Editor’s Note: This is one of an occasional series of personal essays from CNN staff and contributors.
With her prolific song writing and curated eras, the world has gotten an intimate look into a young woman growing up through Taylor Swift’s music.
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 growing into 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 glimpse back into the struggles and lessons she is investigating in her next phase of her life.
I was 12 years old when I started listening to Swift’s music. I cried along as Drew didn’t see through her fake smile in the halls of high school. I twirled through daydreams of young love. I processed with her the heartbreak of long-gone relationships, finding where we might or might not have been at fault. I grappled with the fact and fiction behind reputations.
Over the 16 years she has been in the limelight, I’ve been one of the young girls who felt like Swift – through her stumbles and victories – was singing right to her. Over that time, here is what I’ve learned from Taylor Swift about living better.
(A note to my fellow Swifties: I know I’ve missed some things. Don’t blame me – I had an editor-imposed word limit.)
Let’s take Swift’s music video for “Anti-hero,” a track from her latest album “Midnights,” as an example, although it is hardly the first time she has addressed her insecurities and flaws head on.
“It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me,” Swift sings over a scene in which two versions of herself – which can be imagined as the private and public versions – meet.
They revel in taking shots until she is sick, run from ghosts of people she ghosted, smash guitars as they dance and even meet a third (giant) version who highlights her insecurities around being what she calls “a monster on the hill too big to hang out.”
The play and chaos ends with the three Taylors meeting together to share a bottle of wine and reflect as the sun goes down.
There is a peace found when her different persons come together, and the things she might not like about one are complemented by the others. I can be quick to fixate on the parts of myself I don’t like, but for me that scene perfectly captured the goal I am striving for: accepting the many facets of myself.
“There’s always some standard of beauty you’re not meeting,” Swift said in her “Miss Americana” documentary. “If you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that a** that everybody wants. But if you have enough weight on you to have an a**, then your stomach isn’t flat enough.”
Noting that hypocrisy, Swift describes her evolving relationship with her body and a history of disordered eating in the film. Amid a barrage of photos and body commentary in the tabloids and on social media, she spoke of a period when she would exercise heavily and slowly starve herself to meet an ideal.
The video for Anti-hero also touches on this as Swift looks down at a scale with no numbers, just the word “luck.” The image sparked conversation among viewers, some of whom found it fatphobic while others saw it as a look into her intrusive thoughts that come with a history of disordered eating.
“I’ve learned over the years, it’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day,” she said. “Now I realize, if you eat food, have energy and get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel it.”
“I’m a lot happier with who I am,” Swift said in the documentary. “It’s just something that makes my life better – the fact that I’m a size 6 instead of a size 00.”
When the man she alleged to have assaulted in 2013 sued her in 2015, she countersued for a dollar (and won). When she had a problem with how streaming services paid artists, she took off all her music. When she got into a dispute over her music ownership, she turned re-recording her work into a series of highly anticipated events. When “Taylor Swift is canceled” was trending on Twitter, she turned the experience into an album.
Swift has a history of showing how to build a palace on the rubble from a devastating blow. Yes, she is a very powerful celebrity with a lot more resources than the average person, but I have felt empowered as I watch her stand up for herself – and often also others who face similar situations with less privilege.
And even with the time that she took out of the public eye in recent years to protect her privacy with her beau Joe Alwyn, she models that it’s OK to find ways to protect yourself and, where possible, push back.
Entering the political conversation is a choice that Swift has painted as a difficult one.
She was long silent on her stances, a seemingly-neutral position that garnered much praise from public figures. In her documentary, she said that silence was in pursuit of being seen as a “good girl.”
But in her music now, she wonders if she has been too good. Although there have been criticisms that her activism came too late, we have gotten a more empowered Taylor Swift in recent years – one who backs candidates, promotes LGBTQ organizations and utilizes her platform to increase voter turnout.
Tears were in her eyes in the documentary footage that shows her telling her team she was going to speak out for the first time. It’s clear her confidence has grown in this arena in the time since – the Swift we see today responding to the backlash of her political messaging is one that is more whole and at ease.
Her most heart-wrenching songs allude to feeling like an outsider, not knowing who she will talk to at school, and falling short of conventional fairytale archetypes.
The happier Taylor, meanwhile, is one who shirks the “should.” Her happily ever after is hers and hers alone: while the public eagerly awaits a marriage between Swift and Alwyn, she celebrates what she describes as their committed but private love in the new song “Lavender Haze.”
“Lately, I’ve been focusing less on doing what they say I can’t do and more on doing whatever the hell I want,” she said in her acceptance speech for the Billboard Woman of the Decade award in 2019.
I am also often reminded to laugh at myself a little, as one of the biggest artists in the world does when she caricatures herself chasing off men or dedicates an entire music video to her inability to dance. I’ve learned from Swift not to take life too seriously and to be the first to laugh at my blunders.
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 growing up alongside Taylor Swift have learned so much as she shares her growth with us.