Taylor Swift, New Money, and Class Anxiety

I’m sure you’ve heard: Taylor Swift is dating a Kennedy.  A bonafide Kennedy.  Grandson-of-Bobby-type-Kennedy.  They’ve been hanging out all summer, and the rumors just keep building.  You’d think it’s because he’s, oh, 18 and she’s 22 — and he’s going to be a senior in high school — but nope.  That’s not it.

Supposedly, it’s all about interloping.  She crashed a wedding; she bought a house.  She’s hanging out in Nantucket, land of Kennedys and WASPs and clam bakes and Summer Catch.  But you know what it’s really about?

Class.  It’s never explicit, but it’s simmering just underneath: this middle-class celebrity is buying her way into “real” distinction.  She’s a country star!  She dates celebrities!  She airs her dirty laundry in full view.  She has lots of money, and all of its new.  Her parents are so upper-middle-class.  She used to ride horses, but she lived in Nashville.  The (false) news that she purchased the house across from Ethel Kennedy spread like wildfire — even People, which prides itself on vetting its sources, published the story.  It’s a fascinating newsbit, mostly because it makes Swift seem like a stage-five clinger, but the real hook was the desperate, Gatsby-esque attempt to situate herself in physical proximity of the upper-crust.

 Swift crashes weddings, she breaks rules — she doesn’t even know the rules.  And she’s rubbing off on the Kennedys: she so angered the mother-of-the-bride that she made an official statement to the Boston Globe.  How very untoward.

But this anxiety is nothing new.  In the 1920s, there was all sorts of anxiety about the Hollywood “movie colony” and the type of celebrity it was breeding.  (That anxiety goes back even farther, mind you, to the rise of the vaudeville/stage stars in the late 19th century.  There was a sharp distinction in high American society between those who would deign to invite a “actress” to a party and those who would not.  You can probably guess the type of person who would).  Hollywood was filled with immigrants (and Jews!), it was far from the legislating eye of New York cafe society.  Los Angeles was the (relative) Wild West.  These stars were running wild.  They had accents, they wore little clothing, they drank and smoked and fornicated.  They probably did all of those things far less than people thought they did, but what mattered was the idea that they were low-class manners suddenly endowed with fortune: the very recipe for poor taste new money.

Old Money reifies and sustains itself by constantly defining itself against other types of money.  You can’t describe Old Money nearly as well as you can describe New Money, and that’s purposeful.  New Money is garish, outlandish, obvious; Old Money is none of those things.  New Money works hard to become Old Money, and once it does, it erases all signs of its past.  It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the Kennedys were the very definition of New Money, with Joe Kennedy making a fortune in Hollywood and gallivanting all over the place with Gloria Swanson.

Most of the stars didn’t care about being Old Money — in fact, their images hinged on them being “normal,” everyday.  Clara Bow, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford: they were supposed to always be glamorous, but they were never “well-bred.”  They were just like you, only with better make-up artists and clothes.  That’s why you liked them.  And that’s why it’s so easy to dislike the 1%: they seem to be of entirely different stock.

Over the last 100 years, the lines between Hollywood and High Society have blurred.  Maria Shriver (a Kennedy) married Schwarzenegger.  Kathie Lee Gifford is somehow involved in all this wedding-crashing business.   Rat-Packer Peter Lawford married JFK’s sister.  JFK Jr. dated Daryl Hannah.  You get the picture.

But what fascinates me most about the breathless coverage of this relationship — which coincides with the release Swift’s very emotional, very public, very commercial (#1) single — is how much it reflects century-old anxieties about entertainment-based celebrity and their infiltration of America’s version of the landed gentry.  Old Money vs. New, 99% vs. 1%.  As always, the actions of celebrities become the backdrop against which we can talk about how, and why, various issues still matter: it might not feel comfortable to explicitly discuss how you feel about class divisions, but it feels fine to talk about whether or not it was okay for Taylor Swift to “crash” a Kennedy wedding.  And in that discussion, you implicitly reveal all sorts of opinions about taste, class, social practices….and whether or not it’s weird that little Conor Kennedy didn’t just attend with his family, who had presumably RSVPed for him.  KIDS THESE DAYS.

This isn’t the class war we see bandied about in the press every day.  But it’s a reminder that where your money comes from — and what you do with it — still very much matters.

3 Responses to “Taylor Swift, New Money, and Class Anxiety”

  1. Interesting perspective on her relationship with him. A good followup read to this might be the book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” by Paul Fussell. It’s a bit dated (published in the 1980s), but it’s got lots of interesting examples on how even though Americans don’t have the same class system that England does, we still have one even though it’s not always signified by birth and family (as it is often in England — just look at how the tabloid press often treated Kate Middleton before the wedding). Among my favorite observations include a lot about middle class anxiety, especially with manners.

    Didn’t know about Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson! I’m going to have to brush up on my Camelot knowledge.

  2. Gene says:

    Good read! Just one point—couldn’t you say the causality runs in the OPPOSITE direction? You editorialize “new money” chasing old, but several examples you cite show old money chasing new money and/or celebrity. Why old money “slumming” seems to be a more interesting question. Insecurity and to prove they are not “better” than anyone else? No big deal, it was just a thought. Thanks!

  3. Annie says:

    Hey now, don’t lump Lawford in there. He had a pedigree. (I have to defend my darling Peter!)