Taylor Swift’s new song “Only the Young,” released on Friday, is the latest addition to her budding canon of protest songs. Following in the wake of her 2019 single “You Need to Calm Down,” a controversial would-be successor to “Born This Way,” “Only the Young” focuses less on feminist and queer issues than on the cause of rallying younger generations.
In the song, which soundtracks the closing credits of the new Swift documentary Miss Americana, Swift sympathizes with how painful it can be for young people to follow the news and then tries to compare their plight to a sport they can win: “The game was rigged, the ref got tricked/ The wrong ones think they’re right/ You were outnumbered this time,” she sings, and then “It’s just a matter of time/ Up there’s the finish line.”
While “You Need to Calm Down” tried to blast away the darkness with a confetti cannon, this song also features some of Swift’s darkest lyrics to date. At one point, Swift even appears to reference school shootings, singing, “You go to class scared/ Wondering where the best hiding spot would be.”
In Miss Americana, Swift explains that the song was inspired by the 2018 midterm elections, and in particular the defeat of politicians like Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams. “It’s basically saying, like, persist. If you can just shift the power in your direction by being bold enough, then it won’t be like this forever,” she says.
While “Only the Young” will be compared most to “You Need to Calm Down,” it’s most akin another song from her 2019 album Lover: “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince,” a sultry, Lana Del Rey-esque track of political disillusionment that similarly explored national politics through the imagery of classrooms and school bullies. In that version of the story, she’s “voted most likely to run away” with her lover and retreat into private life, but here, when she encourages fans to run, she’s urging them toward the finish line.
So why is Swift, who recently turned 30, still writing from the perspective of a high-schooler? There are a few different ways to look at it. First, as Slate music critic Carl Wilson wrote in his review of Lover, child stars often revert to the youthful personae that made them beloved in the first place. Second, there is something undeniably a little fitting about discussing today’s political battles as a nightmarish return to high school, given that our president is a bully whose political tactics include taunting his opponents with childish nicknames.
But knowing the ever-strategic Swift, it seems likely that she is also trying to meet her fan base where they are. As she pointed out in the documentary, she’s trying to register teens to vote, so why not speak to them in their language? The “Swift lift” may not have been enough to flip a Tennessee senate seat in 2018, but she hasn’t yet given up on 2020.
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