared in 1921. “Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, the slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”

You didn’t have to be a Ford-style bigot to suspect that a cabal was behind the music you disliked. In 1958, Vance Packard—the author of The Hidden Persuaders, a best-selling attack on the advertising industry—testified to the U.S. Senate that “the public was manipulated into liking rock and roll” and that “the rock and roll, hillbilly, and Latin American movements were largely engineered, manipulated for the interests of the [music-licensing group] BMI.” When a Michigan senator objected that many of his constituents genuinely like hillbilly music, Packard agreeably replied, “I like some of it too, but I think the quality of it lately has been degenerating.”

The psychedelic ’60s gave us such pamphlets as David A. Noebel’s Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles (which claimed that the Kremlin was using the Fab Four to induce “artificial neurosis” in the American child) and Gary Allen’s That Music: There’s More to It Than Meets the Ear (which speculated that the Beatles’ music was “put together by behavioral scientists in some ‘think tank’”). Then came the backmasking panic that peaked in the ’80s, when a horde of ministers, teachers, broadcasters, and legislators became convinced that conspirators were inserting backwards satanic messages into rock records, where they would subliminally lead young listeners to Lucifer.

But the most popular devil theory of music might be the suspicion that the industry itself is one big, sprawling maze of conspiracy, a suspicion that owes much of its popularity to the fact that there is a lot of truth to it. The music world is indeed filled with secret plots, though they tend to be more petty than grand: People have conspired over the years to bribe DJs, rip off artists’ royalties, juke the stats at streaming services, and otherwise engage in the sometimes-sordid business of manufacturing hits and scooping up all they can of the profits. And God knows the industry’s PR machines can be fountains of lies. So, yes: Music marketers operate behind the scenes to create an image and sell it, and sometimes they cut some ethical corners in the process.

Those facts have fed a more dubious intuition, one that imagines the public as a passive receptacle for the culture industry’s output, robotically consuming whatever products are pressed onto us. When Packard spoke with those senators, much of his testimony involved plausible claims about backroom business practices. But he also declared that the industry could, if it wanted, “make us all start humming chants of zinc miners or marching tunes from the War of 1812.” In this vision, the marketers are not simply slippery but all-powerful. It’s ops all the way down.

If you believe that marketers have unlocked the secret to inducing demand for unwanted goods, it’s not difficult to extend the story’s cast of characters to include the national-security state, the White House, or any other villain you please. Indeed, covert forces sometimes do try to insert themselves into popular culture, as when the Pentagon offers moviemakers access to its personnel and material in exchange for script approval. When people learn about those real propaganda pushes, it expands the range of hidden operations they’re willing to imagine.

But those puppet-master storylines greatly overstate the audience’s malleability. Viva Brother, the Cats movie—there are countless examples of relentlessly hyped musical products that failed to sell, the New Cokes of the sonic world. And it’s not plausible that the industry would be any better at selling nonmusical products, such as presidential candidates.

Not even the most advanced Pentagon program can reliably guide what cultural products we’ll buy or what messages we’ll take away from them. If Taylor Swift really were an op, I doubt she’d be a terribly effective one. It’s true that when she shared a link to Vote.org on National Voter Registration Day last year, the website saw a spike in registrations, though the size of that spike is often exaggerated. (No, she did not single-handedly cause more than 35,000 people to register.) But there is a difference between getting people to fill out a short form online and getting them to the polls, let alone getting them to vote your way.

A more realistic look at Swift’s likely impact came late last month, when a Newsweek survey found that 18 percent of voters say they’re more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Swift—and 17 percent are less likely to vote for someone she endorses. That one-point gap was well within the margin of error, so you shouldn’t count on it to tip Georgia into Biden’s hands. I don’t want to tell the Illuminati how to do their job, but surely there are better reasons to rig the Super Bowl than that.

The Atlantic