Taylor Swift’s Feminine Quandary

Taylor Swift at the American Movie Awards in Los Angeles, November 24, 2019. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
The pressures Swift faces are more asphyxiating than those that squeezed the life out of many male predecessors.

It looked a bit comical from a distance when Kanye West bigfooted Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards with his “Imma let you finish” interposition. But Swift, then 19, was genuinely crushed: “I thought that they were booing me,” she explains now. Of course! A male artist would have allowed his aggression to surge, gotten angry, ordered Ye to step off, bro. Swift, though, is definitively feminine. She is eager, indeed anxious, about being pleasing. “For someone who has built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you,” she says, “the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”

Swift doesn’t add this, indeed can’t add this because some things can’t be said, but the racial element must have been particularly unnerving. A black artist interrupted her to say that another black artist (Beyoncé) had been robbed of the trophy Swift was holding. She must have felt stamped a beneficiary of racism and that the crowd agreed with West. What could she do except disintegrate?

Swift walks us through all of this in Miss Americana, the new Netflix documentary that is partly (an extremely circumspect) biography, partly the story of the making of her latest pop masterpiece, and partly an apologia for her political awakening. The film is convincing evidence that you can bestride the planet like a sparkly cheeked, thigh-booted Colossus (Colossa?) and yet feel besieged, beleaguered, and frail. “There’s a part of me,” Swift says, “that feels like I’m 57 years old.”

Understandable. The pressures Swift faces are more asphyxiating than those that squeezed the life out of many male predecessors. John Lennon didn’t need to worry about whether people would say mean things about his tummy, and Kurt Cobain didn’t have to master dance moves or come up with a new look every 18 months. Swift is so talented that she could sell out Madison Square Garden if she looked like Dianne Feinstein, but her teen-girl fan base is so visually oriented that she faces another level of toil atop the necessity to keep coming up with great songs. Under the circumstances, Lover, an album alive with Tigger-ish jubilance in tracks such as the affirmational “ME!” and the adorable “Paper Rings,” feels like a spectacular comeback, especially after the doomy fug of her previous record, Reputation, in which resentment, frustration, and anger started to be a drag on her talent. “Maybe I got mine but you’ll all get yours,” she intoned, seethingly. Lover, though, is so world-crackingly brilliant it was even shut out at the Grammys, the idiot rodeo where Christopher Cross is adjudged better than London Calling and A Taste of Honey (that’s Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) towers over the Beatles’ Revolver. Even a slightly preachy song on Lover, “You Need to Calm Down,” is a bubble show of fun, and in one especially delightful moment in the documentary, Swift explains the reasoning behind “ME!”: “I just want kids to be, like, ‘There’s no one like me!’” In the coming Billie Eilish documentary, I fully expect a scene in which she explains how her songs are, par contre, meant to inspire kids to cut themselves.

Miss Americana gives us a few glimpses of Swift devising killer hooks for the album and discreetly refers to Swift’s current romance without mentioning the boy in question, the English actor Joe Alwyn. The best bits are the ones fraught with tender candor. Swift is seen being disappointed to hear over the phone that Reputation didn’t get any significant Grammy love. Assessing her dance moves in a video, she compares herself to the slowest rhino in a stampede: “First to get eaten.” She asserts, “I have a really slappable face.”

I’m not sure Lennon carried this burden either, but Swift cares deeply about what peers and fans think of her, hence song lyrics reacting to what irrelevant life forms say about her on social media. She notes that #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty once ruled Twitter chatter and allows that her own pictures fill her with disgust: a bit of convexity in the midsection will “trigger me to just starve a little bit, to just stop eating.” She says she had an eating disorder, and dismal pictures from a few years ago provide the proof, although it’s all in the past, or so she thinks. She is no longer as thin as the average butter knife or pack of Dentyne, but it’s a struggle to accept that this is fine: “We’re changing the channel in our brain — ‘we’re not doing that anymore,’” goes her internal monologue.

The final act of the film finds Swift wading into politics, which turn out to be defined by a belief that the GOP is a gay-hating den of misogyny. Advisers are shown urging her to remain a lighthouse of nonpartisanship in a roiling sea of disputation — imagine, says one, doing something that could “halve the number of people that come to your next tour” — but the singer insists that she is passionate about her beliefs and can no longer leave them unsaid. She joins the Resistance by giving her Instagram endorsement to a Tennessee Democrat in a 2018 Senate race that the Republican, Marsha Blackburn, would win by double digits. Swift is seen calling President Trump “a homophobic racist” and the GOP “fascist” and says she can’t stay neutral about gay people when “someone’s literally coming for their neck.”

Is that so? In Swift’s imagining, if Democrats don’t win elections, “If you even look like a gay couple you [can] be kicked out of a restaurant.” Given that the only people getting chased out of restaurants on ideological grounds these days appear to be Trump supporters, Swift would be wise to follow through on her expressed desire to “educate myself” about who the bullies of our culture are, and who they aren’t. I got a blank space in this NR subscription form, Taylor, and I’ll write your name.

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