Publisher’s note: This is one of an occasional series of personal essays from CNN staff and contributors.
With her prolific songwriting and curated eras, the world has gotten 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,” have told the story of a girl trying to find her place in the world through approval and applause and becoming a woman who finds a more sustainable source of happiness.
And now, with the release of her latest album, “Midnights,” Swift fans have been invited to take a look at the struggles and lessons she’s investigating in the next phase of her life.
I was 12 years old when I started listening to Swift’s music. I cried while Drew didn’t see through her fake smile in the halls of high school. I spun through daydreams of young love. I processed with her the anguish of her past relationships, finding where we might or might not have been at fault for her. I struggled with the reality and fiction behind reputations.
During the 16 years she’s been in the spotlight, I’ve been one of the young women who felt that Swift, through her stumbles and victories, was singing directly to her. During that time, here’s what I learned from Taylor Swift about living better.
(A note to my fellow Swifties: I know I’ve missed a few things. Don’t blame me, I had a publisher-imposed word limit.)
Take Swift’s music video for “Anti-hero,” a song from her latest album “Midnights,” for example, though it’s not the first time she’s addressed her insecurities and flaws.
“It’s me. Hello. I’m the problem, it’s me,” Swift sings over a scene where two versions of herself meet, which can be imagined as private and public versions.
They delight in drinking drinks until he gets sick, running away from the ghosts of people he’s cheated on, breaking guitars while dancing, and even meeting a third (giant) version who highlights his insecurities about being what she calls “a freak in life.” hill too big to hang out.”
The game and chaos end as the three Taylors gather to share a bottle of wine and reflect as the sun sets.
A peace is found when your different personalities come together, and the things you don’t like about one complement each other. I can quickly become obsessed with the parts of myself that I don’t like, but for me that scene perfectly captured the goal I’m striving for: embracing the many facets of myself.
“There’s always some standard of beauty that you don’t meet,” Swift said in her “Miss Americana” documentary. “If you’re skinny enough, then you don’t have that butt that everyone wants. But if you’re heavy enough to have a butt, then your stomach isn’t flat enough.”
Noting that hypocrisy, Swift describes her evolving relationship with her body and a history of eating disorders in the film. Amid a barrage of body photos and comments in the tabloids and on social media, she spoke of a period when she exercised a lot and slowly starved herself to reach an ideal.
The Anti-hero video also touches on this as Swift looks down at a scale with no numbers, just the word “fat”. The image of her sparked conversations among viewers, some of whom found her fatphobic, while others saw it as a look at the intrusive thoughts of hers that come with a history of eating disorders.
“I’ve learned over the years that it’s not good for me to see photos of myself every day,” she said. “Now I realize that if you eat, have energy and get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel it.”
“I’m so much happier with who I am,” Swift said in the documentary. “It’s 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 countersued for a dollar (and won). When she had an issue with how streaming services paid artists, she took all of her music off of her. When she got into a dispute over the ownership of her music, she turned the re-recording of her work into a long-awaited series of events. When “Taylor Swift Gets Canceled” trended on Twitter, she turned the experience into an album.
Swift has a history of showing how to build a palace on the rubble of a devastating blow. Yes, she is a very powerful celebrity with far more resources than the average person, but I have felt empowered watching her stand up for 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 boyfriend Joe Alwyn, she models that it’s okay to find ways to protect yourself and, when possible, back off.
Entering the political conversation is a choice that Swift has described as difficult.
He was long silent about his stances, a seemingly neutral stance that garnered much praise from public figures. In her documentary, she said that silence sought to be seen as a “good girl.”
But in her music now, she wonders if she’s been too good. While there have been criticisms that her activism came too late, we’ve gotten a more empowered Taylor Swift in recent years: one who endorses candidates, promotes LGBTQ organizations and uses her platform to increase voter turnout.
She had tears in her eyes in footage from the documentary that shows her telling her team that she was going to speak for the first time. It’s clear that her confidence has grown in this field since then: the Swift we see today responding to the backlash of her political messaging is one who is more well-rounded and comfortable.
Her most heartbreaking songs allude to feeling like an outsider, not knowing who she’ll talk to at school, and not living up to conventional fairy tale archetypes.
Meanwhile, the happiest Taylor is the one who avoids the “should.” Her happily ever after is hers and hers alone: As audiences eagerly await Swift and Alwyn’s marriage, she celebrates what she describes as her committed but private love in new song “Lavender Haze.”
“Lately, I’ve been less focused on doing what they say I can’t do and more on doing what I want,” she said in her acceptance speech for Billboard’s Woman of the Decade award in 2019.
I’m also often reminded to laugh a little at myself, as one of the world’s greatest female artists does when she caricatures herself chasing men or dedicates an entire music video to her inability to dance. I learned from Swift not to take life too seriously and to be the first to laugh at my mistakes.
It can be dangerous to worship celebrities as infallible and limited to the dimension we see in the public sphere, but I think we can learn from her without painting her as perfect. Many young people who grew up with Taylor Swift have learned a lot as she shares her growth with us.