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19 February 2020

Taylor Swift personifies the internal battle so many of us fight: Bad Girl vs Good Girl

In new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, we watch Swift’s need to please people build up, both motivating and sometimes crushing her.

By Tracey Thorn

When I was 13 I kept a diary, in which I meticulously recorded what I had for dinner, what time I went to bed and what the weather was like. 

When Taylor Swift was 13 she, too, started a diary, only hers was titled “My Life, My Career, My Dream, My Reality”, and consisted of motivational messages to herself: “I want it so bad but I get so scared of what might happen. Relax. I can handle it. I’m young. I’m talented. They’ll see it in me. I’ve got  to hang on.”

I know all this only because I’ve just watched the documentary Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson. It’s a great film, pacy and well put-together, and is as insightful as it’s possible to be about the kind of celebrity who has had her life and career publicly mapped out since her teenage years, and who has a team of advisers hovering over her every move.

It’s a quotable film, because Swift’s skill as a songwriter is evident in her pithy statements, and because it is made up of vivid, telling little scenes, which together paint a picture of a huge star looking like they’re not having as much fun as they might be. An atmosphere of loneliness hangs over the film, like a chilly morning mist.

Swift grew up obsessed with pleasing people. “It was all I wanted,” she says, “it was all I wrote about… do the right thing, do the good thing.” As her story rolls along, we see the pressure build up, both motivating and sometimes crushing her.

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Alone with her cat, she takes a phone call informing her that she hasn’t been nominated for any of the main Grammy awards and with tears in her eyes she says: “This is good, this is fine, I just need to make a better record.” Backstage, in a sequin leotard, knee-high boots and fishnet tights, she sings in front of a dressing table cluttered with Elnett hairspray, nail polish remover and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

We see her arriving at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in a Cinderella coach, drawn by white horses. She’s 19 and she wins best video. Then suddenly, as she accepts her award, Kanye West is on stage saying the wrong woman won, and the crowd is booing – at her, she assumes, and her head drops like a rain-drenched flower on a stalk. She’s a star but now here comes the backlash, and clips rush by of people saying that “she’s too good, she’s too skinny” or that she’s “going through guys like a train”. A headline reads “Taylor Swift isn’t like other celebrities, she’s worse”; “LIAR!” screams the front page of a magazine.

After all this, she decides to fight back by making a statement denouncing a right-wing politician, against the will of her advisers, who ask, “Did Bob Hope do it? Did Bing Crosby do it?” You can see her thinking, Guys, it is the 21st century! They tell her that it will “halve the number of people who come to your next tour”, but – for the first time in her life? – she ignores them.

We cut to her sitting on the sofa with her publicist and her mum, about to send a political tweet to her 112 million followers. “The president could come after you,” one of them warns, to which she replies, “Yeah, fuck that I don’t care.” Each of them is holding a huge glass of white wine, and they look for all the world like three women on the razz, about to send a “fuck you” text to an ex. “One, two three – go!” they cry. Swift presses send and they get more wine while the news explodes.

It’s the moment when we clearly see her need to be good in conflict with her need to be fully human. It’s an internal battle that so many women fight. I think of the Kim Addonizio poem “Bad Girl”, in which she describes the wicked alter ego living inside every Good Girl: “She’s prettier than you/and right now you bore the shit out of her… She’s the one you’re scared of/the one who dares you to go ahead/and completely disappear.”

I don’t think the Good Taylor Swift will ever completely disappear, or that she’ll ever fully embrace her inner Bad Girl. But she certainly looks like someone who is trying to shake off the habit of being, as she puts it, “fulfilled by approval”. This film shows that, like lots of us, Swift is trying to be whole. As Cheryl Lynn put it, “To Be Real”. 

Next week: Pippa Bailey

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This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics