Miss Americana was keeping another song about America in her back pocket, as it turns out. Taylor Swift recorded a song during her “Lover” album sessions, “Only the Young,” that was held back and kept under wraps for the right occasion — that occasion turning out to be “Miss Americana,” the Lana Wilson-directed documentary that premieres at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 23 and goes wide to the public in theaters and on Netflix Jan. 31.
In an an interview for this week’s Variety cover story, Swift described the tune’s origins. Its writing followed a personally disappointing moment for the singer after the 2018 midterm elections, when she got involved by endorsing candidates in the senatorial and gubernatorial races in her home state of Tennessee, only to see them go down despite her best efforts — and those of a lot of fans she urged to sign up to vote and campaign.
“I wrote it after the midterm elections, when there were so many young people who rallied for their candidate, whether it was a senator or congressman or congresswoman,” Swift tells Variety. “It was hard to see so many people feel like they had canvassed and done everything and tried so hard. I saw a lot of young people’s hopes dashed. And I found that to be particularly tragic, because young people are the people who feel the worst effects of gun violence, and student loans and trying to figure out how to start their lives and how to pay their bills, and climate change, and are we going to war — all these horrific situations that we find ourselves facing right now.”
It won’t be any secret to anyone watching the documentary just how crestfallen she was when the senatorial candidate Swift had declared stood in opposition to women’s issues and gay rights lost.
“I was really upset about Tennessee going the way that it did, obviously. And so I just wanted to write a song about it. I didn’t know where it would end up. But I did think that it would be better for it to come out at a time that it could maybe hopefully stoke some fires politically and maybe engage younger people to form their own views, break away from the pack, and not feel like they need to vote exactly the same way that people in their town are voting.”
Swift is seen demo-ing the song during the body of the film, before a fully produced version kicks in at the end. “With the way that the documentary ended up being politically leaning, when Lana wanted to put it in the film and use it as an end-credit song, I just went along with it. Just like everything else!” she laughs, asserting again that decisions about the film were really up to her director.
Key lyrics from the song: “You did all that you could do / The game was rigged, the ref got tricked/ The wrong ones think they’re right / We were outnumbered — this time.” Although it isn’t specific about particular causes or political issues, the track references forces that are “too busy helping themselves… We gotta do it ourselves.”
The song was co-written and co-produced with Joel Little. With the “Lover” album, he seems to have become Swift’s go-to guy, deliberately or just by coincidence, for message songs. The other tracks they worked on all, or almost all, fit into that category — “Miss Americana,” “The Man,” “You Need to Calm Down” and (if you consider self-esteem anthems message songs, too) “Me!” Now, “Only the Young” arrives as an unexpected addition to that portfolio.
Says Little, “We did a week in New York; that week we did ‘The Man’ and ‘Me!,’ and ‘Only the Young’ was the last one that we did. That was one where I’d actually come in with a drumbeat, and she was like, ‘Oh, I was actually just playing around with chords that could go with that,’ and then the song just quickly moved from there.”
Adds Little, “Lyrically, that song has got so many gut punches in it — just really important lines, I feel. As that song was coming together and we were realizing what it was saying, it was a very emotional aura. The energy in the room was really intense. Knowing the way things have been going in the States lately with all these horrible shootings and everything, for her to be saying these things made it all the more powerful.”
Production-wise, he says, “That was a fun one. There’s, like, a kids’ choir, and that’s just my two daughters, stepped up over the top of each other singing harmonies with themselves. I had to do it in a way where they weren’t allowed to know that they were singing on a Taylor Swift song, obviously, because there’s a lot of secrecy involved with all this stuff. So I had to sing the parts in a kid’s voice and then get them to sing over the top. They actually don’t even know that it’s going to be in the documentary yet, so I’m excited for them to hear it.” (Let’s hope they aren’t reading it here first.)
Will the song come out as a single? “I don’t see it as a single,” Swift says. “I just see it as a song that goes with this film. I don’t see it as a ‘let’s go make a music video and try to see what this does at radio’ single. I think I’m probably going to keep putting songs out from ‘Lover,’ if I can.” No, no — we, on behalf of fans, want to know if it’ll be available for download or streaming, apart from its place in the documentary? “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You can listen to it if you want,” she laughs.