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In Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, two emotional scenes are especially jarring

Taylor Swift attends the premiere of “Miss Americana” during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Taylor Swift is known for writing candid songs about her life and relationships, but over her 15-year career as a country singer-turned-pop megastar, she has also been very careful about what she shares with the public. Sure, she’ll post videos of her cats or photos of her friends at her birthday party — but it’s still the carefully curated image of a celebrity.

So it was especially jarring in “Miss Americana,” the new Netflix documentary that explores the singer’s past several years in and out of the spotlight, to see two emotional scenes where Swift breaks down.

The first was right after the documentary revisited summer 2016, after Swift slammed Kanye West for name-dropping her in his new song (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” he rapped. “Why? I made that bitch famous”). Then Kim Kardashian West posted a recording of a cordial phone call that appeared to show Swift approving the lyrics. Even though West didn’t mention on the call that he would call her the b-word, the Internet pounced, deeming Swift a liar and a snake.

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Swift has spoken out a few times about how the incident affected her, given that she disappeared from the public eye afterward, but the documentary gives much more context — especially when Swift reveals that her deepest fears, insecurities and “entire moral code” stem from the need to be seen as “good.” “When people decided I was wicked and evil and conniving and not a good person, that was the one that I couldn’t really bounce back from,” she says. “Cause my whole life was centered around it.”

This leads to a scene where Swift tries to explain what it’s like when it feels like millions of people despise you. “We’re people who got into this line of work because we wanted people to like us, because we were intrinsically insecure, because we liked the sound of people clapping, because it made us forget how much we feel like we’re not good enough,” she says. “And I’ve been doing this for 15 years and it’s just — I’m tired.”

Then her voice breaks, and she can barely get the rest of the sentence out. “It just feels like it’s more than music now at this point,” Swift says tearfully. “Most days, I’m like, okay. But then sometimes, I’m just like — it just gets loud sometimes.”

It’s rare to see a celebrity break down in tears, let alone get insight into the psychological damage of a No. 1 worldwide trending topic like #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty. (“Do you know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen?” Swift says.) While people assume that a star can brush off such criticism and take solace in their wealth and success, Swift shows that a social media backlash can actually have a severe impact on someone’s psyche.

The second emotional scene is even more intense. Swift sits on a couch next to her mother, across from her father and other male members of her team — Swift wants to post a message on social media explaining why she’s voting for Democrat Phil Bredesen in the Tennessee Senate race instead of Republican Marsha Blackburn. She has never spoken up about politics before, but going through a sexual assault trial changed her worldview.

“You don’t feel a sense of any victory when you win because the process is so dehumanizing,” Swift says, adding she felt “completely and unchangeably different” since the trial. (She countersued a country radio DJ who sued her after he lost his job when she said he groped her at a meet-and-greet.) “No man in my organization or in my family will ever understand what that was like.”

“For 12 years, we’ve not got involved with politics or religion,” one man on her team says. “Why would you? I mean, did Bob Hope do it? Did Bing Crosby do it? Does Mick Jagger do it?”

Both Swift and her mother look appalled by those random comparisons. “First of all, these aren’t your dad’s celebrities, and these aren’t your dad’s Republicans,” Swift begins.

The men, who aren’t identified, try to caution her about the risks: She might lose half her audience. There may be security threats. Headlines could say, “Taylor Swift comes out against Trump.”

“I don’t care if they write that!” Swift exclaims. “I’m sad that I didn’t two years ago, but I can’t change that. I’m saying right now that this is something that I know is right … I need to be on the right side of history.”

As it devolves into an argument, Swift winds up in tears again. “I just want you to know that this is important to me,” she says, noting that Blackburn voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and thinks businesses shouldn’t be required to serve gay couples. “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.”

Soon, it cuts to Swift sitting with her mother, Andrea, and publicist, Tree Paine, as they prepare to post a political Instagram message. “I’m a little nervous,” Paine says, and starts listing what could go wrong: For example, Trump could go after her.

“I don't care,” Swift insists. “If I get bad press for saying, ‘Don't put a homophobic racist in office,’ then I get bad press for that. I really don't care.”

They press “publish” and then toast with champagne (“Cheers to the resistance!” Swift says.) Then Swift literally braces, practically shrinking into the couch, as she waits to see what happens next.

It’s a fascinating thing to witness, especially knowing how completely Swift had avoided politics for so many years — and how much she had to overcome the country music sensibility of “never share your political views, or you’ll end up blacklisted like the Dixie Chicks.” And it’s also telling that the documentary includes another much harsher line, after Blackburn wins the race, which shows that Swift will only double down on her outspokenness.

Taylor Swift’s music video for "You Need to Calm Down" features a range of LGBTQ stars. We've made it easy to spot them all. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I can’t believe that she gets to be the first female senator in Tennessee … she’s Trump in a wig,” Swift says. “She represents no female interests. She won by being a female applying to the kind of female males want us to be in a horrendous 1950s world.” (In response, Blackburn released a statement that acknowledged she and Swift differ on “policy issues" and then plugged the Music Modernization Act.)

“So,” Swift concludes, “for the next two years, we have to build on what started here.”

Read more:

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