The best parts of Miss Americana, the new Taylor Swift Netflix documentary, are the moments when we get to see behind the scenes into her creative process. Say what you will about Swift — actually, please don’t, in this house we respect Taylor Alison Swift — her songwriting talents are unimpeachable. Which is why it’s such a treat to see how the sausage — song sausage? songsage? I’m sorry — gets made. There’s a scene where she’s in the studio with her producer Jack Antonoff working on an early stages of “Getaway Car,” a personal favorite off of Reputation, mostly because it sounds like a forgotten B-side from 1989. Swift and Antonoff go back and forth, trying to nail a lyric. Antonoff proffers up “motel bar,” which Swift then, as if by magic, spins into “left you in the motel bar, put the money in the bag and I stole the keys,” which is, as we now know, the final lyric. It’s a real delight to watch.
It also means we get to hear bits and pieces of songs before they reach their final, dressed-up form. Which, at least in the case of “ME!,” the lead single from Lover, has me wishing the dressing up had never happened. Swift plays a bit of her first stab at the song on a piano. Without all the production — overproduction, really — it sounds like an entirely different song. The lyrics, which at this point seem inextricably linked to the smarmy, cotton candy-colored nightmare that is the song’s music video, feel more meaningful: “I promise that you’ll never find another like me.” Damn straight, Taylor.
Later in Miss Americana, we see Swift explaining the concept of the video to Brendon Urie as he records his vocals for the song. The video still haunts my dreams, but it’s fun to watch Swift let Urie, and us, into her brain for a minute as she yells out all the things that “make me me” (and that make Urie Urie) and she thusly plans to include in the video: glitter, cats, rainbows, musical theater, the list goes on and on. (Let me do you a favor right now and mention there’s a highly memeable moment of Swift yelling “GAY PRIDE!”) It’s clear, at this point, what “ME!” is going to end up sounding like and it’s a far cry from that first iteration.
Don’t get me wrong, I love pop Taylor Swift. I have danced my face off to pop Taylor Swift. I have listened to “New Romantics” more times than I can count and every time it does something a little different for me. Ditto “Wonderland,” which I contend is the sleeper best song on all of 1989. Hell, I even eventually dug “… Ready for It” after the 50 consecutive listens it took to wear my brain into submission. (“Burton to this Taylor.” Her mind!) But there’s really, truly nothing like Taylor Swift when she’s performing the most stripped-down versions of her songs.
I come back to these 2015 videos of her performing at the closing of her exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Nashville a lot. Swift and an acoustic guitar doing “Blank Space.” Swift alone at a grand piano singing “Out of the Woods.” This is the video I send people when they’ve decided that even though we, culturally, have long since litigated the “is Taylor Swift good” argument, to enter the debate. On the album, “Out of the Woods,” slaps, but it’s also got a lot going on. Without all that noise removed, it resonates a little differently. You realize there’s — as is the way with pop — not really a whole lot to the song. Which makes what Swift is able to to with it all the more impressive.
So, Taylor, if you’re reading this, I have a request. Please, if you’re not busy and you’re hydrated and you’re all caught up on your television shows, would you consider recording an acoustic version of “ME!”? One without the synth and the drum kit and the section where you teach children how to spell as though this entire song was native advertising for an animated movie. Can we have a little acoustic “ME!” as a treat?