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Taylor Swift: No Longer ‘Polite at All Costs’
“Not a shot. Not a single chance. Not a snowball’s chance in hell.”
Taylor Swift — who, at 30, has reached a Zen state of cheerful realism — laughs as she leans into a pillow she’s placed over her crossed legs inside her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, leaning further still into her infinitesimal odds of winning a Golden Globe, which will zero out when she heads down to the televised ball in a few hours.
Never mind whether or not the tune she co-wrote, “Beautiful Ghosts,” might actually have been worthy of a trophy for best original song (or shortlisted for an Oscar, which it was not). Since the Globe nominations were revealed, voters could hardly have been immune to how quickly the film it’s a part of, “Cats,” in which she also co-stars, became a whipping boy for jokes about costly Hollywood miscalculations and creative disasters. Not that you’ll hear Swift utter a discouraging word about it all. “I’m happy to be here, happy to be nominated, and I had a really great time working on that weird-ass movie,” she declares. “I’m not gonna retroactively decide that it wasn’t the best experience. I never would have met Andrew Lloyd Webber or gotten to see how he works, and now he’s my buddy. I got to work with the sickest dancers and performers. No complaints.” Subscribe Today
If this leads you to believe that the pop superstar is in the business of sugarcoating things, consider her other new movie — a vastly more significant documentary that presents Swift not just sans digital fur but without a whole lot of the varnish of the celebrity-industrial complex. The Netflix-produced “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” has a prestige slot as the Jan. 23 opening night gala premiere of the Sundance Film Festival before it reaches the world as a day-and-date theatrical release and potential streaming monster on Jan. 31.
The doc spends much of its opening act juxtaposing the joys of creation with the aggravations of global stardom — the grist of many a pop doc, if rendered in especially intimate detail — before taking a more provocative turn in its last reel to focus more tightly on how and why Swift became a political animal. It’s the story of an earnest young woman with a self-described “good girl” fixation working through her last remaining fears of being shamed as she comes to embrace her claws, and her causes.
Given that the film portrays how gradually, and sometimes reluctantly, Swift came to place herself into service as a social commentator, “Miss Americana” is a portrait of the birth of an activist. Director Lana Wilson sets the movie up so that it pivots on a couple of big letdowns for its subject. The first comes early in the film, and early in the morning, when Swift’s publicist calls to update her on how many of the top three Grammy categories her 2017 album “Reputation” is nominated for: zilch. She’s clearly bummed about the record’s brushoff by the awards’ nominating committee, as just about anyone who’d previously won album of the year twice would be, and determinedly tells her rep that she’s just going to make a better record.
But she suffers what feels like a more meaningful blow toward the end of the film. In the fall of 2018, Swift finally comes out of the closet politically to intervene on behalf of Democrats in a midterm election in her home state of Tennessee. As the Washington Post put it, this announcement “fell like a hammer across the Trump-worshipping subforums of the far-right Internet, where people had convinced themselves… that the world-famous pop star was a secret MAGA fan.” Donald Trump goes on camera to smirk that he now likes Swift’s music a little less. The singer is successful in enlisting tens of thousands of young people to register to vote, but her senatorial candidate of choice, Democrat Phil Bredesen, loses to Republican Marsha Blackburn, whom she’d called out as a flagrant enemy of feminism and gay rights.
“Definitely, that was a bigger disappointment for me,” Swift says, pitting the midterm snub against the Grammy snub. “I think what’s going on out in the world is bigger than who gets a prize at the party.”
It was not always thus for Swift — as the detractors who dragged her for staying quiet during the last presidential election eagerly pointed out. If you had to pick the most embarrassing or regrettable moment in “Miss Americana,” it might be the TV clip from “The Late Show With David Letterman” in which the host brings up politics and gets Swift to essentially advocate the “Shut up and sing” mantra. As the studio audience roars approval of her vow to stay apolitical, Letterman gives her what now looks like history’s most dated fist bump.
Thinking back on it, Swift is incredulous. “Every time I didn’t speak up about politics as a young person, I was applauded for it,” she says. “It was wild. I said, ‘I’m a 22-year-old girl — people don’t want to hear what I have to say about politics.’ And people would just be like, ‘Yeahhhhh!’”
At that point, Swift was already starting to record isolated pop tracks, taking baby steps that would soon turn into full strides away from her initial genre. But whether she had designs on switching lanes or not, the lesson of the Dixie Chicks’ forced exile after Natalie Maines’ comment against then-President George W. Bush had branded itself onto her brain at an earlier age, when she’d just planted her young-teen flag in Nashville and overheard a lot of the lamentations of older Music Row songwriters about how the Chicks had thrown it all away.
“I saw how one comment ended such a powerful reign, and it terrified me,” says Swift. “These days, with social media, people can be so mad about something one day and then forget what they were mad about a couple weeks later. That’s fake outrage. But what happened to the Dixie Chicks was real outrage. I registered it — that you’re always one comment away from being done being able to make music.”
Maybe the most transfixing scene in “Miss Americana” is one where Swift argues with her father and other members of her team about the statement she’s about to release coming out against Blackburn and — it’s clear from her references to White House opposition to the Equality Act — Donald Trump too. The comments were so spontaneous that Wilson wasn’t there to film the moment, but the director had asked people to turn on the camera if anything interesting transpired, and here it most certainly did.
“For 12 years, we’ve not got involved in politics or religion,” an unnamed associate says to Swift, suggesting that going down the road of standing against a president as well as Republican gubernatorial and Senate candidates could have the effect of halving her audience on tour. Her father chimes in: “I’ve read the entire [statement] and … right now, I’m terrified. I’m the guy that went out and bought armored cars.”
“I needed to get to a point where I was ready, able and willing to call out bullshit rather than just smiling my way through it.”
But Swift is adamant about pressing the button to send a nearly internet-breaking Instagram post, saying that Blackburn has voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act as well as LGBTQ-friendly bills: “I can’t see another commercial [with] her disguising these policies behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values.’ I live in Tennessee. I am Christian. That’s not what we stand for.” Pushing back tears, she laments not having come out against Trump two years earlier, “but I can’t change that. … I need to be on the right side of history. … Dad, I need you to forgive me for doing it, because I’m doing it.”
Says Swift now, “This was a situation where, from a humanity perspective, and from what my moral compass was telling me I needed to do, I knew I was right, and I really didn’t care about repercussions.” She understands why she faced such heated opposition in the room: “My dad is terrified of threats against my safety and my life, and he has to see how many stalkers we deal with on a daily basis, and know that this is his kid. It’s where he comes from.”
Swift was recently announced as the recipient of a Vanguard Award from GLAAD, and she name-checked the org in her basher-bashing single “You Need to Calm Down,” which was released as one of the teaser tracks for last fall’s more outwardly directed and socially conscious “Lover” album. Part of her politicization, she says, is feeling it would be hypocritical to hang out with her gay friends while leaving them to their own devices politically. In the film, she says, “I think it is so frilly and spineless of me to stand onstage and go ‘Happy Pride Month, you guys,’ and then not say this, when someone’s literally coming for their neck.”
A year and a half later, she elaborates: “To celebrate but not advocate felt wrong for me. Using my voice to try to advocate was the only choice to make. Because I’ve talked about equality and sung about it in songs like ‘Welcome to New York,’ but we are at a point where human rights are being violated. When you’re saying that certain people can be kicked out of a restaurant because of who they love or how they identify, and these are actual policies that certain politicians vocally stand behind, and they disguise them as family values, that is sinister. So, so dark.”
Her increasing alignment with the LGBTQ community wasn’t the only thing raising her consciousness to a breaking — i.e., speaking — point. So did the sexual assault trial in which judgment was rendered that she had been groped by a DJ in a backstage photo op (for financial restitution, Swift had asked for $1).
Her experience with the trial was crucial, she says, in finding herself “needing to speak up about beliefs I’d always had, because it felt like an opportunity to shed light on what those trials are like. I experienced it as a person with extreme privilege, so I can only imagine what it’s like when you don’t have that. And I think one theme that ended up emerging in the film is what happens when you are not just a people pleaser but someone who’s always been respectful of authority figures, doing what you were supposed to do, being polite at all costs. I still think it’s important to be polite, but not at all costs,” she says. “Not when you’re being pushed beyond your limits, and not when people are walking all over you. I needed to get to a point where I was ready, able and willing to call out bulls— rather than just smiling my way through it.”
That came into play when Kanye West stepped into her life and publicly shamed her a second time. In the video Kim Kardashian released in 2016, you can hear the people-pleasing Swift on the other end of the line sheepishly thanking him for letting her know about the “Me and Taylor might still have sex” line he plans to include about her in a song — only to regret it later when the eventual track also includes the claim “Why? I made that bitch famous.” The boast, of course, referred back to the moment when he interrupted her and stole her spotlight at the MTV VMAs six years earlier as she was in the middle of an acceptance speech. West’s is not a name that ever publicly escapes Swift’s lips, so it might be surprising to fans that these events are recapped in “Miss Americana,” although Swift says the filmic decisions were all up to the director, who explains that Swift’s reaction to the episode was important to include.
“With the 2009 VMAs, it surprised me that when she talked about how the whole crowd was booing, she thought that they were booing her, and how devastating that was,” says Wilson. “That was something I hadn’t thought about or heard before, and made it much more relatable and understandable to anyone.”
“I see the movie as looking at the flip side of being America’s sweetheart.”
Lana Wilson, director of “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana”
Swift acknowledges how formative both incidents have been in her life, for ill and good. “As a teenager who had only been in country music, attending my very first pop awards show,” she says now, “somebody stood up and sent me the message: ‘You are not respected here. You shouldn’t be here on this stage.’ That message was received, and it burrowed into my psyche more than anyone knew. … That can push you one of two ways: I could have just curled up and decided I’m never going to one of those events ever again, or it could make me work harder than anyone expects me to, and try things no one expected, and crave that respect — and hopefully one day get it.
“But then when that person who sparked all of those feelings comes back into your life, as he did in 2015, and I felt like I finally got that respect (from West), but then soon realized that for him it was about him creating some revisionist history where he was right all along, and it was correct, right and decent for him to get up and do that to a teenage girl…” She sighs. “I understand why Lana put it in.”
Adds the woman who started her recent “Lover” album with a West-allusive romp that’s pointedly called “I Forgot That You Existed”: “I don’t think too hard about this stuff now.”
What’s not in the film is any mention of her other most famous nemeses — Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records, with whom she’s scrapped publicly for several months. “The Big Machine stuff happened pretty late in our process,” says Wilson. “We weren’t that far from picture lock. But there’s also not much to say that isn’t publicly known. I feel like Taylor’s put the story out there in her own words already, and it’s been widely covered. I was interested in telling the story that hadn’t been told before, that would be surprising and emotionally powerful to audiences whether they were music industry people or not.”
Still, the way Swift has been willing to stand up politically for others parallels the manner in which she stood up for herself in regard to Braun, et al., at the recent Billboard Women in Music Awards, where she gave an altogether blistering speech, naming names and taking no prisoners, going after the men who now control her six-album Big Machine back catalog. Certainly Swift was aware that, along with supporters, there were many friends and business associates of Braun among the VIPs in the Hollywood Palladium who would not be pleased with what this very reformed people-pleaser had to say.
One thing everyone who was in the room agrees on is that you could hear a pin drop as Swift used the speech to get even bolder about the meat of these disputes. Some would say it’s because they were riveted by her boldness in speaking truth to power, others because they just felt uncomfortable. Says one fellow honoree who works in a high position in the industry (and who’s worked with some high-profile Braun clients): “People were excited for her at the beginning of the speech. But once she started going in a negative direction at an event that is supposed to be celebrating accomplishments and rah-rah for women, I felt it fell flat with a good portion of the room, because it wasn’t the appropriate place to be saying it.”
Wasn’t it intimidating for Swift, knowing she might be polarizing an auditorium full of the most powerful people in the business? “Well, I do sleep well at night knowing that I’m right,” she responds, “and knowing that in 10 years it will have been a good thing that I spoke about artists’ rights to their art, and that we bring up conversations like: Should record deals maybe be for a shorter term, or how are we really helping artists if we’re not giving them the first right of refusal to purchase their work if they want to?”
“Obviously, anytime you’re standing up against or for anything, you’re never going to receive unanimous praise. But that’s what forces you to be brave. And that’s what’s different about the way I live my life now.” (Braun’s camp could not be reached for comment.)
One thing Taylor Swift can’t bend to her determined will is her family’s health. She revealed a few years ago that her mother, Andrea, a beloved figure among the thousands of fans who’ve met her at road shows, is battling an undisclosed type of cancer. Swift addressed the uncertainty of that struggle in an anguished song on her latest album, “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Many who view “Miss Americana” will look for signs of how her mom is doing. The subject comes up in a section of the film that includes a relatively light-hearted scene in in which it’s shown that one of Andrea Swift’s ways of saying “eff you” to cancer recently was to break the mold and bring a canine — her “cancer dog” — into a famously feline-friendly family.
The real answer may come in Swift’s touring activity for “Lover.” Whereas typically she’d spend nine months in the year after an album release on the road, she plans to limit herself to four stadium dates in America this summer and a trip around the festival circuit in Europe. This may not be 100% for personal reasons: “I wanted to be able to perform in places that I hadn’t performed in as much, and to do things I hadn’t done before, like Glastonbury,” she says. “I feel like I haven’t done festivals, really, since early in my career — they’re fun and bring people together in a really cool way. But I also wanted to be able to work as much as I can handle right now, with everything that’s going on at home. And I wanted to figure out a way that I could do both those things.”
Is being able to be there for her mother the main concern? “Yeah, that’s it. That’s the reason,” she says. “I mean, we don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t know what treatment we’re going to choose. It just was the decision to make at the time, for right now, for what’s going on.”
In her case, it’s as if her manager had taken seriously ill as well as the person she’s always been closest to, all at once. “Everyone loves their mom; everyone’s got an important mom,” she allows. “But for me, she’s really the guiding force. Almost every decision I make, I talk to her about it first. So obviously it was a really big deal to ever speak about her illness.” During filming, when Andrea’s cancer had returned for a second time, “she was going through chemo, and that’s a hard enough thing for a person to go through.” Then it got harder. Speaking about this latest development publicly for the first time, Swift quietly reveals: “While she was going through treatment, they found a brain tumor. And the symptoms of what a person goes through when they have a brain tumor is nothing like what we’ve ever been through with her cancer before. So it’s just been a really hard time for us as a family.”
Compared with that, nearly any other topic the movie might address would pale. But it finds weightiness in addressing other kinds of unhealthiness, like the physical expectations that are placed on women in general and celebrity women specifically, Swift being no exception. In this department, she has her own heroines. “I love people like Jameela Jamil, because the way she speaks about body image, it’s almost like she speaks in a hook. Women are held to such a ridiculous standard of beauty, and we’re seeing so much on social media that makes us feel like we are less than, or we’re not what we should be, that you kind of need a mantra to repeat in your head when you start to have unhealthy thoughts. I swear the way Jameela speaks is like lyrics — it gets stuck in my head and it calms me down.”
Swift’s collaborator in this messaging, Wilson, was on a list of potential directors Netflix gave her when she expressed interest in possibly doing a documentary to follow the concert special that premiered on the service just over a year ago. You could discern a feminist message, if you chose to, in the fact that Swift chose a director most well known for a documentary about abortion providers, “After Tiller.” Swift says she was most impressed, though, that Wilson’s docs look for nuance and subtlety in addressing subjects that do lend themselves to soapboxes, and their first conversation was about their mutual desire to avoid “propaganda” in any form.
If there’s a feminist agenda in “Miss Americana,” Wilson and Swift wanted it to emerge naturally, although the director admits it was pretty blatant from the outset, given that she set up the film (which is co-produced by Morgan Neville, the director’s “sounding board”) with an all-female crew. Or nearly all-female, says Wilson, laughing, “I will say that we did always have male production assistants, because I like trying to show people that men can fetch coffee for women.”
Adds Wilson, “When I started filming, it was before she’d come out politically. She knew that she was coming out of a very dark period, and wanted collaborate on something that captured what she was going through and that was really raw and honest and emotionally intimate.” The political awakening, the director says, “was a profound decision for her to make. In that, I saw this feminist coming of age story that I personally connected with, and that I really think women and girls around the world will see themselves in.”
“The bigger your career gets, the more you struggle with the idea that a lot of people see you the same way they see an iPhone or a Starbucks.”
The film borrows its title from a song on the “Lover” album, “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince,” that’s maybe the one fully allegorical song Swift has ever released — and, in its fashion, is a great protest song. The entire lyric is a metaphor for how Swift grew up as an unblinking patriot and has had to reluctantly leave behind her naiveté in the age of Trump. Her partner on that track, as well as other message songs like “You Need to Calm Down” and “The Man,” was a co-writer and co-producer new to her stable of collaborators this time around, Joel Little.
With the song “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince,” although the lyrics are cloaked in metaphor, “We like to think it was a very clear statement,” Little says. “There are lots of little hidden messages within that song that are all pointing toward the way that she thinks and feels about politics and the United States. I love that it uses a lot of classic Taylor Swift imagery, in terms of the songwriting topics of high school and cheerleaders, as a clever nod to what she’s done in the past, but tied in with a heavy political message.”
“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” doesn’t actually appear in the documentary, but the director says the film’s title is understood by fans as an obvious reference to political themes in the number. “Even if you don’t know the song,” Wilson says, “I see the movie as looking at the flip side of being America’s sweetheart, so I like how the title evokes that too.”
The doc doesn’t lack for its own protest songs though. In the wake of her midterm disappointment, Swift is seen writing an anthem for millennials who might have come away disillusioned with the political process. That previously unheard song, “Only the Young,” is seen being demo-ed before it plays in full over the end credits; it’ll be released as a digital single in conjunction with the doc. (See a full story on the new song here.) Key lyric: ““You did all that you could do / The game was rigged, the ref got tricked/ The wrong ones think they’re right / We were outnumbered — this time.”
“One thing I think is amazing about her,” says Wilson, “is that she goes to the studio and to songwriting as a place to process what she’s going through. I loved how, when she got the Grammy news (about “Reputation”), this isn’t someone who’s going to feel sorry for herself or say ‘That wasn’t right.’ She’s like, ‘Okay, I’m going to work even harder.’ You see her strength of character in that moment when she gets that news. And then with the election results, I loved how she channeled so many of her thoughts and feelings into ‘Only the Young.’ It was a great way to kind of show how stuff that happens in her life goes directly into the songs; you get to witness that in both cases.
So is the film aimed at satisfying the fan base or teasing the unconvinced hordes who might dial it up as a free stream? “I think it’s a little bit of both,” Swift says. “I chose Netflix because it’s a very vast, accessible medium to people who are just like, ‘Hey, what’s this? I’m bored.’ I love that, because I do so many things that cater specifically to fans that like my music, I think it’s important to put yourself out there to people who don’t care at all about you.”
In the wake of the last round of Kanye-gate, stung by the backlash of those who took his side, Swift took a three-year break from interviews. The mantra of her 2017 album “Reputation” and subsequent tour was “No explanations.” But her Beyoncé-style press blackout was a passing phase. With “Lover” and now, especially, the documentary, she could hardly be more about the explanations. Although this interview is the only one she currently plans to do about the documentary, it’s clear that she’s come back into a season of openness, and that she considers it her natural habitat.
“I really like the whole discussion around music. And during ‘Reputation,’ it never felt like it was ever going to be about music, no matter what I said or did,” she says. “I approach albums differently, in how I want to show them to the world or what I feel comfortable with at that time in my life.” Being more transparent “feels great with this album. I really feel like I could just keep making stuff — it’s that vibe right now. I don’t think I’ve ever written this much. That’s exhibited in ‘Lover’ having the most songs that I’ve ever had on an album” (18, to be exact). “But even after I made the album, I kept writing and going in the studio. That’s a new thing I’ve experienced this time around. That openness kind of feels like you finally got the lid off a jar you’ve been working at for years.”
Cipher-dom never could have stood for long for someone who’s established herself as one of the most accomplished confessional singer-songwriters in pop history. “I don’t really operate very well as an enigma,” she says. “It’s not fulfilling to me. It works really well in a lot of pop careers, but I think that it makes me feel completely unable to do what I had gotten in this to do, which is to communicate to people. I live for the feeling of standing on a stage and saying, ‘I feel this way,’ and the crowd responding with ‘We do too!’ And me being like, ‘Really?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes!’”
Swift believes talking things up again isn’t a form of giving in to narcissism — it’s a way of warding off commodification.
“The bigger your career gets, the more you struggle with the idea that a lot of people see you the same way they see an iPhone or a Starbucks,” she muses. “They’ve been inundated with your name in the media, and you become a brand. That’s inevitable for me, but I do think that it’s really necessary to feel like I can still communicate with people. And as a songwriter, it’s really important to still feel human and process things in a human way. The through line of all that is humanity, and reaching out and talking to people and having them see things that aren’t cute.