The Netflix documentary sees the megastar at her most outspoken
There are plenty of moments Taylor Swift gets emotional in her new Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, but there’s one that sticks out. “I’m saying right now that this is something that I know is right, and I need to be on the right side of history,” she tells her mother Andrea and father Scott, before stammering into tears of frustration. “I need you to know that this is something important to me … I live in Tennessee. I am Christian. That is not what we stand for.” It’s a familiar feeling of exasperation for anyone who has argued with a contrarian relative over a Sunday roast.
The debate the family are having is about whether Swift should publicly endorse two Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, and in turn denounce [eventual winner] Marsha Blackburn who voted against the reauthorisation of the Violence Against Women Act and is against gay marriage. Her father is concerned about her safety – “I’m the one who went out and bought armoured cars” – while another man, presumably from her management team, is worried it will negatively affect her career.
Anyone who follows Swift on Instagram will know that in October 2018, she did make the statement. “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,” she wrote.
The moment she makes her first political assertions after being in the public eye for more than a decade is a big deal.
Her publicist Tree Paine and mother gather around her with bated breath, before giggling with anxiety when she clicks “share”. “I really hope it actually does something,” she says later. And while her influence doesn’t stretch far enough to swing in her favour, her post did inspire over 51,000 people to register to vote in just 24 hours. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
In 2020, it’s hardly surprising when a pop star admits that they think an anti-gay politician who is opposed to women’s rights is not fit for office. But when that pop star is Taylor Swift – a woman who commenters decided must be right-wing because of her long silence – the tectonic plates of celebrity and politics crash together with a little more clout.
After her music career took off in 2006 with the release of her first album, Swift was thrust into a world obsessed with her love life, her body, her friends and her politics. She was publicly apolitical for the best part of 10 years, and deflected any questions about who she voted for. In an archive interview shown in Miss Americana she says, “I’m a 22-year-old singer and I don’t know if people want to hear my political views. I think they just want to hear me sing songs about breakups and feelings.” She smiles as she says it, but thanks to hindsight you can now tell how uncomfortable she was keeping her thoughts to herself.
Now – especially since the rise of Trump – we expect those in the public eye to be open about who they support. An artist thought to be supporting the wrong candidate could face not only severe criticism but an outright boycott. Take Kanye West for example, who sat opposite Donald Trump in the Oval Office wearing a Make America Great Again hat, just days after Swift’s Instagram post. The outrage at West’s support for a president often accused of racism was deafening.
West, of course, appears in Miss Americana himself. In 2009, the rapper interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech for the Video of the Year award at the MTV VMAs, taking the microphone and explaining to the booing crowd that “Beyoncé had one of the best music videos of all time.” Swift, who was left dumbfounded, explains that at the time she thought they were booing her for beating Beyoncé, and that sent her into a spiral of self-flagellation and confusion. It is no wonder that this “formative experience” kept Swift from putting her head above the parapet.
There is also the case of the Dixie Chicks – a cautionary tale recited to pop stars should they ever get grand ideas about publicly supporting a politician. At a London concert in 2003, the band made a (now throwaway) comment about their disappointment that then-president George Bush hailed from their home state of Texas. As a result they were – in today’s vernacular of the internet – cancelled.
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This considered, it becomes clear that it was fear, not indifference, that shut Taylor Swift up.
Now, it seems Swift has recognised what a privileged position she had to choose to be silent, and regrets it. In the argument over whether she should post on Instagram, she tells her father, “Back in the presidential debate, I was in such a horrendous place that I wasn’t going to pop my head out of the sand for anything.”
Swift’s worst nightmare – to be hated – was realised, and cemented by her lack of Grammy nominations for her 2017 album reputation. She suddenly found herself with nothing to be afraid of and, as she fell in love with British actor Joe Alwyn (who appears only briefly), wrote last year’s much calmer Lover – a universally acclaimed record about love, with a couple of politically charged songs (Miss Americana, The Man and You Need To Calm Down) thrown in for good measure. Three Grammy nominations followed suit, though realising the empty validation in seeking awards, she didn’t show up to the ceremony.
The documentary itself doesn’t hit every mark – unsurprisingly, the star still does not talk about any aspect of her private life in any depth – but it does give the impression that, as she enters her thirties, this is just the beginning for Taylor Swift as a pop-political figurehead. Whatever comes next, Trump should get ready for it.