Review: Miss Americana gives an intimate look at the superstar’s life as she embarks on a new chapter energized by love and politics.
“It’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth. Like, forever.” It’s with this trademark flourish that global superstar Taylor Swift, freshly open about her political beliefs, tells the world she’s permanently done with keeping her opinions politely to herself.
Director Lana Wilson’s new documentary Miss Americana (out on Netflix Friday) studies the emergence of Swift as a burgeoning political activist. In the last documentary Netflix released about the star was the movie version of her award-winning Reputation stadium tour. But this is something altogether different.
We do briefly see Swift on stage, but more often we see her in her dressing room, or in the studio where she cooks up songs that crowds later scream back to her during shows. There are also clips of her in business meetings, on planes, in cars and, most illuminating of all, talking directly to Wilson about her deeply unusual life journey.
Miss Americana is named for a track on Swift’s latest album Lover. It’s one of the most sophisticated and metaphorically meaty songs she’s ever written, and my personal favorite off the new record. The song is also key to understanding who this new political Swift is, and where she came from.
Against the canvas of the classic all-American high school experience, she paints herself as disenchanted by the strictures of the system she’s caught in while deriving satisfaction elsewhere. Throughout the song we see the dissembling of her belief system and the alienation she both feels within and from others who punish her when she chooses not to conform. “They whisper in the hallways, she’s a bad, bad girl,” she sings against the echo of cheerleaders chanting “go, fight, win.”
Swift’s embrace of being cast as the bad girl here is conspicuous mainly because, as she admits to Wilson, it’s everything she would have once shied away from and actively feared. Rewind to 2009 and you’d see Swift on the cover of Rolling Stone in full country mode, accompanied by the tag line “secrets of a good girl.”
Throughout her life, Swift says, goodness was the central tenet of her belief system, but it was the very same year as that magazine came out that she would first discover that being polite and cast in the role of America’s sweetheart was actually a trap of seemingly impossibly high and unsustainable standards.
She was expected to be modest, tame, submissive, ever-smiling and entirely predictable. But while aesthetically the blond, wide-eyed young singer seemed a pageant-perfect fit, the two-dimensional ideals that had been ascribed to her were not a full reflection of who she was, and had even less to do with who she would become.
In chronological sequence, Wilson shows how in spite of everything Swift did to try and meet expectations, she gradually outgrew the narrow parameters of the America’s sweetheart role. After all the scrutiny and antagonism, Miss Americana is the character who emerges in her place — a passionate figure who loves deeply and hurts deeply in a way that’s intrinsically tied to her country and culture, but isn’t always socially acceptable.
It’s the journey of transitioning into this new role that Wilson documents in real time in the film. At the center of the story is the essential question of what it means to be a good American woman in the 21st century. For Swift, whose personal identity was co-opted to uphold a wider American ideal, the answer could only have ever been profoundly political.
The result is a startling examination of current American values and internalized misogyny, as well as a validation of Swift’s decision to speak out during the 2018 US midterms in favor of Tennessee Democrat candidates.
“I feel really good about not feeling muzzled anymore,” she tells Wilson of her newfound political openness. “And it was my own doing.” But as much as Swift should be applauded for taking responsibility for her past decisions and life choices, it feels as though, not for the first time, she’s being overly harsh on herself here.
If she was a co-conspirator in her own repression, she clearly didn’t feel as though she had any choice in the matter, especially when everyone around her was warning her it would be career suicide.
“Part of the fabric of country music is don’t push your politics on people,” she says in one of many interviews she did with the filmmaker.
A strained, emotionally fraught scene in which Swift’s father Scott and wider team discourage her from sharing her views publicly shows that without Swift’s deep-seated conviction, her public political stand might not have happened. Before hitting send on the Instagram post that would mark Swift’s political debut, she and her mum Andrea and her publicist clink glasses in a toast to “the resistance.”
It’s easy to understand why those with Swift’s best interests at heart wanted to protect her from the blowback that would inevitably come. But in retrospect it will just as inevitably transpire that making the courageous decision to speak her truth was the only decision she could have made to continue living and working authentically.
More than a decade later, the titles of Swift’s early albums, Fearless and Speak Now, which were written early in her career, reverberate through her life almost as mantras. As much as Swift has been shaped by her recent experience and grown into her adult self, the choices she made back then to represent her voice still serve as a reminder of what is essential about her as a person.
Deep down, she’s always run too passionate to be passive. She’s a natural storyteller and communicator who wasn’t built to stay quiet, although the documentary shows that in many ways she’s still coming to terms with this. She laughs about apologizing for being “too loud” in her “own house,” which she bought thanks to “the songs that I wrote about my own life.”
Over the course of the past few years, Swift has mastered the skill of living both loudly and quietly. It’s a curious balancing act that I’ve quietly admired from a distance for some time, but until now we’ve had little insight into what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.
For fans like me, and other keen observers of Swift’s career, the documentary fills in these gaps. It’s a glimpse of what it looks like for Swift juggling a period of intense artistic output with running a business, enjoying a private romantic relationship, helping her mother through cancer and stepping into the role of political activist.
Viewers coming to the film looking for celebrity tittle-tattle will likely be disappointed, but those keen to see a portrait of an artist at work will be delighted. Some critics have said the film doesn’t go deep enough, but to me, the intimate access she gives to her life and the vulnerability she allows the crew to observe after she totally vanished from view following the 1989 era is surprisingly wide-ranging.
“Nobody physically saw me for a year,” she says of that period of her life. “And I thought that was what they wanted.” Her disappearance followed a well-documented bust up with Kanye West and her subsequent “canceling” on social media — a saga Wilson retreads in the film.
It was a difficult time to be a fan of Swift’s, not because the tide of public opinion was against her, but because it was so obvious she’d hit a low and there was no way to comfort her. The shutters were down and her fans had no choice but to hope for the best. But as the film shows, it was a crucial period in Swift’s life that allowed her the space to regroup.
In another of the songs off Swift’s latest album, the final track Daylight, she sings again about discarding old ideas in favor of a newer, bolder and brighter perspective. It’s ethereal, soft and dreamy, but it’s just as much a protest song as Swift’s more overt political ballads.
In Daylight, we see the same fundamental rejection of rigid dichotomies (good/bad, black/white) and the adoption of a new philosophy that plays out in the film. “We don’t want to be condemned for being multifaceted,” she tells Wilson.
By casting off the America’s sweetheart persona, it seems Swift didn’t so much fall from grace as ascend to a higher plane of existence. Here, as Wilson deftly shows, preserving relationships with family and friends and engaging with big-picture issues she cares about take precedence over the simplistic narratives about American female goodness that previously dictated her behavior. Being so uninhibited and free without editing for the purposes of goodness is a good look for her.
Wilson’s film is consistently punctuated by Swift’s laughter and quiet moments at her piano. In the center of everything, the star has clearly carved out a space in which she’s discovered how to be content — or at least as content as anyone whose whirligig creative mind wakes them up in the middle of the night spouting new song lyrics can ever be.