In the Netflix documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana released on January 31, Taylor Swift gives fans a more intimate look at what it’s like being one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
Often at the center of controversy, Swift is given a platform to share her side of the story without immediate comments, feedback or call-outs through Miss Americana. The format of a documentary allows Swift to explain her life without critics immediately jumping down her throat. The fact that Swift is a huge figure in the music industry is indisputable, and Miss Americana recounts her career’s rise, life at the top and where she is now.
The documentary follows a powerful narrative of always trying to be the “good girl,” to becoming too good — too calculated and fake — to shaking off her good girl image to let her voice be heard. The storytelling is strong, with a good balance of scenes from her concerts, recording sessions and interview footage. The lighting of the first interview scenes is beautiful and soft. Coming back to footage from that interview shows how Swift embraces her soft side but is still a powerhouse in everything that she does.
Recalling Swift’s rise to fame from a country singer to a pop superstar, the documentary shows a young Taylor Swift going after her dreams of being a singer/songwriter. With footage of young Swift singing songs she wrote, it’s clear that Swift has worked long and hard on her lyricism and craftsmanship. Releasing her debut self-titled album at age 16, Swift lands on the scene with a bang, topping the Top Country Albums Chart for 24 non-consecutive weeks.
But, in the words of Swift in the documentary, “one bad thing can cause everything to crumble.” At 19 years old, Swift’s career changed forever after Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech for Best Female Music Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
Unaware that the crowd was booing at West, Swift recounts this experience by saying, “For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”
The hate and attention haven’t gone away. Swift’s love life, body and talent have become focal points of the media. In 2016, Swift and West entered another feud about whether Swift consented to West’s reference to Swift in his song “Famous,” with the lyrics, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that ***** famous.” Before conversations about the impacts of cancel culture were commonplace, ‘#TaylorSwiftisOverParty’ trended at #1 on Twitter following Kim Kardashian West releasing Snapchats of a phone call between West and Swift regarding the lyrics.
Swift continued to be a focus of the media in 2016 with her breakups from musician Calvin Harris and actor Tom Hiddleston. But being in the public eye can take a toll. In one of the most personal and important scenes, Swift recounts her struggle with an eating disorder. The years of Swift’s hard work and the cost that comes with fame caught up with her. So Swift decided to disappear.
Swift took time off to focus on her music rather than the fame and to fall in love. Swift writes with a vengeance but also with a heart full of love. One of my favorite moments in the documentary was when Swift mouthed “I love you” while singing a song off of reputation to her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn.
The documentary then follows Swift's new-found desire to publicly fight for what she believes in. Most notably, Swift filed a sexual assault case in 2017 against a radio DJ who inappropriately touched her during a press event in 2013. The catch is, she filed the lawsuit for $1 and won the case.
Following this, tying into the aptly named “Miss Americana,” Swift, on the verge of tears, emotionally described why she needed to let her political voice shine through an Instagram post encouraging fans to vote for Tennessee Senate candidate Phil Bredesen, rather than conservative Marsha Blackburn. Seated across from her father, Swift describes how she needs to use her platform of 112 million followers to make a difference, with Swift later saying “I hope it really does something.”
Contrasting the heavy theme of politics, the documentary finishes out by showcasing the release of Lover, ending with a previously unreleased track “Only The Young.”
Going into the documentary with a fair knowledge of Swift’s music and career, I was looking for Miss Americana to surprise me. With the extent of which Swift’s life is in the public sphere, I was hoping to learn something I didn’t already know.
The filmmakers did a good job of incorporating music from all stages of Swift’s career, from her singles to some of her deeper cuts. As much as the documentary is about Swift as a person, it accounts Swift’s journey as a musician — showing scenes in the studio with producer Joel Little to performing at sold-out stadiums.
The film is intentional and engaging. I don’t think it’s innovative enough to appeal to an audience beyond Swift’s fanbase, but that audience is large as it is. Miss Americana’s attempts at innovation fall a bit flat, particularly the editors’ artistic animation during the descriptions of the sexual assault trial. But, the strong documentary style and its ability to give a complex portrayal of Swift as a musician, political influence, lover, daughter and goofball overshine some of the risky technical moves.
I ended up with a greater knowledge of and sympathy for Swift, even though the purpose of trying to elicit sympathy through a documentary is worth recognizing. Swift advocated for the documentary to be made and its invoking of sympathy makes me question why Swift wanted the documentary made so badly.
On a more positive note, it was nice to see the entire course of Swift’s career in an hour and a half time frame and to reminisce about her music at each phase of her (and my) life. Miss Americana won’t appeal to everyone, but anyone who at least kind of likes Swift should check it out.
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