We're so sad, we paint the town blue

How vast is the canyon between your public presentation and your private motivations? (pretty much a Miss Americana review)

A quick plug: I’ve got a new episode of my podcast Meet My Friend coming this week. I’ve just been busy offline, despite my constant tweeting. I’m sure you understand. The best way not to miss it is by Subscribing.

As a huge fan of hype and excitement, I tend to click on new songs or movies or shows immediately when they drop. It’s fun; even when there’s a chance of disappointment. Regardless of the size of the waves or my ability to keep balanced, I still enjoy surfing in this cultural ocean. That might’ve been why I saw the new Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana early Friday morning. Either’s it’s peak brain candy for this social media-obsessed Swiftie and movie buff.

Miss Americana centers around Swift and constructs a picture of her life and thought process was when she famously remained silent during the 2016 presidential election and the resistance she faced internally while finding her political voice for the first time for the 2018 midterms. Cynically, it can be decried as first-world problems galore from an ultra-wealthy 30-year-old white woman who finally decided to use her political voice at her most convenient time possible. Simultaneously, the public expectation of her is that she is a pop star, and we’re not supposed to give a shit about her political beliefs anyway. Her job is to write songs, win some awards, and many would prefer that she stick to that, even when they’re questioning the merit of her success along the way too. The conflict of Swift is that her music clearly resonates with millions of people, especially her earlier work about young love and heartbreak often through the confines of a school classroom. Swift keeps diaries — lots of them, but publishes them to expose herself as the vulnerable, insecure girl she badly wants people to believe she is. At the same time, she’ll split those diaries into four separate CD booklets to sell four times as many records, ensuring it'll go number one. And to be clear, no matter one’s success, we’re all susceptible to alienation and feeling lonely, perhaps even more so at the top when a hashtag centered around hating you is the number one trending topic in the world.

Growing up in real-time in front of millions and being the center of not just your but everyone around you’s universe has to do a number on you. The fact that her writing and career are even vaguely relatable all this time later is an achievement. Her ‘eras’ and aesthetic changes are less so adoptions of genres or trends, but increasingly real-time diary entries from a 30-year-old girl who hasn’t yet come into her own. Love is complicated and mysterious but fundamental. At the core of her work, Swift explores the emotional spectrum in almost extreme ways most female pop stars struggle to capture.

Swift is desperate for freedom and for you to like her and she’ll calculate ways to do it. No matter your opinion on Swift, it’s likely more informed by her decisions outside of the work itself, and seldom just flippant apathy towards a pop star. Even in “Fifteen,” her writing is naive, optimistic, in love, but frustrated and constricted. Taylor Swift realized she's disillusioned without validation and that sounds familiar to me.

It's your freshman year
And you're gonna be here for the next four years
In this town
Hoping one of those senior boys
Will wink at you and say, "you know I haven't seen you around, before"

'Cause when you're fifteen,
Somebody tells you they love you
You're gonna believe them
And when you're fifteen
Feeling like there's nothing to figure out

The world revealed itself as way more complicated than it was when Taylor or I were fifteen. High school is where you’re meant to learn that even when you’re terrified, alienated, vulnerable, and insecure, to fit in, you must confidently and gracefully stand out. You can’t leave the system, and you can’t simply ignore the expectations and pressures around you. But validation from the Seniors and everyone above you is all you crave, even when they’re insatiable, greedy or worse, misunderstand you. Directed by Lana Wilson, the film does view Swift as an empathetic subject, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the portrait of her was indeed under her control.

I imagine it’s not quite like an album or a Tumblr post where she has the final say. Miss Americana is someone else telling Taylor Swift’s story, and maybe a documentary about an extremely famous person feeling sad sometimes just like me could simply be damage control.

Reputation-era Taylor Swift had her using gunshots as a chorus hook in her gleefully manipulative “I Did Something Bad,” but in Miss Americana’s end-credit song “Only The Young” she paints a harrowing picture of the realities teens face today because of the NRA’s hand and money in our elections. Many elected Republicans’ outright refuse to do literally anything about all the dead American children shot in cold blood who are just trying to survive the classroom in a slightly less literal way.

So every day now
You brace for the sound
You've only heard on TV
You go to class, scared
Wondering where the best hiding spot would be
And the big bad man and his big bad clan
Their hands are stained with red
Oh, how quickly, they forget

In the modern era where pop stars, politicians, and teenagers are all constructing palatable Instagram versions of themselves for money, power, and attention, can you believe anything anyone says anymore? How vast is the canyon between your public presentation and your private motivations? Is it an impossible standard to maintain in real-time? To be self-conscious is to be aware of you and your environment, and maybe you must be strategic in the process when there’s a goal in mind.

This week I discovered YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson, a 24-year-old CUNY media studies student who has amassed half a million subscribers, and I find her particular brand of vulnerability and insight quite validating. Her Internet Analysis series takes niche topics and expounds on them into universal psychological and sociological concepts. She’s so cool and entertaining and often says things on the tip of my tongue, and instead of being jealous, I’m just gonna share her work and maybe you’ll feel validated too.

But all of this is very external, right?

Shouldn’t we be talking about internal validation? What do the Senior boys or record execs matter if you’re secure in yourself? Authenticity is the perfect balance of confidence and vulnerability, and maybe I’m learning trust is more easily built when you’re staring into a vlogger’s eyes in a one-sided conversation for hours at a time as opposed to something like a yearslong beautifully designed but highly secure moat between me and my relationship with Taylor Swift. I might trust my week-old fan/creator relationship with Tiffany more than I trust my fifteen-year relationship with Taylor, if only because that gap is thinner. Is Tiffany just more relatable because she openly talks about her struggles with money and oppressive systems for longer? If Tiffany Ferguson starting writing songs, would I empathize more deeply with the work because I’ve watched dozens of her videos?

Sympathy is not the same thing as empathy, and when people say Swift enjoys playing the victim and capitalizing on sympathy, they forget that often in her work she manages to engineer not sympathy, but empathy in the way that her innocuous beef or failed relationship becomes a universal musing on love and relationships. Yes, “Blank Space” is a clap-back at tabloids who follow her every move, but persecution pop can be powerfully validating for those who are persecuted. She’s on top of the world but in this doc learns that getting out of her bubble and self-obsession leads to a greater understanding of not just others, but of the self. And that sounds like intersectionality to me, even when it’s still a road being paved.

Tyler Scruggs is a writer and musician living in Atlanta. When he’s not churning out internet content, he’s paying too much for coffee and buying movie tickets weeks in advance. Feel free to validate him on Twitter (@TylerScruggs), Instagram (@Scruggernaut), and YouTube.

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