Taylor Swift claimed she could shake off almost anything.
But “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” reveals how public image has plagued a pop star who grew up wanting everyone to think she was a good girl.
Having premiered at Sundance Film Festival and released on Netflix Jan. 31, director Lana Wilson’s documentary depicts Swift’s quick rise to fame and her recent ideological shifts. Anyone hoping for a raw portrayal of Swift might still be disappointed, as anytime a camera is out she’s likely to be performative to some extent. But “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” tears a hole in the barrier between icons and their fans, opening up a conversation that provides further context for many of Swift’s recent actions. The film doesn’t intend to reveal all – instead, it is a way for the singer to re-frame the narrative that has surrounded her for the past few years.
The documentary opens with of Swift at the piano, her youngest cat Benjamin Button stepping across the keys as she plays a smooth melody. It then transitions into a mix of interview clips, old home videos and tour footage, splitting the film’s narrative into two threads: what led the pop star to become the person she is, and how her means of navigating the industry have shifted in recent years. Swift lays out her initial mindset early in the film, when she said “(her) entire moral code is a need to be thought of as good.”
The first half of the film delves into this mentality, and viewers follow her rise from a young country star to an international pop icon. In particular, it’s her various interactions with Kanye West that have nagged her career since she was 17, and Swift finally lays out how they impacted her psyche. Hearing people boo while she was on stage during their initial encounter at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards led her to focus on two things: working hard and being nice to people.
Though it provides a chance for Swift to further explain her side of the story, much of the first half of the film feels slightly disjointed. More of a tour documentary than a story, it bounces from Grammy nominations to experiences with eating disorder to growing older. And while each of moment provides a peak behind the curtain into the singer’s life, Wilson fails to stitch them into a cohesive narrative. Montage after montage of onstage performances only highlight this feeling, and the film could have benefited from more one-on-one interviews with Swift and others in her life.
There is a twist, however, as Swift begins to discuss the Senate race that pushed her into the political sphere. Finally, the documentary manages to highlight a particular storyline – Swift casts aside the moral foundation of her career, and is now focused on what is just.
Such a sudden shift could have come across as cheesy or undeserved, but in documenting her commitment to being viewed as nice, the film makes it clear that her muzzle was one of her own making. But Wilson cements the change in issues that Swift has grappled with such as her 2017 sexual assault trial, documenting how she turned a more critical eye on the system. In a particularly poignant moment, she discusses having had plenty of evidence – what about survivors who only have their word?
Swift is pushed to her breaking point as these frustrations build to the film’s most striking moment. Surrounded by her parents and management, Swift is seen in near-tears as she fights for why she would post what would become the Instagram post that marked her entry into the political sphere. Notably, it’s the men around her who push for her to remain apolitical, while her mother stands firmly by her side. Later, these same men are seen congratulating her on the impact that post would go on to do.
Swift’s lack of political impact for most of her career has drawn plenty of criticism in recent years. But when she explains that her country roots – a genre which saw the Dixie Chicks blacklisted for one political comment – combined with her clear need to please others, the film sympathetically dissects her apprehension of the political sphere.
Wilson might not have fully removed Swift from her pedestal, but she has further contextualized many of the issues that have surrounded Swift’s career, providing the singer a space to shift the narrative.
By the end, Swift is grappling with an issue many people face at the moment: how does one remain open to the goodness the world has to offer while still guarding oneself from the bad. In the final moments, as her lyrics to “The Archer” play right as she discusses wanting to keep an open heart, it’s evident that there is not clear answer to this predicament.
But having peeled off her masking tape, Swift is ready to explore what it means to be on the right side of history.