Halfway through the second verse of “The Man,” the bouncy, double-standard-bashing fourth track off Taylor Swift’s most recent album, the singer’s voice turns flinty and furious. “When everyone believes ya/What's that like?” she sings, biting into every syllable.
That line catapults me back to Denver in August 2017, when Swift won a sexual-assault civil suit against former KYGO DJ David Mueller, who groped her during a 2013 meet-and-greet. It was two months before #MeToo became a topic of national conversation, and I remember the glimmer of doubt I felt, sitting with the rest of the press in a courtroom pew, just before the jury announced its verdict. What if, despite all the witnesses and photographic evidence to the contrary, the jurors didn’t believe her?
That Denver trial — grueling, victim-doubting, infuriating — galvanized her, Swift says in Lana Meyer's Miss Americana, the new Netflix documentary chronicling the performer’s move to break her longstanding and conspicuous silence on politics.
“Something is different in my life, completely and unchangeably different, since the sexual-assault trial,” she says in the film, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January. “I couldn’t really stop thinking about it. And I thought to myself, ‘Next time there’s any opportunity to change anything, you had better know what you stand for and what you wanna say.’”
Meyer’s documentary reveals another undercurrent between the 2017 court case and Swift’s initial reluctance to politicize her platform: a deep-rooted psychological need to be liked, to be good.
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“I questioned why I taught her to be so polite,” Andrea Swift, Taylor’s mother, said on the stand, crying, when the “Why was Taylor smiling in the photo and being so nice, if her butt was being groped?” line of cross-examination came up. When it came to politics, the pop star herself explains that she’d internalized the same message: “A nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people,” Swift recounts in the documentary, and “doesn’t make people uncomfortable.” Over the past few years, though, she’s learned to care less about being universally likable.
Miss Americana revisits the Kanye-Taylor saga that began at the 2009 MTV VMAs and culminated in the “apocalypse” (Swift’s words) summer of 2016 — but its gendered contours are all too familiar. I know I have kneecapped my sincerely held opinions because I didn’t want to be labeled “stringent,” contorted myself [“into a pretzel on an hourly basis,” as Swift says] in an attempt to satisfy as many people as possible. The burden of making yourself palatable doesn’t apply to [white, straight] men — DJ Mueller, for instance, got a post-trial gig as “Stonewall Jackson” at a Mississippi radio station. For West, too, being a self-professed asshole has paid dividends.
One of the first visible breaks in Swift’s unshakeable politeness came in her frank, angry trial testimony — apparently the most times the word “ass” had been uttered in Colorado federal court. A few months later, with the release of Reputation, which saw the erstwhile country darling professing, over scraping synths, “I did something bad/Then why's it feel so good?,” Swift took up a bad-girl persona that felt somewhat forced. But the real turning point, when the old, uncontroversial girl-next-door Taylor actually died and the Difficult Woman version of Swift emerged, seems to have come in fall 2018, when Swift pressed post on an Instagram announcing she’d be casting her ballot for Democrat Phil Bredesen over arch-conservative Marsha Blackburn in the Tennessee Senate race and urging her fans to register to vote. As soon as the Instagram went live, Swift’s mother and publicist cover their faces, bracing for impact. For her part, Swift says she felt “200 pounds lighter.”
While Swift’s social-media advocacy did probably cause a voter registration spike among young voters, it wasn’t enough to marshal Tennessee against Blackburn, who is now the state’s junior senator. Still, in the moment in the documentary when Taylor, arms crossed, dared to hope aloud that her action might actually make an impact in the demoralizing realm of politics, I felt a pang of empathy, just as I had when, close to tears and reciting a litany of policy positions, she argued with her father and management about why it feels urgent to, well, speak now about politics.
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Miss Americana isn’t all activism. It has a delightfully nostalgic montage that traces Swift’s musical (and hair style) evolution, from ringlets and ball gowns and twangy guitar to spangled unitards and stadium tours. Swift talks with poignant frankness about her mother’s cancer and her own disordered eating. She wears many, many items of cat-themed apparel throughout. You get several glimpses into the recording studio as Swift and producers hash out her hits. There are glimpses behind the celebrity curtain, too; she mouths “I love you” mid-acoustic-song to notoriously private boyfriend Joe Alwyn, and, prepping, dons a disco-ball-splendor Balmain dress to attend the AMAs.
The film's not perfect. As the documentary wraps up, it breezes through the production of the music video for Swift’s LGBTQ+-allyship anthem, “You Need to Calm Down,” positioning the singer as Taylor Swift, Political Warrior Ready for Battle. It would be more interesting, and more realistic, to address some of the backlash to that song or see her dive into the thorny work of educating herself on privilege and allyship — and probably messing up in the process — that Swift alluded to having done in an interview with the Guardian last year. After all, having one’s political involvement come as an offshoot of one’s personal self-actualization — Swift frames it herself as a belated “growing up” — isn’t a luxury everyone has.
Women in entertainment need to constantly reinvent themselves, Swift reflects toward the end of the documentary, a tightrope of retaining fans while simultaneously changing enough to avoid becoming obsolete. For all the labeling of the pop princess as a canny image-crafter, the personal and political coming of age that the Denver trial fed into feels genuine.
Growing up, Swift remembers, she idolized the Dixie Chicks, and then the country-music industry turned the group into a cautionary tale after they spoke out against George W. Bush. It seems fitting, then, that this outspoken, maybe even liberated, Taylor Swift has a deeply personal song on her new album in which, for the first time, the Chicks and Swift sing together.