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How Taylor Swift Found Her Voice for “Only the Young”




I have this idea,” Taylor Swift says near the end of Miss Americana, director Lana Wilson’s documentary about the singer’s life and career. Moments later, casually holding her iPhone and reclining on a sofa in her studio, Swift performs the chorus for what will become “Only the Young,” sounding as if she’s reciting an old favorite rather than something new. “This particular song, and the process of creating it, was a perfect example of how visceral writing a song can be,” Swift tells Vanity Fair via email. With songwriting, she continues, “you try to transport yourself back to a time you felt intense emotion and write from that place. Every once in a blue moon, you end up in the studio at the exact moment you’re feeling that raw emotion.”

That kind of pᴀssion is present throughout Miss Americana. Rather than opt for mere hagiography to further ʙuттress the Swift myth, Wilson focused on the singer during a transitional phase, as she wrapped up her Reputation tour and began creating her 2019 album, Lover. The film lets Swift openly discuss sensitive subjects she’s often avoided in interviews: her struggle with an eating disorder; her legal battle with a DJ who groped her during a meet-and-greet; her complicated feelings about fame, gender, and Politics.

Through it all, Wilson captures Swift in not just confessional interviews, but in the recording studio as well. “It was the hardest thing to get access to—which is saying something, I think, because there’s obviously so many emotional and raw moments in the film,” the director says. “Filming her writing songs in the studio took the longest—to get the trust to film that—because the studio and writing songs is Taylor’s happy place.”

“Only the Young” was written in 2018, shortly after Swift had broken her long silence about Politics. She had endorsed Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen in the Tennessee Senate race against Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. But though Swift was credited with inspiring a surge in voter registration, Blackburn emerged as the winner. Miss Americana captures Swift’s devastation vividly. Upon hearing the news, she expresses her disgust with Blackburn by describing her as “Trump in a wig.”

“Almost the entire process of creating that song, I was fighting back tears because I was so sad about the results of the midterm elections in my state and the losses faced by superb Democratic candidates in states like Georgia and Texas,” she writes, presumably referring to Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial defeat in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke’s loss in the Texas Senate race. “I didn’t want the defeat and hopelessness I felt for our country’s future to get the best of me. I didn’t want to weep. I wanted to have hope. Writing ‘Only the Young’ helped me push through that moment in my life and gave me the hope to keep fighting for what I believe is right.”

The act of songwriting has long had an undeniable cinematic appeal. From Lady Gaga singing “Shallow” in a Super A parking lot in A Star Is Born to Terrence Howard recording “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in Hustle & Flow to Eminem poring over sheets of paper as he comes up with “Lose Yourself” in 8 Mile, there’s something irresistible about watching performers create. The difference, however, is that those films—all winners of the best original song Oscar—are narrative features, with screenplays designed to enhance the songwriting process. Miss Americana is a work of nonfiction.

“It’s the kind of thing you always hope for when you’re making a film, but it’s never guaranteed that that kind of magic will happen in front of you, in front of the camera,” Wilson says of recording the creation of “Only the Young.” “I remember leaving the room at the end of that night and feeling like, This is why I do what I do.”

Swift wrote the song to motivate young people, but Wilson sees power in the songwriting process itself: “The best feedback I’ve got has been from young kids starting to make art for the first time and not being afraid of it because they’ve seen an example of it in front of their eyes.”

Nine turbulent months after Swift released “Only the Young,” she gave gratis license for it to be used in a voter-turnout video from California congressman Eric Swalwell. The video blended a year’s worth of headlines, including the global pandemic and mᴀss protests for social justice, with her song and words from a speech by Kamala Harris. “As a country musician, I was always told it’s better to stay out of [Politics],” Swift writes, adding, “The Trump presidency forced me to lean in and educate myself. I found myself talking about government and the presidency and policy with my boyfriend [actor Joe Alwyn], who supported me in speaking out. I started talking to my family and friends about Politics and learning as much as I could about where I stand. I’m proud to have moved past fear and self-doubt, and to endorse and support leadership that moves us beyond this divisive, heartbreaking moment in time.”

This year, the Oscars could provide one more twist in the song’s journey, but the singer is not ready to talk too much about what would be her first nomination from the Academy. Even global superstars get supersтιтious, it turns out. “It would mean a great deal to me, especially since ‘Only the Young’ immortalizes such a pivotal moment in my life and our country’s mobilization to move together toward change,” she writes. “I would be incredibly honored to be included. But I am absolutely terrified to go further into the daydream for fear of jinxing it.”