Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of personal essays from CNN staff and contributors.
With her prolific songwriting and curated eras, the world got an intimate look at a young woman growing up through the music of Taylor Swift.
Her lyrics, speeches, videos, and even a 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana,” told the story of a girl trying to find her place in the world through approval and applause becoming a woman who finds a more lasting source of happiness.
And now, with the release of her latest album, “Midnights,” Swift’s fans have been invited to look back on the struggles and lessons she’s investigating in the next phase of her life.
I was 12 when I started listening to Swift’s music. I cried while Drew couldn’t see through his fake smile in the halls of high school. I twirled through daydreams of young love. I dealt with the heartbreak of long-standing relationships with her, finding where we might or might not have been at fault. I struggled with the fact and fiction behind reputations.
In the 16 years she’s been in the limelight, I’ve been one of the young girls who felt like Swift — through her stumbles and her victories — was singing for her. During that time, here’s what I learned from Taylor Swift about living better.
(A note to my fellow Swifties: I know I missed some stuff. Don’t blame me; I had a publisher-imposed word limit.)
Take Swift’s music video for “Anti-hero,” a track from her latest album “Midnights,” for example, though it’s not the first time she’s addressed her insecurities and flaws head-on.
“It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me,” Swift sings over a scene in which two versions of herself — which can be imagined as the private and public versions — collide.
They revel in taking pictures until she’s sick, running from the ghosts of people she ghosted, smashing guitars as they dance, and even encountering a third (giant) version that highlights her insecurities about being what she calls “a monster over the hill too big to hang around.”
The game and mayhem ends when the three Taylors meet to share a bottle of wine and reflect on the sunset.
There’s a peace found when her different personalities come together, and the things she might not like about one are complemented by the others. I can be quick to focus on the parts of myself that I don’t like, but for me, this scene perfectly captured the goal I’m looking for: accepting the many sides of myself.
“There’s always a beauty standard that you don’t meet,” Swift said in her “Miss Americana” documentary. “If you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass everyone wants. But if you have enough weight on you to have an a**, then your stomach isn’t flat enough.
Noting this hypocrisy, Swift describes her evolving relationship with her body and a history of eating disorders in the film. Amid a deluge of body photos and comments in the tabloids and on social media, she spoke of a time when she exercised a lot and slowly starved herself to an ideal.
Anti-hero’s video also touches on this topic as Swift stares at a scale with no numbers, just the word “bold.” The image sparked conversation among viewers, some of whom found it fatphobic while others saw it as a look at her intrusive thoughts that come with a history of eating disorders.
“I’ve learned over the years, it’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day,” she said. “Now I realize that if you eat food and have energy and get stronger, you can do all these shows without feeling it.”
“I’m much happier with who I am,” Swift said in the documentary. “It’s just something that makes my life better – the fact that I’m a size 6 instead of a size 00.”
When the man she allegedly assaulted in 2013 sued her in 2015, she fought back for a dollar (and won). When she had a problem with how streaming services paid artists, she took down all of her music. When she fell out over the ownership of her music, she turned the re-recording of her work into a series of highly anticipated events. When “Taylor Swift is Canceled” trended on Twitter, she turned the experience into an album.
Swift is used to showing how to build a palace out of the rubble with one devastating blow. Yes, she’s a very powerful celebrity with far more resources than the average person, but I felt empowered watching her defend herself – and often others facing similar situations with less privilege as well.
And even with the time she’s taken out of the public eye in recent years to protect her privacy with beau Joe Alwyn, she’s showing that it’s okay to find ways to protect yourself and, if possible, to push back.
Entering the political conversation is a choice that Swift called difficult.
She has been silent on her positions for a long time, a seemingly neutral stance that has garnered plenty of praise from public figures. In her documentary, she said silence was about being seen as a “good girl”.
But in her music now, she wonders if she hasn’t been too good. While there have been criticisms that her activism came too late, we’ve had a more empowered Taylor Swift in recent years — someone who supports candidates, promotes LGBTQ organizations and uses her platform to increase voter turnout. .
Tears welled up in her eyes in the documentary footage that shows her telling her team that she was going to speak out for the first time. It’s clear that his confidence has grown in this area since then – the Swift we see today responding to the backlash of his political message is more whole and at ease.
Her most heartbreaking songs are about feeling like an outsider, not knowing who she’ll talk to at school, and failing to live up to conventional fairy tale archetypes.
The happiest Taylor, meanwhile, is the one who avoids the “should.” Her forever happiness is hers and hers alone: As the public looks forward to a wedding between Swift and Alwyn, she celebrates what she describes as their committed but private love in the new song “Lavender Haze.”
“Lately I’ve been less focused on what they say I can’t do and more on what I want,” she said in her 2019 Billboard Woman of the Decade award acceptance speech. .
I’m also often reminded to laugh a little at myself, like one of the world’s greatest entertainers does when she caricatures herself chasing men or dedicates an entire clip to her inability to dance. I learned from Swift not to take life too seriously and to be the first to laugh at my blunders.
It can be dangerous to revere celebrities as infallible and limited to the dimension we see in the public sphere, but I think we can learn from her without portraying her as perfect. Many young people growing up alongside Taylor Swift have learned a lot as she shares her growth with us.
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