“My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” Taylor Swift admits in her new Netflix documentary, Miss Americana. “It was all I wrote about. It was all I wanted.”
The film both asks and answers the question: what happens when a celebrity is no longer in the spotlight? The answer: a revolution of sorts. Miss Americana serves as a combined call-to-action against cancel-culture, political apathy and internalized misogyny, as well as a coming-of-age story shining a light on the political and spiritual awakening of one of music’s biggest names.
While the American electorate battled it out in one of the most divisive presidential elections in modern history, 2016 brought a different kind of battle for Taylor Swift; one where there was seemingly no winning and no escape.
Kanye West had just released the track “Famous,” which Swift slammed for its derogatory lyrics, but West’s wife Kim Kardashian fired back by releasing secretly recorded videos of Swift giving her approval of the lyric: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.” Though Swift clarified she hadn’t approved the following line, “I made that b*tch famous,” the damage had been done. Snake emojis and the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty filled Twitter, and Swift did as the Internet told her: she went away.
“The summer before that election, all people were saying was, She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar. These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability?” Swift later told Vogue. “Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women. Literally millions of people were telling me to disappear. So I disappeared. In many senses.”
Miss Americana follows the Kanye West fallout and Swift’s year of silence as they preceded her
“come to Jesus” moment–figuratively and literally. In the first ten minutes of the film, we see Swift get the call that Reputation, her edgy and biting comeback album, wasn’t nominated for any Grammys. “This is fine. I just need to make a better record,” she says cooly. Despite her break from the spotlight, this is just another reminder that Swift’s days of being universally liked are behind her.
Reputation’s critical reception is one of many formative experiences documented throughout the film that force the megastar to challenge her own belief system. Her tabloid-induced eating disorder causes her to come face-to-face with the sexist expectations she sees placed on women. Swift’s sexual assault case awakes her activist spirit. Her mom’s second cancer diagnosis cemented her need for Jesus and forced her to get her priorities in order.
“It woke me up from this life where I used to sweat all these things, but, like, do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if you’re mom’s sick from her chemo?” she asks herself in the film.
And in typical millennial fashion, Swift’s political revolution came in the form of an Instagram post. In her first political statement ever, Swift endorsed former Tennessee Governor Steve Bresden in his Senate race against Republican Marsha Blackburn.
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” she wrote. “I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love.”
Blackburn, a self-described hardcore conservative who Swift refers to as “Trump in a wig,” was criticized by Swift for standing against LGBT+ and women’s rights, namely voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act which protects women from domestic abuse, stalking, rape and other violent crimes.
Miss Americana allows viewers a peek behind the curtains of that decision to finally come out about her political beliefs.
“This is something I know is right and I need to be on the right side of history,” Swift argues to a room of male associates.
“For twelve years, we’ve not gotten involved in politics or religion,” one says.
“I can’t see another commercial and see [Blackburn] disguising these policies behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values.’” Swift says. “Those aren’t Tennessee Christian values. I live in Tennessee. I’m a Christian. That’s not what we stand for.”
Ultimately, Blackburn was elected to the Senate in Tennessee, but Swift’s efforts weren’t without results. Within 24 hours of her Instagram post going up, 51,308 new voters registered in Tennessee. Since then, Swift has also spoken up for LGBT+ rights, including a link to a petition in support of the Equality Act at the end of her music video for “You Need to Calm Down.”
“I feel really good about not feeling muzzled anymore, and it was my own doing,” she said. “I needed to learn a lot before I spoke to 200 million people. But I’ve educated myself now, and it’s time to take the masking tape off of my mouth. Like forever.”
Towards the end of Miss Americana, we see Swift working on a new song, “Only The Young,” which has now been released along with the film. It’s a sharp departure from her love songs of the past.
“They’re not gonna help us/Too busy helping themselves/They aren’t gonna change this/We’re going to do it ourselves,” she sings.
“It’s basically saying don’t lose hope,” Swift described the song. “If you can just shift the power in your direction by being bold enough, then it won’t be like this forever.”
Swift’s personal life has always been clouded by mystery, and some of it probably always will be; her songs full of symbolism to be decoded, and her lips sealed when it comes to questions of relationships, religion or politics. But not anymore. Though it was released 12 years ago, perhaps it’s the name of Swift’s second studio album that can best describe the new era of Taylor Swift: fearless.