Does the White House have a Taylor Swift problem? That is not a concern that has kept a lot of presidential advisors awake nights until recently… and maybe it isn’t now, either, given the glib attitude that Kellyanne Conway struck when she appeared on Fox News Tuesday to take a shot at Swift. (It was a frenemy kind of a jab; Conway said how much she liked “You Need to Calm Down” and even sang part of it before saying she should stay out of politics and had “lost handily” to the president, as if they’d gone head to head on a ballot.) But if your administration has acted so risibly as to convince the country’s top pop influencer to abandon being apolitical, act up, and turn into a bona fide protest singer… hey, in this touchy a presidency, you know cabinet meetings have been called for less.
Taylor Swift, protest singer. There, we said it (again). It’s not that anyone is going to mistake the newly released “Lover” for a Billy Bragg album, but sometimes the qualities of dissent and dismay have more power when they’re popping out from unexpected quarters. That’s why one of the new tracks, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” feels like the great protest song this generation has needed: It’s the sound of a friendly superstar deciding she’s mad as hell and can’t take being apolitical anymore.
Putting the shell shock that approximately 60% of the nation has been feeling into song is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, and who knew it would fall to America’s sweetheart? When the 2016 election went down, pop critics unhappy with the election result rushed to assure each other that at least we’d get a resurgence of great counterculture music out of it, a la the Nixon era. Instead, our rock and hip-hop heroes have proven unable or unwilling to rise to the occasion. Imagine the Woodstock veteran who comes to realize that the girl who sang “Bad Blood” has done a better job of encapsulating the current political climate’s bad blood than any of her elders have.
One reason why “Miss Americana” is so effective, and may affect Swift’s audience so much, is because of how deeply sad it is, beneath its shiny, tense surface. And as any fan of “Red” knows, disappointment is something Swift does really well. Most protest music is ineffective on a mass scale because that anger feels like a lifetime condition, not something that’s been arrived at as the culmination of a long character arc. For better or worse, Rage Against the Machine didn’t sound like they just discovered rage-aholism yesterday. Swift, for her part, might be standing in for tens of millions of millennials who looked at the American machine and figured they could get away with not knowing or caring how the sausage was made. Some of her fans might have gotten there ahead of her, and a whole lot of others will be prompted to think hard about what they think of the state of the union by her lyrics.
And if you think a mere album track can’t do that: you really need to meet a Swiftie.
Another key to why “Miss Americana” feels so effective is how cloaked in metaphor it is. That’s not usually the secret ingredient to a great protest song, but in the case of Swift, whose other songs tend toward the literal, breaking from that form is bound to make her devotees listen in closer and harder. What they’re finding beneath the symbolism is not quite a Howard Zinn tract in American revisionism, but a life-is-like-high-school narrative version of that same journey of discovery about our mixed record and flawed system. Songs about the United States as a creeping dystopia tend not to be very interesting, or listenable; a song about the U.S. of 2019 as a homecoming-game horror movie is something else.
Echoes of Swift’s early signature song, her country-to pop-crossover breakthrough “You Belong With Me,” are unmistakable and almost surely intentional. It’s got the sound of actual cheerleaders, for God’s sake! Some deeply unhappy cheerleaders, who punctuate a chorus that amounts to an anti-fight song: “And I don’t want you to GO / I don’t really wanna FIGHT / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN.” The imagery is stark and hellish, even by the already hell-like standards of actual high school: “American glory / Faded before me / Now I’m feeling hopeless / Ripped up my prom dress / Running through rose thorns / I saw the scoreboard / And ran for my life.” The singer is distressed to see that “my team is losing / Battered and bruising / I see the high fives / Between the bad guys.” Women have a particularly sad plight of it in this vision — “The damsels are depressed” — and Swift alludes to how, when she considered speaking up in 2016, she dreaded being seen as just another Hillary-loving Hollywood witch: “They whisper in the hallway, ‘She’s a bad, bad girl.’”
But, as she established with 2017’s whole “Reputation” album, Swift is kind of okay now with being the bad girl. It just took her a couple of years longer to get down with being the poster baddie for American progressive values.
She was already telling them how she felt, for years — in code. Is it possible to read an entire shifting worldview into the absence of Instagram photos? Well, sure, if we’re talking about as predisposed to Easter eggs as Swift. She stopped posting photos from her annual 4th of July parties after Trump’s election. It was easy to conjecture, if one conjectures about these things, that she’d just become sensitive to anti-“squad” sentiment, or maybe a camera-shy beau asked her to put the kibosh on it. But in the latest round of public and private conversations she’s had about the new album, Swift has opened up about this: It no longer felt right to appear so gung-ho about celebrating independence when Rome and home were on fire. She didn’t take this stance because she’d become unpatriotic — it was because she was still too much a fangirl for America to pretend these were patriotism-inspiring times. As she explained it, she’d grown up a literal flag-waver, evangelizing for the 4th as her favorite holiday, beyond Halloween or Christmas. After having the shock so many of us had about where things really stand in November 2016, her relationship with Independence Day was a little like Phoebe Cates’ to Christmas in “Gremlins”: Just because her dad died in the chimney (figuratively speaking) doesn’t mean she didn’t once embrace the holiday as hers.
“You Need to Calm Down” has been the bigger flashpoint of a song, and maybe it’ll remain so: It builds on the signal flare that Swift sent out when she came out as an activist last fall and urged her fans to support pro-LGBTQ politicians and sign a petition urging Senate passage of the Equality Act. It also has drag queens and pink flamingos, which are always going to be more popular than scorched flags. Kellyanne Conway will probably never be called upon by Fox News to come on and counter anything about “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”: Combatting poetic similes about a general sense of Trump-era unease probably isn’t as high on this administration’s list as working to keep the world safe for bathroom bills.
But maybe it should be. Because if anybody can make a rallying cry out of a weird, melancholy song that makes our bullying climate sound like an apocalyptic football game, it’s Swift. The tune might be too offbeat to become any kind of mass-appeal anthem, but it’s a certainty that her millions of fans are already studying every line — and either taking them to heart or thinking about where their hearts are as 2019 crashes into 2020. It’s not just a song for awakening adolescents, either, but for any of us older serious patriots who used to put up Old Glory, set off fireworks, fire up a “1776” DVD and believe the dream of America as a shining city on a hill could never go as sour as it has. Anyone who’s as disappointed as Swift reveals herself to be in “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” simply can’t protest too much.