Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.
Given that she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it should be difficult for Taylor Swift to don the cloak of the underdog. But among her many gifts as a songwriter is a knack for immersion, the way she can use a sharp hook or a snappy phrase to instantly pull you into her filigreed worlds. Lover is a massive album (18 tracks!) that was massively successful (double platinum!), but when “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” kicks off, Swift is just another shattered teenage girl again; she effortlessly conjures a familiar high-school dystopia, the modest drums combining with her slightly breathy vocals to yank you back to a time of adolescent heartache. The lyrics are characteristically simple but evocative: She’s ripped up her prom dress, she’s running through rose thorns, she’s fending off whispers from judgmental classmates about how she’s a bad, bad girl. It’s The Scarlet Letter by way of Mean Girls.
Of course, “Miss Americana” is more than just another of Swift’s teen-centric fairy tales, like “White Horse” or “Love Story”; it’s also a cri de coeur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” she asks rhetorically while staring helplessly at “American glory faded before me,” and her despair is palpable. There’s even a whiff of gerrymandering/voter suppression (“The whole school is rolling fake dice”), but mostly she’s just left helpless and depressed, learning of the election results (via a football scoreboard, naturally) and then running for her life. When the bad guys are exchanging high fives, all that’s left to do is paint the town blue.
Here’s the thing, though: None of that political metaphor is essential to appreciating “Miss Americana” as a kickass song, a finely constructed ballad that builds to a soaring conclusion. Swift is such a phenom, it’s easy to overlook just how skilled she is, how she approaches her work with sincerity and craft. It’s there in the spondaic shouts of “OH-KAY!” that punctuate several lines, and in the light piano that pops up in the chorus, meshing with the throbbing synths. My favorite part of the song is the bridge, where backup singers shout the last word of each line: “And I don’t want you to GO! / I don’t really wanna FIGHT! / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN!” That sounds like surrender, but listen closer; after three crushing repetitions, Swift suddenly inverts the lyrics, promising that she’ll never go, that she’s staying to fight, that she’s determined to win. It’s a lightning-quick flip—from compliance to defiance, from desolation to resolution—and it turns this once-despondent ditty into a roaring battle cry. So sure, maybe it’s tough to accept Taylor Swift as the underdog, but only because—as this intricate, ecstatic song proves—she doesn’t know how to lose.