Miss Americana is a 2020 Netflix documentary by Lana Wilson about superstar Taylor Swift. It gives an overview of Swift’s career through the years but focuses primarily on 2016 through the release of her newest album Lover from late last year. The movie depicts the 2016 election and a series of Swift’s personal and professional struggles as the catalyst for her newfound political voice, which she showcased during the 2018 midterm elections (coming out in support of a Tenessee Democratic candidate), the pro-LGBTQ+ song “You Need To Calm Down” from Lover, and her sexual assault trial that she won in 2017 against a radio DJ who groped her during a meet-and-greet.
None of the events depicted in the documentary are particularly new, even for casual fans but especially for dedicated ones. Most of these events were highly publicized and Swift has already spoken or sung about them. The most interesting new stuff comes from discussions between Swift and her team about her political statements and genuinely thrilling footage of Swift at work recording. For the filmmaking itself, there is nothing groundbreaking here in the art of making documentaries about stars. But while the parts of Miss Americana may not be new, it is the most concise expression that I’ve seen of what all other pop-documentaries have been trying to say:
Fame is a curse.
The first sequence after the opening scene shows Swift preparing for a show on her Reputation tour. She stands in the wings and puts on a glittery hoodie. She looks like a boxer. Then she comes out on stage, with all the showmanship of today’s WWE shows, and suddenly you realize that even for a woman who is at the height of her powers and is, arguably, the biggest titan in the music industry right now, she is still fighting every day. And that’s terribly sad.
Swift and the film touch on a number of reasons why fame is a curse. The profound loneliness while being extremely visible, particularly when it comes to personal relationships. The pressure to always top yourself and to keep evolving and changing your image. The fact that once you’re famous, you are not an individual, but a cultural archetype that can be used as a character to cast in myths and allegories of politics, identity, history, and explorations of greater systems than ourselves, as is well-explored in this Vox article, “How the Taylor Swift-Kanye West VMAs scandal became a perfect American morality tale”.
Along with these general observations on fame, the film also explores Swift’s unique experience of fame, which is shaped by the brand she established for herself when she started at age 14. Swift has a distinct brand of vulnerable authenticity. Her songs are extremely personal and are most frequently compared to that of a diary. It’s distinct because Swift was one of the pioneers of the pop-star-as-your-friend movement, on top of seemingly every trend and perfectly suited to the social media age. If nothing else, she has carried this brand with the most consistency out of her contemporaries.
Now is she really authentic? Hard to say. I’m of the mind that no one is truly authentic, and certainly not when they are commodifying themselves, as we all do online and in our work. Swift’s biggest critics disdain what they see as an overly-polished relatability. Making a documentary adds to Swift’s brand of vulnerability and openness, but it doesn’t reassure me that she isn’t fully in control of how she’s being portrayed all the time.
But while we can question how authentic her personal image and actions are, I don’t think there is any question about the sincerity of her motives. You may wonder how much of a victim Swift was in, say, one of her breakups, but what Swift really wants you to see is that she is always truthful about what she feels, which is what comes across in her songs. Those feelings, if not the truth of the situation, are authentic.
That comes across very clearly in Miss Americana and is one of the most compelling aspects of it. In the opening monologue, Swift talks succinctly about how she has always wanted to be good, and the documentary goes on to chart how what she has defined as “good” has changed over the years. She’s always acted out of a desire to be on the right side of things, for better or worse. As someone who is similarly motivated by the same desire to “be good” (unite, enneagram ones!), albeit defined differently than Swift, this is incredibly relatable and therefore feels authentic. It goes back to the theme of the authenticity of her motivations, which is why I think she remains such a big star and has an intimate parasocial connection with her fans.
Miss Americana is not a particularly revealing look at Swift, and can feel pretty milquetoast at times. But it is a good look at fame, and if you were already interested in the film or Swift, then it delivers on its promise to craft the bildungsroman of Taylor Swift, 30, coming of age by finding her political voice.