Early on in Miss Americana, the new Taylor Swift documentary, the then-16-year-old singer takes a moment to celebrate “Tim McGraw,” the 2006 hit that made her the youngest artist ever to write a No. 1 country song that she also performed.
“I give myself, like, five seconds a day to say, ‘Yes, this is happening!' " the curly-haired, whip-smart teenager from Wyomissing, Pa., exults. “The rest of the time I’m trying to figure out how to make it last.”
She hasn’t done too badly: seven million-selling albums, two Grammy album of the year trophies, and legions of fans who pack stadiums wherever she goes. And her latest album, last year’s Lover, is both her most mature effort and a creative rebound after the mild disappointment of 2017’s Reputation.
Yet, to hear Swift tell it in the Netflix movie directed by Lana Wilson, all that success came at a cost: keeping her mouth shut.
Miss Americana is about Swift becoming self-aware. It starts slowly, tracking her rise to fame and rehashing battles with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
The doc gets seriously compelling, though, when it sends a camera into the recording studio to capture her creative process, and when it focuses on two transformative events outside.
The first was a 2017 trial stemming from the singer’s allegation that Denver DJ David Mueller sexually assaulted her during a 2013 promo event. Swift won a judgment against him — the $1 that she asked for — and Mueller’s $3 million defamation suit against her was dismissed.
The second was her decision during the 2018 midterm elections to speak out politically — specifically against conservative Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who Swift called “Trump in a wig.” Swift was appalled by her vote against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Blackburn went on to defeat Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen.
A central scene pits Swift and mother Andrea against the men in the room. Among them is her father, Scott, who asks, “Did Bing Crosby do it? Did Bob Hope do it?” suggesting she shouldn’t risk alienating fans.
For Swift, though, striving to be the good girl is no longer viable. “I’ve been doing it for 15 years, and I’m tired of it,” she says.
Wokeness is manifest both in Lover’s cleverly feminist single “The Man” and in “Only The Young,” the new song from Miss Americana that aims to be a youth vote anthem.
Swift’s decision to engage politically stemmed from personal experiences, of course. And remaining neutral left her open to both being excoriated by the left for not taking a stance in the 2016 election and being appropriated by white supremacists as an “Aryan goddess.”
But Swift’s shift is a prime example of the predicament pop artists face, with pressure ramping up to take sides as the calendar moves inexorably toward November.
Choosing between a political stance and silence can be a business decision, as well as a matter of principle. Protest art doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time.
The likelihood of artists alienating their audiences varies widely. Rapper YG had little to lose by releasing “FDT” about Donald Trump in 2016. And in a nonmusical realm, Larry David made it clear he didn’t care if he lost fans over his MAGA hat jokes in the new season of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But a mainstream country act might be inclined to steer clear of politics, remembering the ostracism of the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George W. Bush in 2003.
This year, artists who have long made social commentary their métier have resolved to make their voices heard — among them, the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, who just released The Unraveling, their state-of-the-nation statement. In “Thoughts and Prayers,” singer Patterson Hood seethes with frustration at hollow responses to gun violence. But he also wishes he could block out the ceaseless partisan racket. “White noise in my head, I think I need a filter, a pressure valve to keep from blowing up." (DBT plays Union Transfer Feb. 27.)
Green Day has gone in the other direction. In 2004, the pop-punk trio led by Billie Joe Armstrong were Bush bashers on American Idiot, their rock opera that became a hit Broadway show.
But their new Father Of All ... eschews politics, instead returning to the antics of their 1994 breakthrough Dookie as the band readies a tour that comes to Citizens Bank Park on Aug. 29. The new album is fun, but feels cautious.
That notion that now, more than ever, art should provide a place for people to escape politics has its adherents.
In 2017, I talked with Steve Van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen guitarist who made politically agitating music as a solo artist in the 1980s.
He saw these times as different. “I don’t feel the need to explain Donald Trump. He explains himself every day... . It’s redundant to even talk about it, honestly.”
A better strategy, he said, is to create a refuge that’s “a spiritual fuel stop ... in a way that’s totally away from daily life and daily frustrations.”
With Springsteen expected to release a new album and tour with the E Street Band this year, it remains to be seen whether the Boss will be inclined toward escapism or engagement in 2020.
Jason Isbell, the acclaimed Nashville songwriter who’s an heir to Springsteen in depicting quotidian struggles with poetic grace, is leaning toward the latter. This week, Isbell — who will play the Met Philadelphia on June 3 with opener Strand of Oaks — released “Be Afraid,” the first track from his upcoming album Reunions.
“Be afraid, be very afraid,” Isbell sings on the rugged song. “Do it anyway.” The advice could apply to any existential situation — carpe diem, while you can — but Isbell is also speaking to fellow artists who might fear the consequences of speaking their minds. “If your words add up to nothing, then you’re making a choice to sing a cover when you need a battle cry.”
“Be Afraid” also addresses anyone who insists that artists have no place commenting on the world at large: “We won’t shut up and sing.”
Isbell’s urgency is akin to that expressed by Swift in the Netflix doc as she realizes she needs to make her beliefs heard if she’s going to thrive as an artist and a human being.
She talks candidly about her career as a window that inevitably will close. “I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful,” she says, cognizant that she works in an industry “where women are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35.”
In Miss Americana, the clock is ticking, and when it comes deciding whether to speak out, Swift can only come to one conclusion: Now is the time.