On 31st January 2020, the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana was released on Netflix. Prior to release, Netflix described the documentary as a “raw and emotionally revealing look” at the singer “during a transformational period in her life as she learns to embrace her role not only as a songwriter and performer, but as a woman harnessing the full power of her voice.”1
I highly recommend watching Miss Americana, partly because I really like Taylor Swift, but also because Swift touches on some very important and moving topics and events in her life, including her mother’s diagnosis of cancer, her sexual assault civil case in 2017, and her decision to speak out in opposition to Donald Trump and the Republican Senator for her hometown of Tennessee.
But I think the biggest overarching theme of the documentary is Swift’s search for, and struggles with, her identity. This is the topic that I would like to dive into in this blog.
Finding Identity in Success, Appearance and Affirmation
The documentary tracks various phases in Swift’s life, as her identity and sense of self-worth get rooted in, and then uprooted from, various different things. In fact, there are three things that Swift sequentially puts her identity into, that match up with what I think are the three most common things people in general put their identity in: success, appearance and affirmation. And like people in general, Swift finds that these three things are fragile and fraught with danger.
The first part of the documentary follows Swift’s early career, which comes to an initial high point at the release of her 2014 album 1989, which becomes the best-selling album of 2014 in the US. However, in the documentary, Swift describes her success leaving her with a paradoxical sense of emptiness:
“That was it. My life had never been better. I had one album of the year at the Grammys for the second time which I never thought was a possibility. And I remember thinking afterward- oh my God, that was all you wanted. That was all you focussed on. You get to the mountain top and you look around and you’re like oh God, what now?”
I know many people empathise with Swift. Reaching our life goals and accomplishing our dreams can leave many people in despair or even crisis, as life suddenly loses is goal-driven purpose. Where do I go when I reach the mountain top? I know a lot of doctors experience this. We work so hard throughout school to gain a place at medical school, we work so hard throughout medical school to attain the doctor title, and then we start working and find ourselves asking: was this all worth it? I have experienced this acutely and recently as I have been planning what I do when I finish my Foundation Doctor programme. I have laboured for a decade to attain my current life- but now what?
Putting our identity in success can easily lead us to a state of emptiness or despair, whether we achieve our dreams or not.
About midway through Miss Americana, Swift reveals her struggle with body image and eating:
“I’ve learned over the years: it’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day because I have a tendency, and it’s only happened a few times (and I’m not in any way proud of it but), I tend to get triggered by something whether it’s a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big or someone said that I looked pregnant or something, and that will just trigger me to starve a little bit, just stop eating. I thought I was just supposed to feel like I was going to pass out at the end of a show or in the middle of it, I thought that was how it was, and now I realise, no, if you eat food, have energy, get stronger you can do all these shows and not feel it. Which is a really good revelation, because I’m a lot happier with who I am.”
It is unclear if Swift was implying that she was suffering from a diagnosed eating disorder. However, what is clear is that she experienced the heart-breaking danger of placing her identity in her appearance. As the documentary powerfully portrays, the media’s impossible standards of beauty lead many to dislike or even despise their appearance, and the consequences can be devastating, especially for young people.
And yet, many people put their identity in their appearance: in how they look, in what they wear, in how they style themselves. And tragically too many people hit the same painful consequences as Swift.
However, from what I could work out, the biggest identity issue in the documentary is Swift’s struggle as she places her identity in affirmation from the public. The programme tracks the rise, fall and subsequent rise of Swift’s popularity, and Swift’s personal anguish through all this.
Swift reflects on the 2009 VMAs, when, following her winning the award for Best Video by a Female Artist, Kanye West came on stage to declare that he thought Beyoncé should have won. Swift recalls:
“I was so echoey in there. At the time I didn’t know they were booing him doing that. I thought they were booing me. For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”
Then in 2016, following a public feud with ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris (with involvement from other celebrities including Katy Perry and Kanye West), the global media turned against Swift in spectacular form, leading to the Twitter hashtag #Taylorswiftisoverparty to trend number 1 worldwide. This led Swift to withdraw from public life and stop releasing music for a year. Swift reflects:
“When people decided I was wicked and evil and conniving and not a good person, that was the one I couldn’t really bounce back from, because my whole life was centred around it. #Taylorswiftisoverparty was the number one trend on twitter worldwide. Do you know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen? …When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to make them change their mind. They just don’t love you anymore. I just wanted to disappear.”
And this is of course the story of countless celebrities, leaders, and public figures who learn the hard way that public opinion can turn 180 at the drop of a hat, and consequences for the individual can be devastating.
But this danger in placing our identity in affirmation from others applies to all of us, even if we are not famous. So many people’s identity lies in what other people think of them- their popularity among friends or their praise from their parents or their status in society. And it does not take much life experience to know how fragile these things can be.
A More Secure Identity?
So where does that leave us? Miss Americana shows powerfully the dangers in placing one’s identity in success, appearance or affirmation. These things, although wonderful, are also fragile and will eventually let us down. And so, is there something else more secure and stable that we can put our identity in? I think there is.
Near the end of the documentary, a video is shown of Swift emotionally arguing with her family and team about her desire to speak out against the then Republican Tennessee Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn, during the mid-term elections. She argues with tears in her eyes:
“It really is a big deal for me. She [Marsha Blackburn] votes against fair pay for women. She votes against the re-authorisation of the Violence Against Women Act which is just basically protecting us from domestic abuse and stalking. She thinks that if you are a gay couple, or even if you look like a gay couple, you should be allowed to be kicked out of a restaurant. It’s really basic human rights, and it’s right and wrong at this point. And I can’t see another commercial and see her disguising these policies behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values’. Those aren’t Tennessee Christian values. I live in Tennessee. I am a Christian. That’s not what we stand for.”
I tackle the topic of God and Politics in another article (including the issue of gay rights) so I’m not going to dive into that here. However, one thing that made me smile was Swift’s straight declaration that she is a Christian. It made me smile partly because I think that’s great in and of itself, and also because I couldn’t help note that now both Taylor Swift and Kanye West, who have feuded for so long, have now openly stated they are Christian (I wonder if public declarations of forgiveness might one day come). But the thing that made me smile most was the fact that Swift comes so close to what I think is the best answer to the universal human desire for secure identity- the answer found in the bible.
Psalm 8: Who Am I?
The bible gives a profound response to the question of human identity. In Psalm 8 we read this:
For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.
1 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
5 You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
9 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
The Insignificance of Mankind (v1-4)
In v1 we read that The Heavens declare the glories of the God who (v3) created all the stars and galaxies in the universe. And faced with the awesome majesty of God, the writer, King David, wonders in amazement (v4): what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? David realises how small and insignificant human beings truly are. After all, we are literally dust: “For dust you are, and to dust you will return” says God in Genesis 3. We are just bags of carbon, with a few metals and gases mixed in.
And so, it is not surprising that people often find it hard to forge a significant identity for themselves. Because at base we are small, insignificant, piles of dust. Depressing isn’t it!
But thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. David then goes on in v5-9, to speak of the significance of mankind.
The Significance of Mankind (v5-9)
In v5 David writes that we may be created out of dust, but in our creation, God give us status. He has made us with a rank just below the great angelic hosts of heaven, He has crowned us- we are royalty, and He given us glory.
Then in v6-9 we get a poet re-telling of Genesis 1, where God creates the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea and the animals of the land. And then God creates mankind and gives them the job of ruling over creation. In other words, human beings are more than advanced monkeys. We may share a lot of our DNA with monkeys, but we are different because we are the special, image-bearers of God, His delegated rulers on Earth, and pinnacle of His creation.
Thus the bible says that all human beings are precious and valuable to God: both the successful and the failure, that attractive and the unattractive, the popular and the despised.
This is where we can find a truly secure and unshakable identity. The world looks to fragile things like success, appearance and affirmation for identity. But as a Christian, I find my identity in God and how precious I am to Him.
I love Taylor Swift- I think she one of the best singer-songwriters of our generation. And it is sad to see someone so gifted and likeable struggle so much with her identity, especially when a passing four-word comment (“I am a Christian”) in a documentary may contain more of life’s answers than she, and most of us, presently realises.