“Right now, um, in the big categories of album, record, song…um, you are not nominated.”
“Um, okay, its…”
“You know what, it’s fine, it’s good… I just need to make a better record.”
“Reputation is a great record.”
“No, I’m making… I’m making a better record.”
The twenty-something in sweats speaks quickly over speakerphone to her agent. It’s clear that she’s reeling, but there’s barely a beat between the news and her assertion that she just needs to do better.
The young woman is Taylor Swift, the pop superstar, and in the recently released documentary about her on Netflix, you watch her learn one of her albums received no major Grammy nominations and her immediate spiral into shame, self-loathing, and a clear sense of inadequacy.
I was so struck by the scene, I had to pause the documentary. Taylor Swift has garnered 32 Grammy nominations, and 10 Grammy wins (including winning album of the year, twice), and she is barely 30. She has album sales rivaling Michael Jackson and the Beatles. How is that not enough? How can she still believe that she isn’t good enough? How can she still be so dependent on the approval of others? How is the success she has attained not sufficient to the critic in her head?
Her response to not getting a Grammy nomination for her 2018 album is devastation, not out of entitlement. Her rage isn’t at the nominators for depriving her of something she believes she deserves; it is at herself for being inadequate. It’s jarring, eye-opening, and deeply sad.
This blog isn’t really about Taylor Swift though, it’s about all of our young people. Just this past week, I wrote about how our research with the Innovation Lab is pointing us toward the fear of failure, how young people believe that if they come up short in anything, that they are intrinsically a failure. But none of my academic language could capture the problem the way that one scene with Taylor Swift does.
The issue our young people wrestle with is much more than a fear of failure. It’s a suffocating belief than anything other than perfection is outside the realm of possibility — to an extent that’s totally outside of healthy striving. It’s the fusion of success so deeply with an identity that the desperate fight for the top spot isn’t vanity — it’s existential.
If the only way young people define themselves is through their achievement, then a failure isn’t just about the thing they fail at. It’s about their entire value and identity. Taylor Swift is not an artist-type who just wants to make art that speaks to her. She’s a pop star who wants to play stadiums — and who has had people cheering for her since she was 15. Any threat to that isn’t just the natural evolution of her career, but a threat to her entire self.
There is tragedy baked into this entire narrative of course. Because Taylor Swift’s pop stardom will likely fade. And our teenagers won’t always be the top of their class or their team. And even if they are, it will give them at best a temporary high, and then all they’ve done is move the goalposts for themselves. Taylor Swift only feels like a failure when she doesn’t get a Grammy nomination because she’s already gotten so many. That’s the cruelty of this mindset – any success just leads to a higher expectation in the future, making it impossible to win — and devastating to lose.
We have to give our young people another narrative. We have to give them other anchors for their hope and their identity. These false gods of fame, fortune, and success will ask everything of them and will never be able to satisfy that deep longing for someone to look at them and tell them they are enough. This weekend at the Refuge, we’ll be having a worship night where we talk about the 10,000 conflicting messages that teenagers receive about who they’re supposed to be, and how, in Christ, they can find clarity, a single set of expectations to live up to – to love God and to love others.
We have to rescue our young people from a worldview that is so scarce and barren that they believe that they have to sacrifice everything about themselves to carve out an ounce of love and worthiness. We have to model for them another way. May we be mindful this week of how we can be generous with our love and approval and grace for others around us, and especially for ourselves.
Taylor Swift is good enough, and she would have been without all those Grammys.
Our young people are good enough, even if they don’t make state or top 10%.
And you are good enough, no matter what voices tell you otherwise.
Director of Youth Ministries