Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 24, 2020

Miss Americana dives into Taylor Swift’s inner life

By ELIZA ZIMMERMAN | February 13, 2020

Miss Americana, the documentary directed by Lana Wilson that debuted on Netflix after a run at Sundance, is less of a walk through Taylor Swift’s life, and more of a patchworked exploration of the star’s psyche from her point of view — and only hers. 

Amid present explorations of past diaries, reflections on fame and windows into the seemingly effortless execution of the pop star's latest album, Lover, we see footage of the singer’s younger self. Adorable home videos give a sense of the time and dedication it took to get Swift across the music industry’s threshold without revealing any of the tawdry details that paparazzi footage captures. They show Swift’s transition from a smiling young country girl to a removed and beautiful icon. As the first half of the film progresses, two narrative threads emerge.

One thread follows a sanitized rise to fame and the hectic maturation of a girl growing up in front of the world, dealing with feelings of inadequacy that drive especially deep considering her spotlight. We dive into Swift’s dependency on approval, learn that her “entire moral code as a kid and now is a need to be thought of as good,” and watch her play out this desire for a music industry that craves her bright eyed innocence and salivates over the thought of her being put down. 

We watch through Swift’s eyes as the first inklings of public alienation begins with Kanye’s infamous interruption of her MTV Video Music Award win and track it through the world wide trending of #taylorswiftisoverparty in 2016. 

She relays her struggles with an eating disorder as clips of her body — incredibly thin and highly scrutinized — flash across the screen. She admits to being caught up in the narrative of her own life, constantly reinventing her essence in order to be interesting and marketable, mourning that she didn’t know how to proceed when it all came crashing down. 

Swift also, heartbreakingly, dwells on her loneliness at the height of her fame, and as the viewer, you see so clearly a girl struggling to fit herself into a world that preys on the vulnerability she depends on for her livelihood. This part of the film reads as a cautionary tale: No matter how privileged, beautiful and powerful you are, women are never safe from sexism and the insatiable hunger of the online masses to ridicule and humiliate. 

The other thread tracks Swift’s fall from grace, beginning with a clip of her learning that her seventh album, Reputation, received no Grammy nominations. She becomes immediately self-effacing, deflecting the awareness of the camera and the worried voice of her publicist on the phone by vowing to write a better album. As an audience, we watch her come back down to earth — or, at least, it seems that that’s what’s happening. 

Swift falls in love, has dinner with family and friends and learns to treat her body better. 

The film then begins to meander, with the threads of her story becoming muddled as they intertwine, moving backward and forward at a disjointed rate, following Swift’s present musings in relaxed interviews with the camera. 

During the second half, however, it becomes clear that the documentary does, indeed, have an ulterior motive: to showcase the development of Swift’s political journey from the silent and demure American beauty to someone who mobilizes mass voter registration with one social media post. 

It begins with Swift’s countersuit against a DJ who groped her (and was subsequently fired) and continues into Swift feeling a strong desire to be on the right side of history during Tennessee’s 2019 senate race between the Democratic Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn, a staunch conservative. 

In fact, the most memorable clip of the film is Taylor and her mother going head to head with her team, debating whether or not Swift should start speaking out politically. Taylor ends up anxiously posting in support of Bredesen and then we are whisked away on another journey, but this time, one that takes place squarely in Swift’s personal sphere. 

She also begins speaking out against Trump, in support of gay rights. She finds her voice again, and the documentary culminates, not with a solemn conclusion, but by tracking the writing of a song about young people and political power, effectively titled “Only the Young,” and released along with the movie. The simplicity of the lyrics delivers an important message. 

And then the film ends, confusingly, almost hastily, a rushed and business-oriented cap on what was otherwise a highly vulnerable and psychological map of a movie. 

It was odd, to say the least, although not entirely unexpected. 

Life doesn’t just stop being a narrative, being a hamster wheel, driving forward, just because you’ve undergone some serious growth. Taylor Swift is still Taylor Swift, just older, wiser and more emotionally protected. 

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in Swift’s limited but vital perspectives on her life for a few hours.

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