Miss Americana starts with acclaimed popstar Taylor Swift showing us her diaries, its covers pink and glittery, dating back as far as she was 12. She reads back to us, the lines from her teenage self; this need to be thought of as good and that her whole moral code has been dependent on it. Looking back to her decade-long career, this moral code seems to have become a marketing strategy, one that contributed to her rise towards stardom: the image of the good country girl singing love songs, heartbreak, and dreaming of the one.
Lana Wilson portrays Swift with poignancy and sincerity. The documentary’s polished editing re-introduces us to the person gracing our social media feeds, radio stations, and year-ender charts. She intertwines Swift at the ages of 17, 19, 24 and 29: the versions of her we know and have grown with, versus the version of her now.
But such images of her go beyond marketing strategy; they’re real. Perhaps what’s always been likeable about Swift is her sincerity in caring a lot about people up to the point where her happiness relies on everyone else’s approval.
Her country roots had won her the role of America’s sweetheart and she has since constantly re-shaped her image. The later years of her career has seen a shift from country to pop and with it came the paparazzis, sold out stadiums, and public drama, including the infamous feud with Kanye West, that challenged her initial need to be good to everyone half the time. After the scathing event with West back in 2016, Swift disappeared from the public eye and lied low for a year or so.
Swift tells Rolling Stone that she did it because she needed to grow up and make boundaries; “to figure out what was mine and what was the public’s. That old version of me that shares unfailingly and unblinkingly with a world that is probably not fit to be shared with? I think that’s gone.”
Miss Americana focuses on Swift’s approaching divorce from basing a part of her identity and happiness on what everyone else tells her is good. In between, there are bits of her creating music, surrounded by cats, family, and friends. She’s at ease when she creates music and performs in front of crowds. Wilson’s camera appears more of a companion, occasionally being told of a secret—a confidant whenever Swift needed one. She opens up about things like her since eating disorder, her frustrations with the media, and her politics.
One of the most interesting things about Swift’s political awakening includes the midterm elections, where Marsha Blackburn, a conservative candidate, was poised to take over the polls as Senator for the state of Tennessee, something that visibly upset Swift. Her desire to break her political silence came after her sexual assault trial. Since then, she has become more vocal and political. This comes at a challenge to her management (including her father) and the argument that ensues between both parties gives us a bit of insight as to how everything operates behind the pop star’s life.
The years of radio silence from politics was apparently at the insistence of her management (including her parents) that can be summarized into Swift’s own words: “A nice girl smiles and waves and doesn’t make people uncomfortable with her views.”
There’s an interesting thought about how Swift was raised to be a perfect image of an American doll that was apparently just a puppet. It’s often jarring to remember that she was only 16 years old when she first started in the business. Swift eventually reclaims the narrative and decisions in her career for herself with some hard lessons, and Wilson films it perfectly without a crease. It’s almost too perfect, but enough for us to wonder for more of that crease.
But this is the version we can only get to see. It’s not intense, not as raw as we expected it to be; unsurprising, because of Swift’s need to control how she wants to be perceived. But this is a performance and all performances, in one way or another, reflect on the person, and in here, Swift parts the curtains a bit. Wilson does the best she can to let us see the polished cracks in the room, but never enough for us to understand more. And I suppose that’s all we’ll ever know.
There’s always a desire to know more about people like Taylor Swift, and while there’s room for us to know beyond what we see, we can respect the need to be on the boundary of the audience watching a performance instead of a character study. Miss Americana isn’t a character study of Swift, but a film about someone who learns to embrace her own independence and undoings.
This is Swift’s coming-of-age as she sheds the decade-old version of herself and comfortably slips into the new shoes of another, this time grown and confident woman she had always aspired to be. By the last 15 minutes, she tells us her openness and desire to be educated about a lot of things in politics. Her privilege as a straight, rich, white woman comes into play, but Swift doesn’t bat an eye. Her awareness is at hand and she welcomes the need to do more with her position. One can hope that with the right guidance and company, she may be on her way.
Miss Americana is currently streaming on Netflix.