Taylor Swift and the era of the "girl" : Code Switch Taylor Swift has become an American icon, (and she's got the awards, sales, and accolades to prove it.) With that status, she's often been celebrated as someone whose music is authentically representing the interior lives of young women and adolescent girls. On this episode, we're asking: Why? What is it about Swift's persona — and her fandom — that feels so deeply connected to girlhood? And, because this is Code Switch, what does all of that have to do with race?

What Taylor Swift's icon status says about who gets to be a 'girl'

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B A PARKER, HOST:

Heads-up - there's going to be some salty language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: Hey, everyone, you're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker. Now, did you know only four artists have won the Grammy for album of the year three times? Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Taylor Swift. And she's up for the award again in a few days with her newest album, "Midnights," along with six other nominations. Now, I've got no dog in this fight, no reason to compare "Graceland" to "Songs In The Key Of Life" to "1989," but Taylor Swift is having a moment. I mean, she's been having decades of moments, but having recently been named Time's Person of the Year, her Eras concert tour grossed over $1 billion, the first concert tour to ever do that - I mean, even just the movie of the Eras Tour attracted almost 5 million fans on opening weekend. Heck, USA Today even hired a Taylor Swift reporter.

Swift is an American sweetheart. America has watched Taylor Swift grow up from the teenager with an acoustic guitar to the 34-year-old pop behemoth, all with her girlhood sort of enshrined. Taylor Swift, whether she likes it or not, represents a type of white girlhood that has become aspirational for many people. So then it begs the question, whose girlhood gets to be cherished or valued?

I'm not here to answer these questions on my own. Joining me on the mic today is our very own version of a dedicated Taylor Swift reporter right here on the CODE SWITCH team. Our senior editor, Leah Donnella, has been writing about Swift since 2016, but thinking about her for a lot longer. So welcome back to the show, Leah.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Thanks, Parker. Good to be here.

PARKER: So are you a Taylor Swift fan?

DONNELLA: I never know quite how to answer that. I definitely pay attention to her, and there's plenty of her music that I like. I've seen all of her music videos, I think. But is that because I'm a fan? I'm not sure. You know, it's hard to ignore her cultural dominance, and she has the power to affect entire economies by which cities she decides to go to on her Eras Tour. She also has one of the most diehard fan bases on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Or it's going to go down in flames. You can tell me when it's over if the high was worth the pain.

DONNELLA: That's a huge crowd of Swift fans who didn't get tickets to her concert, just singing along outside of the stadium.

PARKER: Good for them. If you like it, I love it.

DONNELLA: It's sweet, right? And it feels like Swift has inspired this really kind of wholesome community in a lot of ways. But as with any person who holds a lot of power and influence, there are things about her and her persona that I think are in need of some serious dissection and critique, which I found myself kind of nervously admitting to a crowd of about 700 people, many of them diehard Swifties, in Bloomington, Ind., a few months ago.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Leah Donnella.

(APPLAUSE)

DONNELLA: Hi, everyone. I am excited and very nervous to be the last presenter of this conference. I am not an academic. I'm not a scholar. I'm really sorry to say I am not even a Swiftie, at least not in the traditional sense.

PARKER: (Laughter) Did they say you need to leave? Hold up, OK? You're going to have to go back a little bit and set up the scene for us. What exactly is going on there?

DONNELLA: Yeah. OK, so in November 2023, Indiana University hosted an event that was unlike anything I had ever been to before.

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NATALIA ALMANZA: I'm a program coordinator at the Indiana University Arts & Humanities Council, and I am so excited to welcome you to Taylor Swift: The Conference Era.

DONNELLA: That was Natalia Almanza, and she was one of the people who organized this big multiday academic conference all about Taylor Swift. She said that Taylor Swift was the soundtrack to her childhood and helped her understand how to process young adult life.

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ALMANZA: I'm sure most of us here have had similar moments, moments where we felt that she wrote songs about us or experiences in our lives. If you can't find a single Taylor Swift song that resonates with you, I just simply don't believe you. You're a liar, and I hope that you figure that out.

(LAUGHTER)

DONNELLA: And, Parker, I haven't been to a lot of academic conferences, so I don't know what they're usually like.

PARKER: Oh, I've been to a few. It's, you know, usually in a hotel conference room. There are groups of academics who present their papers to about, like, three other people who are in their field.

DONNELLA: OK, well, this was not that. It was in an old movie theater downtown with a big marquee outside that said Taylor Swift: The Conference Era - sold out. There were people actually lined up with tickets waiting to get in like this was some sort of big premiere, almost all women, most of them pretty young. And then as soon as you walked in the doors, there were these life-sized cutouts of Taylor Swift from different stages of her career - her different eras. There were also snacks themed to the eras, like a Lavender Haze doughnut and Taylor cocktails at the bar next door.

PARKER: Oh, they were definitely committing to a theme.

DONNELLA: Yes. And it wasn't just the people who were organizing the conference. It was also the attendees. Almost everyone there seemed to be dressed from a different Swiftian (ph) era. So you had your bright-colored sequins people, your stripey '70s-style halter top people, the autumn-core cardigan scarf cohort - I think I'm actually combining a couple eras there, sorry - and then tons of people wearing these homemade beaded friendship bracelets, which has become kind of a symbol of Swift's Eras Tour.

PARKER: OK, Leah, I'm not going to make any assumptions here, but what were the racial demographics of this crowd?

DONNELLA: It was mostly white. I think I noticed, like, one or two other Black people, a handful of Latinas and Asian Americans. But just at a glance, I'd say, like, predominantly white.

PARKER: OK, so, in that way, it was a lot like a typical academic conference.

DONNELLA: Very much so. And side note - not unlike Taylor Swift's fan base more broadly. A poll from Business Insider found that about 75% of self-proclaimed Taylor Swift fans are white and a majority are women.

PARKER: So what were all these people talking about?

DONNELLA: So many things - about 30 people presented. So there was one woman from Harvard Law School who gave an amazing talk, actually, about whether Taylor Swift can copyright the aesthetic choices from each of her eras. Spoiler alert - no.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Because, to put it simply, you cannot copyright or trademark a vibe.

DONNELLA: There was a talk about queer temporality in Swift's "Folklore"-era, timbral nostalgia in her rerecordings, the blending of genres in "Midnights," how she wields her cats on social media to extend her reach and fan base.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Accordances of what media scholar Jessica Maddox calls the cute economy of the pet internet, which deploys aesthetics of cuteness, fuzziness, and warmth to draw user creators into ultimately engaging with them.

PARKER: All right, so people were going deep into the mechanics of the Swiftdom (ph).

DONNELLA: Really deep. Yeah.

PARKER: OK, so, Leah, why were you there? What is your extremely deep and nuanced Taylor expertise?

DONNELLA: Well, thank you for asking, Parker, and I will have you know that I was there because I was the closing keynote speaker. Hold your applause.

PARKER: I know that's right.

DONNELLA: And my talk was called "Taylor Swift And The Politics Of Growing Up." And it was kind of funny 'cause I came in thinking I was going to say one set of things, but I wound up having to change my speech, like, every 10 minutes. Because this theme, Taylor's treatment of adolescence and girlhood, kept coming up over and over again. And so I really felt like I was learning on the spot. And one thing that I kept hearing people talk about is how Taylor Swift has really managed to tap into this kind of heartfelt, lyrical, nostalgic, sometimes cringey but, like, totally familiar depiction of what it's like to be a teenage girl. Authentic and relatable are two words that came up a lot.

PARKER: Well, it doesn't totally surprise me. I feel like for her entire career, Swift has been celebrated and at times also criticized for her focus on trying to capture the emotions of teens and young women.

DONNELLA: Oh, absolutely. The conference was no anomaly in that way. New York Times Magazine wrote this big magazine article recently, where the author suggested that you could understand the phenomenon of Taylor Swift, quote, "through the eyes of the idea that Taylor Swift frees women to celebrate their girlhood."

PARKER: That's a lot to put on to Taylor Swift. But OK, first, for people who somehow haven't gotten sucked into the whole Swift universe, can we do, like, the quick backstory on Taylor Swift's actual girlhood?

DONNELLA: Let's do it. So Swift is from a small town called Wyomissing, Pa., about an hour and a half northwest of Philadelphia. It's about 85% white, pretty wealthy. And Swift has talked a bunch in interviews about how she didn't feel popular or cool growing up. Here's her in a CBS interview from 2014.

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TAYLOR SWIFT: My life - my life doesn't gravitate towards being edgy, sexy or cool. I just naturally am not any of those things.

DONNELLA: But she says she did think of herself as hardworking and creative. She was really into music and obviously really wanted to be a songwriter. So when Swift was 14, she and her family moved to Nashville so she could pursue that passion. And it was just a couple of years after that that her first album came out in 2006.

PARKER: OK, so that's around the time that I first encountered her, because I think "Teardrops On My Guitar" was one of the first songs of hers I remember listening to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARDROPS ON MY GUITAR")

SWIFT: (Singing) Drew looks at me...

PARKER: ...And she was talking about this guy she had a crush on in high school, and I've totally been there.

DONNELLA: Yeah. And then just a couple years later, she came out with "Fearless," which was when she started being even more well known with these two really, really big hits and music videos - "Love Story"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE STORY")

SWIFT: (Singing) Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone...

DONNELLA: ...And "You Belong With Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADDIE MAHMASSANI: The year was 2008. My little sister was in her basement bedroom blasting a song that would never leave my ears. (Singing) You're on the phone with your girlfriend - she's upset. The twang of the banjo mixed with that infectious hook and lovely, inviting voice to create something like a pop song, but somehow deeper, more interesting, more human.

DONNELLA: So Parker, the voice you just heard was Addie Mahmassani. She was a speaker at the Taylor Swift conference. She gave her talk wearing black-and-silver paisley sequined pants, and she told the crowd that from the very first time she heard Taylor Swift at 17 years old, she was hooked, largely for the same reason so many others were. Taylor Swift felt relatable. I called her up after the conference to dig into that a little more.

MAHMASSANI: The women in pop were - They were so sexy. To be honest, like, I wouldn't have used that word when I was 16, 17. The women in popular music were not accessible models to me in that moment of my life.

DONNELLA: But Swift was different in a way that shy, awkward teenage Addie could relate to.

MAHMASSANI: It was her look, you know? So first you hear the sound, and her voice is so sweet, and she's singing these sort of, like, fairy-tale stories where she always starts as that really accessible, that dorky girl that you see yourself in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BELONG WITH ME")

SWIFT: (Singing) She wears short skirts. I wear T-shirts. She's cheer captain, and I'm on the bleachers.

MAHMASSANI: And then, usually, especially in those early songs, it was like she goes on a journey. The journey involves, like, getting the sort of, like, the man of her fantasies and sort of, like, this evolution into this, like, beautiful princess, fairy-tale girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE STORY")

SWIFT: (Singing) ...Knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said, marry me, Juliet...

MAHMASSANI: And I mean, I can't believe I didn't see it when I was 17 - how much like Cinderella and how much it was like that, I mean, but it just got me.

PARKER: I get that. And I mean, obviously at one point, Swift really was a teenage girl writing about things she was maybe more or less experiencing. And I've been there. I'll admit, teenage Parker was into the whole acoustic guitars, sad-girl music thing. Were you?

DONNELLA: Not the version that Swift was doing. I should say, I'm close to the same age as Taylor Swift. I also grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, just about an hour away from where she did. We actually shopped in the same mall on occasion - fun fact. And I think because our circumstances were so similar in certain ways, our differences were what felt most pronounced to me at that time. Like her ability to imagine herself as this Juliet-type figure, you know, a Cinderella kind of princess - overlooked, but special, beautiful, someone who could possibly be the subject of romantic interest - that felt utterly unrelatable to me as a Black girl in this very white setting.

PARKER: I guess what I think is so fascinating is that even now, 15 years later, when Swift is arguably the most famous person on the planet and a literal billionaire, she's still talked about within this framework of girl, not the 34-year-old business tycoon that she is. So what is it about Taylor Swift that lends itself to people thinking of this adult woman as a girl, or at least someone who can authentically represent girlhood?

DONNELLA: OK, well, first of all, you know, credit where credit is due. I think Taylor Swift thinks a lot about girlhood and cares about girls. And so a lot of her aesthetic and her lyrics and her interaction with her fandom is focused on her female listeners. And at the end of the day, Swift is also a very savvy business person, and she knows that it's largely women and girls who consume her stuff. Also, you know, she's in the midst right now of rerecording a bunch of her old albums, so she's literally singing the same songs that she wrote when she was in her teens and early 20s.

PARKER: Right, right. That's the concept behind her Eras tour. It's all about her going back and revisiting those previous phases of her life, because we're now all old enough to desire nostalgia.

DONNELLA: We are. But you know, the other part of the answer, I think, about why she's still perceived as this authentic representation of girlhood has a lot to do with how girlhood is constructed. So, Parker, sorry to get a little existential for a second.

PARKER: No, please do, Leah.

DONNELLA: Girlhood is not a real thing. It's an idea that we have created in our culture that gets applied to different types of people at different times, just like boyhood, right? You know, you have Mark Zuckerberg as a boy pushing 40, whereas in some states you can try a 5-year-old child as an adult. So the way girlhood is kind of classically imagined in our society is this time of real purity and goodness and innocence, and it's very much tied up in our ideas about white femininity specifically. Actual girlhood is a really messy, complicated, varied time of life for a lot of people. They don't feel or get treated like princesses-to-be. So often when people in the U.S. talk about girlhood, they're using it as a shorthand for this sliver of an experience that really only exists for a minority of girls, usually upper-middle-class, thin, pretty white girls.

PARKER: All things that Taylor Swift is.

DONNELLA: Right. And of course, there's nothing wrong with those things. And it's not like she has any control over them. It just means that it's no surprise when she gets associated with girlhood more than other people in her cohort.

PARKER: OK, full transparency - I got chewed out by a large group of Swifties online a few years ago for trying to make this point. Which - it's the internet. It happens. I said that even though there's only a year difference in age between Taylor Swift and Adele, Adele wasn't granted the same luxury of white girlhood in pop culture because of her then plus size and her soulful voice. And people were demanding retribution for a breakup Swift had 10 years ago, but we're actively writing Adele out of her own divorce narrative, and that was me defending a white woman. I'm not even going to get into Beyonce and whether or not she was ever allowed to be considered a, "quote-unquote," girl.

DONNELLA: Right. And of course, we're talking about celebrities now, who are real people, but they're also symbols that are marketed to represent certain ideas or archetypes, often ideals that are drummed up by powerful male industry leaders. But that also trickles down to affect the way girlhood is constructed for normal, everyday people. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality did a study of how girls of different ages are perceived by adults. And Parker, you probably won't be shocked to hear it found that, quote, "adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5 to 14."

PARKER: I wish I was more surprised by that.

DONNELLA: It also found that compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants perceive that Black girls need less nurturing. Black girls need less protection. Black girls need to be supported less. Black girls need to be comforted less. Black girls are more independent. Black girls know more about adult topics. And Black girls know more about sex. And that brings us back to how Taylor Swift is perceived.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: When Taylor Swift appeared on the scene in the early aughts, there was so much talk about her being relatable - like I said, the girl next door. But I'd argue that that conversation was really just about sexuality and the female body.

PARKER: That's coming up.

DONNELLA: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: Parker.

DONNELLA: Leah.

PARKER: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: So we're back. We've been getting into Taylor Swift and her girlhood despite her adulthood. Now, Leah, before the break, you were telling me about research that shows Black girls are perceived as, quote, "less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers."

DONNELLA: Right. And that study was focusing pretty narrowly on race, particularly distinctions between Black and white girls. But we've seen that there are also so many other categories for which this is true - class, ethnicity, size and weight. So it's definitely not all white girls or white women who get to be treated as part of this special, protected group, and certainly not all of them all the time.

PARKER: Sure. But I guess the question is whether a Black girl or a Latina girl could perform just like Taylor Swift and be received as just an innocent girl next door.

DONNELLA: Right. And on the national stage, for most people, even if they wanted to, that's rarely seen as a viable choice. And that matters partly because of what you raised earlier with the comparison between Taylor Swift and Adele. For everyone who's perceived as a sweet, innocent, girl-like person worthy of protection, there are people on the flip side of that who are considered not worth protecting, not legitimate, not trustworthy, inherently sexual. And that includes both white women and often women of color.

PARKER: Right. Like, I think about Taylor Swift and, say, Megan Thee Stallion, who's 28. They were both in assault court cases, and they were treated so differently. Like, Taylor was highlighted on the cover of Time magazine that year, referred to as one of the silence breakers who was responsible for helping launch a movement. But with Megan, a lot of coverage of her almost framed it as if she was the one on trial, not the man who shot her.

DONNELLA: Exactly. And I think that all this matters because watching famous people is one of the ways that we learn how different types of people should be treated - who matters and who doesn't and why. And Taylor Swift is someone people are definitely taking notes from.

PARKER: Like the time she told young people to get out the vote, and tens of thousands of people registered as new voters in just one day.

DONNELLA: Mmm hmm. That was a great example. Another example - maybe less great - when Taylor Swift started showing up and cheering at NFL games, enormous numbers of young women started watching football. For that, she didn't even have to say explicitly, the NFL is great. You should support it. It's not like she was doing an ad, but it affected people's behavior anyway. Which brings me back to Addie Mahmassani, who you heard from earlier.

MAHMASSANI: I mean, I'm 33. Like, I'm her age, basically. And I just think, like, people who really identify with her - they have followed her to the point that they've kind of modeled their lives after her. Like, she has that kind of power.

DONNELLA: Today, adult Addie studies women in popular music. She's also a cultural historian. And her understanding of Taylor Swift has gotten a lot more complicated. And that's actually caused an interesting tension in some of her relationships.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAHMASSANI: My good friends, the ones who love her - like, the ones who went to the Eras Tour, and it's kind of like we're all on the same page about a lot of political questions. But then when I start to sort of, like, criticize Taylor Swift or sort of have my own opinions about some of, like, what I see as problematic, those friends - it's, like, very easy to alienate them in a way that is, like, this weird - there's not a lot of conflict in my social circles politically, except when Taylor Swift comes up.

PARKER: Well, what shifted Addie's opinion of Taylor?

DONNELLA: Well, one of the things she brought up was this idea that Taylor Swift's public persona hasn't really changed all that much. You know, Addie says that as she herself has gotten older, she's made her way through these different eras of her own life - some good, some painful. She remembers, for instance, really clearly, the first breakup she had that she hadn't been wronged. She was kind of maybe the one in the wrong. And along the way, she's learned a lot of different lessons about who she is, how she relates to other people, what matters and what doesn't. And she feels like Taylor Swift's public persona has transformed in these really safe, kind of superficial ways. Here's Addie at the conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHMASSANI: Yes, I noticed the first time she used a curse word in a song. I noticed the first time she mentioned alcohol. And I've noticed her attempts to sing about sex the way other stars her age do. But all of these moments have only felt like evolution because the bar with Swift was literally Shakespearean - as in Romeo, save me. To start, wine in this album...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRESS")

SWIFT: (Singing) I'm spilling wine in the bathtub. You kiss my face, and we're both drunk.

MAHMASSANI: ...Whiskey in the next...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON BOY")

SWIFT: (Singing) And you know I love Springsteen, faded blue jeans, Tennessee whiskey...

MAHMASSANI: ...F**k in the next...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL TOO WELL (10 MINUTE VERSION) (TAYLOR’S VERSION) [FROM THE VAULT]")

SWIFT: (Singing) ...Were tossing me the car keys, f**k the patriarchy keychain on the ground...

MAHMASSANI: ...And it leaves me asking, has she really grown up?

DONNELLA: Of course, Addie's question isn't just about the language that Swift is using. It's really about the scope of what she's willing to talk about and the diversity of perspectives she's willing to inhabit in her persona. And that question isn't new. You know, all the way back in 2014, Taylor Swift talked with our NPR colleague Melissa Block about how she speaks to young girls, and I want to play you a piece of that exchange because I think it's really interesting. Here's Melissa. By the way, this is from a radio piece, so you'll hear some of Swift's song "Wildest Dreams" underneath it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MELISSA BLOCK: You know, I've been thinking about this a lot because I am the mother of a 12-year-old girl, and she loves your music. Her friends love your music. You have a huge platform among a very vulnerable, impressionable set of the population. And I wonder if you think about turning your lens outward - turning it away from the diary page and sending a broader message to girls who would be really receptive to hearing about big ideas and the big world that's outside.

SWIFT: Like what kind of messages?

BLOCK: Well, other characters. I mean, I don't mean to minimize the effect of a love song or a pop song, but do you ever think about writing in the voice of other characters, other experiences, things that might turn girls away from themselves in a different way?

SWIFT: There's nothing that's going to turn girls away from themselves at age 12. I just try to tell girls that this is what my life looks like. I love my life. I've never ever felt edgy, cool or sexy - not one time - and that it's not important for them to be those things. It's important for them to be imaginative, intelligent, hardworking, strong, smart, charming. I think that there are bigger themes I can be explaining to them, and I think I'm trying as hard as I possibly can to do that.

PARKER: OK, respectfully, to Swift, I'm not edgy, cool or sexy, feels like a company line.

DONNELLA: Yeah, definitely part of her brand - and Addie brought up that same idea when I spoke to her that you just heard in that tape - that maybe Swift is not actually working as hard as she possibly can to explain bigger themes to the people who adore her.

MAHMASSANI: You at least have a responsibility, I think, to model a kind of womanhood or honestly just humanity that is aware of other people's struggles. That's all - I think that's all I'm asking of her at this point - is to really look at her struggles in relationship to other people's around the world and to really, like, think and then show us, like, what are you going to do with that awareness?

What I see with Taylor Swift is someone who's looking inward, and her inner universe is very fun and colorful and - but, I mean, she has grown this - if you want to look at it as a bubble of herself, of looking inward. She's grown it from within to the point that now it's its own reality. I mean, it's almost like its own planet. And to go on creating this enormous universe that's enormously influential without really looking at that privilege and in some way talking about it is just unconscionable at this point, you know?

DONNELLA: Addie brought up the rich tradition of women musicians who have spoken out about everything from segregation to the Vietnam War to BLM - Joan Baez, Odetta Holmes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT OR MISS")

ODETTA HOLMES: (Singing) Oh, can't you see? I got to be me...

DONNELLA: There's also Whitney Houston, Joni Mitchell, Pussy Riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLICE STATE")

PUSSY RIOT: (Singing) Big smile for the camera - it's always on. It's always...

PARKER: Right. Janet Jackson - I remember she made music videos in the '90s in response to apartheid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT 'TIL IT'S GONE")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) ...Always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Q-TIP: What - Joni Mitchell never lies.

MITCHELL: (Singing) You don't know...

DONNELLA: Yeah. And look, you know, some people will say it's a lot to ask of someone who got famous by writing very a personal love song.

PARKER: Well, I mean, yes and no. Like, when you have millions and millions of followers, like it or not, you've got a platform. You've been chosen. And what you do with that platform is important.

DONNELLA: Yeah, and not just for the fans. Parker, I want to bring up one more thing that I think is really important about how these categories of girlhood and womanhood are constructed. So last night I watched Taylor Swift's Netflix documentary, "Miss Americana." Have you seen it?

PARKER: I have. I saw it when it came out.

DONNELLA: OK, so you might remember that, in it, Swift talks about how, growing up and in the early part of her career, all she cared about was being seen as a good girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MISS AMERICANA")

SWIFT: I was so obsessed with not getting in trouble that I was like, I'm just not going to do anything that anyone could say anything about.

DONNELLA: And that's also what she was being told constantly from different people on her team and in her life. Don't say anything controversial. Make sure you look a certain way, even if you have to starve yourself. Don't get political. Always smile. And she talks about this sense she had that stepping out of line in any way would be bad - not just for her, but also for this enormous group of people who were relying on her to make money and sell products and all that. She said people used The Chicks speaking out about George Bush as kind of a cautionary tale for her.

PARKER: Right. But, OK, the whole Chicks thing was in 2003. By 2016, Taylor Swift was 27. She'd won Grammys and was wildly influential. And I remember specifically when Swift was being idolized by white supremacists as their Aryan goddess - literally praised by neo-Nazis as an ideal. And it still took her three years after the fact to say that white supremacy is repulsive.

DONNELLA: Yeah. And, you know, to be fair, she says in the documentary that she didn't know at the time that that was being said about her. But that also goes back to the whole privilege thing, of course - of being someone who gets to be protected from that sort of knowledge. But in certain cases, she does feel compelled by her principles. We see footage of her getting really fired up about the 2020 Tennessee election and getting to this point where she feels like she can't stay silent on that anymore. And her dad is like, please don't say anything. Please don't rock the boat. But she's like, I cannot live with myself if I don't do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MISS AMERICANA")

SWIFT: Kicked out of a restaurant. It's really basic human rights, and it's right and wrong at this point. I need you to just - Dad, I need you to forgive me for doing it, 'cause I'm doing it.

PARKER: I remember that scene because everyone was so proud of Swift that she spoke up.

DONNELLA: And she seems proud of herself. You know, after she finally says her piece, she says she feels like she's no longer wearing a muzzle. She has this amazing sense of freedom and that she's finally getting to grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MISS AMERICANA")

SWIFT: You know, there's this thing people say about celebrities that they're frozen at the age they got famous. And that's kind of what happened to me.

DONNELLA: And look, I know this movie was, in a lot of ways, a propaganda piece, right? It was made to make her look good. And it was coming off a lot of criticism Swift had faced for not speaking out in 2016 when Trump was running for president. But I think it also did a decent job of showing the ways that this category of pure, innocent, protected good girl is a trap for all women. There are immense privileges to getting to be the good woman or good girl, but none of the categories are about actually making the lives of women or girls better.

PARKER: While I sympathize with that, she's clearly aware of this criticism. And yet you look at what she's done in the years since that documentary came out, and it still feels very safe. And she's still mostly gotten to hold onto her spot as, again, America's sweetheart.

DONNELLA: No, I agree. And clearly, there was a time in Taylor Swift's life and career where maybe it would have been a lot riskier to speak out and say something controversial or say something political or anything like that.

PARKER: Yeah. Like, rock the boat.

DONNELLA: But she's not there anymore, and she says she doesn't want to be. As you know, Parker, I've spent a lot of time thinking about Taylor Swift, and it's not because I'm a super fan or a super hater. But I see the power she holds, and I think of that old theology truism that the job of a clergy person is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Taylor Swift is a religion to many people. She's proven that she's great at making people feel comfortable. And what I think we've heard some people wondering about throughout this episode is what it would look like for her to use some of her immense influence and resources to make the world a little less comfortable for the powers that be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: And that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. And don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter. You can do that at npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter. And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts.

Just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.

DONNELLA: This episode was produced by Xavier Lopez. Our editor is Dalia Mortada. Our engineer was Josephine Nyounai.

PARKER: And a big shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Christina Cala, Jess Kung, Veralyn Williams, Steve Drummond, Lori Lizarraga and Gene Demby.

DONNELLA: Big thanks to Indiana University and especially Natalia Almanza.

PARKER: I'm B. A. Parker.

DONNELLA: I'm Leah Donnella.

PARKER: Hydrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: (Singing) Romeo save me, I've been feeling - sorry.

DONNELLA: (Laughter).

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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