“It’s all just fucking impossible.” So says Taylor Swift, in reference to being a young female in show business. Being too bold draws criticism, being too safe draws that criticism. It’s one of a few observations that make this documentary more compelling than its straightforward structure would suggest. Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson, is framed like a confessional from the pop star who has been famous for more than half of her young life. Only recently thirty-years-old, Swift is front-and-center for the majority of the film, speaking openly about her stratospheric success and the hardships that followed. There is something brave and interesting about making a documentary dissecting how hard it is to achieve all of you dreams, considering the vast majority of your audience are people who will never attain their own. Wilson captures Swift in moments of genuine (?) vulnerability. Consider a scene where she gets a call informing her there will be no major Grammy nominations for her album Reputation. The young artist takes it in stride, fighting back tears as she declares: “I need to make a better record.”
At first glance, one of the ten most famous people in the world lamenting a lack of Grammy nominations feels petty. Even a little silly. But then again, that’s her life, isn’t it? Wilson does an admirable job conveying the intense differences between the problems Swift deals with and those of any normal human being. In one scene, we watch her exit a building into a car, a litany of flashes and screams by the held-back mob of fans awaiting her exit. “That’s my front yard,” she tells the camera as she settles in the car. Who among us will ever know what that is like?
Early on Wilson begins her charting of Swift’s meteoric rise with how fame and her public persona kept forcing her into dark places. Swift knows that her brand is “the nice girl,” and that nice girls don’t make waves or make people feel uncomfortable. And yet even playing the nice girl, her grasp on popularity remained tenuous as she becomes embroiled in media controversies over her dating life, her authenticity, and her demeanor. Seemingly faced with a no-win situation, Swift fights to take back control by examining what’s truly important to her. But what’s also surprising about Miss Americana is how little of the documentary is about her music. Sure, there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of Swift workings on her songs and being on stage, but the documentary isn’t interested in engaging with a critical assessment of her pop songs or why Swift has succeeded where other singer-songwriters have failed, which is fine. And personally I’m not particularly interested in a movie that’s trying to convince its audience why Taylor Swift’s music is good because it’s clear that Swift feels in her zone when she’s just working. For Swift and for Miss Americana, the drama is in Swift wrestling with her public persona and what it means to be a pop star who’s been famous since she was a teenager.
The documentary gives Swift the floor to say her peace on conversations about her weight, her love life, and what her public demands. And what makes Swift a compelling central figure is that she’s pretty self-aware of her status as a public figure, and yet that awareness turned out to be a double-edged sword. Swift isn’t some record label product who can’t think for herself. The problem, as Swift knows, is that part of her appeal is being an apolitical “nice girl,” and any authenticity has to be filtered through the toxic customs of what our society demands from women in the pubic sphere. She knows that you don’t rise through the ranks of music by telling people what they don’t want to hear, but what happens when you want to talk about more than breakup songs?
And things get more interesting when Swift reaches her political awakening about halfway through the film. She’s warned about the repercussions with references to the Dixie Chicks abound, and as they should. This grappling does lead to her decision to endorse Democrat Phil Bredesen in the 2018 Tennessee Senate election. Her battles with her own management team to speak out in opposition to Republican Marsha Blackburn’s policies against LGBTQ rights and her vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act feel tense and earnest. We see a deeply distressed Swift, silenced for years, reach a mental breaking point with no other option but to finally share her views. And while most of this authenticity reads as manufactured and a bit focus-grouped, it’s hard not to like this pop star. The phrase “she means well” can band-aid any manner of sins, but here it feels like a true descriptor. Taylor Swift is choosing to speak her mind, and that’s probably a good thing. If it engages a few more young people to stand up and be active, then it can be considered a success. Though it can surfacy and a little opaque, Miss Americana still delivers a convincing, fascinating look at the absurd double standards and extreme pressures put upon young women in the spotlight.
Miss Americana is available to stream on Netflix (in the U.S.) now!