Taylor Swift might be one of the world’s biggest popstars but her grapple with validation is something every woman can relate to.
Taylor Swift hadn’t tried a burrito until two years ago.
This is one of the many facts we learn about the country-cum-popstar in her new documentary, Miss Americana, now streaming on Netflix. Among other things, we find out she has a cat backpack, and has been writing songs off the cuff since she was a pre-teen.
That is to say, there are a lot of things about Swift that are extremely unrelatable – not least so, the fact she went more than two and a half decades without ordering anything from Chipotle.
On the face of it, Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson, is a coming-of-age tale of one of the world’s biggest popstars. So unsurprisingly, while it’s engaging viewing, much of the narrative is difficult to empathise with, from the relentless tabloid intrusion to the obsessive fans (at one point, Swift reveals that a stalker broke into her house and slept in her bed).
And yet, on the other hand, Swift’s relentless pursuit of perfection and trying to live up to impossible standards is something almost every woman can relate to.
In her own case, Swift traces this back to constantly being told to be a “nice girl” as a young country star and seeing what happened to the Dixie Chicks – who faced significant backlash over their comments on George W. Bush – when you weren’t.
“A nice girl doesn’t force her opinions on people,” Swift says in the documentary. “A nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you. A nice girl doesn’t make people uncomfortable with her views. I was so obsessed with not getting in trouble that I’m just not going to do anything that anyone can say something about.”
A further catalyst, she says, was the infamous incident with Kanye West at the 2009 VMAs, leading to the stars’ ongoing feud and culminating in that 2016 phone call and Swift’s year-long hiatus from the spotlight.
Part of her trauma, Swift adds, came down to a misunderstanding. The venue was “so echo-y” that she thought the crowd was booing her. “For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you,” she says, “the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”
This drove much of her subsequent choices and pursuit of validation, including disordered eating and becoming obsessed with furthering her career, Swift says.
“It was all fuelled by not feeling like I belonged there. I’m only here because I work hard and I’m nice to people. That work ethic, like thank God I had that work ethic. Like, I can’t change what’s going to happen to me, but I can control what I write.”
However in Miss Americana, we witness the slow dismantling of this belief system.
The first stone to fall was when when she won her second Grammy for Album of the Year for 1989, a point when “my life had never been better,” says Swift. And yet, she felt unfulfilled.
“You get to the mountaintop and you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh God, what now?’ I didn’t have a partner that I’d climbed it with that I could high-five. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to who could relate to…. I had my mom, but I just wondered, Shouldn’t I have someone that I could call right now?”
Then there was the fallout after Kim Kardashian posted a secret recording of Swift’s phone call with West online in 2016. Swift says: “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. Because my whole life was centered around it.” She also remarks about how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty to be the number one Twitter trend worldwide.
As a result, she was forced to seek out a different kind of happiness. And importantly, it was one that didn’t hinge on the approval of others.
“Even though it was really horrible, I was happy,” she says of that time. “But I wasn’t happy in the way I was trained to be happy. It was happiness without anyone else’s input. It’s, just, we [she and boyfriend Joe Alwyn] were happy.”
This deep-seated desire for validation affects almost every woman I know. Like Swift, most women can relate to bending themselves into pretzel-like contortions to appease others.
In many ways, this has worsened in the social media age where it is now easier than ever to gain approval – of a surface kind at least, in likes and retweets – further fuelling our enslavement to the relentless portrayal of our best selves. Or at least, what we think other people want to see from us.
Yet as Swift has clearly learned, this is a fool’s journey.
You can’t please everyone and even when you can, people tend to change their minds. One foul move. One slipped word. One toe out of line.
External validation only satisfies you for so long, as anyone who has pretended to like something they hate or dressed for someone else’s gaze knows.
True happiness is not living to please others. True happiness is living to please yourself. And sometimes, true happiness is eating a burrito.