Taylor Swift’s maybe-racist maybe-boyfriend is probably fine: Phoebe Maltz Bovy reads up on ‘Nazi-saluting’ Matty Healy

There are a lot of legitimate things for Jews to worry about: unrest in Israel, antisemitic violence in the Diaspora, or even whether there are an appropriate number of rabbis.

Here’s one thing I think we can relax about: Taylor Swift’s “rumored boyfriend.”

Yes, Taylor Swift, the pop star, is said to be dating a British musician, Matty Healy, of a band called The 1975. As my rock music knowledge stops in approximately The 1997 I had not heard of this band, but Swift I do know. (Not personally, but you get the idea.)

Swift is not Jewish. Nor is Healy. So why is the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporting on this?

Healy, like many a rock-and-roller before him, is evidently something of a bad boy. This is not because his father is the actor who played Les/Leslie on Benidorm, a cross-dressing character of the 2010s who would probably not meet sensitivity standards of the 2020s. Nor is it Healy’s own past and present use of substances stronger than what one would associate with Swift, who has very young fans and a squeaky-clean image.

There is a long and storied history of people getting mega-invested in their favourite pop stars’ love lives, and indeed of pop stars having ‘relationships’ that are for-show-only, and about getting a media buzz going. But it is not Swift dating a grungier-than-usual rock star that has made the news, Jewish and otherwise.

No, as The New Yorker magazine deep dive into all things Matty Healy explains, people are mad at Swift for having done a racism-by-association. (One can gauge as much from the Onion‘s satirical coverage, “Fans Speculate Who Taylor Swift Might Be Talking About In New Song ‘My Weird Little Racist Guy.'”) But there’s a lot of haziness afoot. Swift only might be dating Healy, and Healy only might be a racist. The same could be said of us all.

What’s been a bit unusual about this story is the extent to which Jews have been included as one of the marginalized groups allegedly suffering from Swift’s alleged boyfriend’s alleged behaviour. Equity programs may not always think we count, but Swifties have our back. But, in this case, do they need to?

It’s clear enough from Jia Tolentino’s profile of him that Healy is a rock musician who cultivates an edgy image, but also that he’s someone whose politics are a bit muddled, as well as peripheral to his work. His band’s music comments on current affairs, but it is not current-affairs commentary. It is art, not op-ed.

As for Healy itself, it seems as if some of what he does gets taken—wilfully—out of context. I mean this generally, not just where Jews are concerned.

I had heard that he had said, years ago, that it would be “emasculating” to be dating Swift, which seemed gross, but is not quite it. Per Tolentino, “Healy, hounded for months to comment, said that having ‘Taylor Swift’s boyfriend’ as one’s public identity would be an ’emasculating thing.'” This sounds like him not wanting to be known as the boyfriend of a pop star. While “emasculating” is a provocative word choice (Healy likes to play with ideas about masculinity, in his music and his tattoos), it’s pretty normal (and gender-neutral) behaviour to not want to be known solely as someone else’s plus-one.

Then there’s the “Nazi salute” Healy gave during a concert. Nazis! In context—and I am getting this context from Hey Alma, a Jewish women’s-interest website, so hardly a bastion of Nazi apologists—he was mocking the antisemitism of Kanye “Ye” West and West’s supporter, the former U.S. president Donald Trump.

It does not strike me as far-fetched that a British person would do a Nazi salute to indicate that they believe someone else is behaving like a Nazi. I’m pretty sure a version of this happens on every British sitcom. It is only according to today’s hyper-simplistic understanding of comedy, wherein anyone satirizing a bigot is understood to be a bigot, that there’s any reason here to be concerned.

If I’m having trouble believing that Healy is a Nazi, it could be because he’s chummier with Jews than is your typical Nazi, who is not chummy with us at all. Yes, there’s the cliché of the racist who insists that some of their best friends are members of racialized groups. I am nevertheless standing by my theory that Nazis are not even pretending to have Jewish friends.

The 1975 has worked closely with songwriter and record producer Jack Antonoff, who is Jewish. The edgy podcast where Healy engaged in or laughed along at various forms of offensive humour, insulting to numerous groups, seemingly including Jews, was The Adam Friedland Show. The host is, as Adam Friedlands typically are, Jewish as well. The podcast itself sounds unpleasant but going on it does not seem like the act of a raging antisemite.

As for Healy having once posted the screenshot of Wikipedia’s “lists of Jews” page to his Instagram account, I have no idea why he did this. Frustratingly, Tolentino does not report on this. Maybe he’s a Nazi, or maybe he’s trying to figure out if someone is Jewish because he works for a Jewish publication (heh). Or perhaps—and this seems likeliest—he’s an all-purpose provocateur, without coherent politics or agenda, being edgy for its own sake, as rock stars are wont.

If anything, this story is good-for-the-Jews. It’s heartening that Taylor Swift’s massive fan base is concerned that we’ve been maligned. It’s reassuring that edgelord rock stars are using their attention-getting impulse to mock and not endorse antisemitism.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz