Like most Swifties with Netflix access, I watched the long-awaited Miss Americana yesterday. Sipping from my Taylor Swift mug, I watched the 1.5 hour doc, directed by Lana Wilson, with my sister (another Taytay fan), my boyfriend (a Swiftie now as well), and a few of my roommates (who mostly watched while multitasking). After the documentary, I’ve been thinking a lot about who watches Miss Americana, and how your position in the Swiftverse influences the ways in which you receive the doc. How does the doc speak to you if you’re already a massive Swiftie who knows a lot about Taylor’s rise to fame and what she’s been through this past decade? If you’re a casual listener of her music and mostly know the hits like “Love Story” and “Shake It Off”? If you’re just watching because you happen to live with someone who really cares about Taylor Swift? If you are politically active—as a conservative? A liberal? A socialist? Although Miss Americana moves chronologically through Taylor’s formative years, the doc ultimately wants to tell us more about what’s next for the star: Miss Americana is the portrait of the artist as a young activist.
The documentary is titled “Miss Americana,” which feels fitting; it is a reference to a track from Lover that borrows a high school setting to make larger claims about national disillusionment and the importance of finding love amidst political chaos. The song is probably one of Taylor’s most close-readable songs; Swifties and non-Swifties alike wonder, who’s Miss Americana? And who is the heartbreak prince? A few weeks ago, Kevin sat me down and we went through the song line-by-line as he asked these very questions.
Well, one thing that we can agree on is that Miss Americana represents Taylor here. “Americana” refers not only to “things associated with the culture and history of America,” but is also a musical umbrella-term that encompasses folk, gospel, bluegrass, country, and other music traditions. To be “Miss Americana,” you have to reflect America-ness in some way. You have to be America’s sweetheart.
But what makes America “Americana” when the country is so divided? In 2016, when presidential election day came round and the country was presented with two options—Hillary Clinton and Trump—whomever you voted for said something about what you believed (or wanted to believe) about America.
Until 2018, Taylor had remained infamously quiet about her politics. So quiet that neo-Nazis decided she was their “Aryan goddess.” It didn’t help that Taylor had released an album called “RED” and turned the color into her aesthetic for a year. Or that she’s a wealthy, white, straight woman who grew up on a Christmas tree farm.
For so much of her life, Taylor was taught that “a nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people; a nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you; a nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.” And it is precisely Taylor’s niceness that has made her a role model to so many. Growing up, I remember how Taylor was always presented by the media as the exemplar superstar; the one who is close to her family and takes tons of photos with fans and doesn’t ever stir up drama. This is in sharp contrast with some of her peers; in 2008 and 2007 respectively, Miley Cyrus was criticized for posing nearly topless in Vanity Fair while Vanessa Hudgens was dealing with a nude photo leak. If you were paying attention to teenage pop culture at this time, you’d know that 2007/8 was when Taylor was recording Fearless, which debuted at the end of 2008 and propelled her into worldwide fame. As a young kid, you listen to “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “White Horse,” etc., and decide to let go of your former idols, Hannah Montana and Gabriella Montez. The new nice girl in town is Taylor Swift.
Taylor begins the doc by telling us that all she ever wanted to be was a nice girl. Someone good. She should know that her kindness and empathy is what makes her fans (at least me) love her so much. But, as Taylor admits, her own desire to play the role of good-girl Miss Americana came back to bite her in unexpected ways. One of the pivotal moments in the doc (and in Taylor’s life) is when (trump-supporter) Kanye West and Kim Kardashian turn the world against Taylor by releasing “evidence” that Taylor gave Kanye permission to call her a bitch in his song, “Famous.” These are dark times I remember well. It felt like all of a sudden, people who were just waiting for an opportunity to hate Taylor Swift came out to say, “Aha! I knew it! There’s no way you could possibly be so good and innocent. You’re a snake.” People were fed up with Taylor’s nice-girl image, her popularity, her attractive boyfriends, her inability to mess up. Her blunder with Kanye proved that she was not only a good girl who effed up, but a good girl who was never so good to begin with.
What’s happening here is not just that haters are gonna hate. People turned on Taylor not just because they were mean-spirited or jealous. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this drama ensued in 2016, a time when the “goodness” of America was thrown into question after November. Why did people turn on Taylor Swift? Why didn’t enough people vote for Hillary Clinton? Both are instances that involved a disbelief in the “good” of Americana. Oh, Taylor Swift isn’t who you thought she was? Well, neither is America.
Taylor has said some very enlightening things about why she didn’t endorse Hillary in 2016, notably in an interview with Vogue:
“The summer before that election, all people were saying [about me] was She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar,” Swift said. “These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability? Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women.”
What’s unspoken here is that Hillary’s top celebrity-endorser at the time was Katy Perry, with whom Taylor was still infamously beefing with in 2016 (according to the public eye), so Taylor’s involvement in Hillary’s campaign would have caused another host of problems. But Taylor is right; she was unpopular in 2016. And her team wouldn’t want that unpopularity to spread further, particularly not to the election.
In the doc, Taylor tells us that women in the music industry have to constantly reinvent themselves to become “interesting,” or else they become disposable. Indeed, Taylor has been doing this her entire career; going from country sweetheart in Nashville to pop icon in New York. But Miss Americana is about Taylor reinventing herself in a new and more important way; as a politically-vocal artist.
If you want to watch “Miss Americana” to know how “Shake It Off” was made, forget it. As Taylor says in the doc in a tearful scene, it “just feels like it’s more than music now at this point.” One of the best scenes in the doc is her posting her Instagram post about elections, in effect coming out as a democrat (personally, I always knew she was a democrat and I find the Aryan-goddess theories ridiculous):
The scenes where she talks about the lessons she’s had to learn along the way are by far the most impactful moments in the doc. For example, when she says:
“I’m trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people and deprogram the misogyny in my own brain. There is no such thing as a slut, as a bitch, as someone who’s bossy, there’s just a boss. We don’t wanna be condemned for being multifaceted.”
And my favorite:
“I wanna love glitter, and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. I wanna wear pink, and tell you how I feel about politics. I don’t think those things have to cancel each other out.”
You might be asking, is Taylor Swift “woke” now? And you might be saying, “well if so, she’s late to the party.” But, look around you; clearly, the world is not woke (whatever that means). Miss Americana shows one of the planet’s biggest superstars doing what we should all be doing, i.e. continuously educating ourselves, recognizing our own hypocrisy, and speaking up for what we believe in. Taylor laments towards the end of the doc that she feels as if she were frozen at the age she got famous. A number of tough wake-up calls in her life, from the Kanye incident to her sexual assault case in 2017 to her mom’s ongoing battle with cancer, forced her to reassess everything around her. Taylor is famous for writing about heartbreak, but the “heartbreak prince” in her song represents another kind of heartbreak: one that exposes the pain that the country you call home. A recurring claim Taylor makes in the film is that Marsha Blackburn’s values are not the “Tennessee Christian Values” the American people stands for. And yet, Blackburn was still elected as senator. An important message that this film conveys (and I haven’t seen anyone say this yet) is that to many people in Tennessee, clearly, Marsha Blackburn is their Miss Americana. All this goes to show that, despite how clear-cut the doc is about what Taylor believes in, America is still rife with divisions and disillusionment.
I expected that I’d tear up in the doc when Taylor spoke about her political awakening, or about her mom’s cancer. But actually, the moment that truly got me (and I feel so emotional typing this still) is the rare scenes of her with Joe Alwyn:
Miss Americana, both the song and the movie, are about political despair. But they are ALSO about love; “finding happiness without anyone else’s input.” As someone who has Taylor’s entire discography essentially memorized, I know how much Joe (true love) means to her. It’s not only trauma, but also the love in Taylor’s life that has empowered her to find her own voice. And I think that’s beautiful. The doc shows a number of scenes that are obviously filmed by Joe, in effect making him another cinematographer helping to tell her story. The decision to include his gaze (not so much the male gaze but the lover’s gaze) in the film alongside Lana’s shows that we’re seeing Taylor not only through the eyes of “her team,” but also her family. The doc focuses so much on Taylor’s political awakening, but don’t forget that Taylor Swift—before she became Taylor Swift The Activist—was (and is) Taylor Swift the Love Guru. I don’t want her to think that songs such as “Miss Americana,” “YNTCD” and “Only the Young” carry greater gravitas than “Call it What You Want” or “Cornelia Street.” I hope she knows that her voice, no matter what she is using it for, has and will always be of profound importance to those who care about her.
If left to my own devices, I could easily continue to work on this piece until it is book-length but I’m gonna try and wrap it up, lol.
Parts of the doc that I really appreciated, apart from the aforementioned, include: Taylor swearing (we love to see it), Tree Paine being supportive (Tree is Taylor’s publicist and I love her), Taylor eating a burrito and talking about how she had her first burrito in her late 20s (I, too, arrived at burritos late in life), the montage that shows Taylor talking about her conception for the ME! video and the actual filming of it (it was nice to see directorial decisions in the doc), the dinner scene with Abigail (in general, I liked seeing Taylor’s friends make lil cameos in the movie; e.g. Claire Winter and Ashley Avignone), the cat backpack (the funny moments of this doc were peak), her arguments with her dad about politics (heartbreaking tho), her self-deprecating humor (which is well-known among Swifties), the scenes with her mom (love Andrea Swift)…
I didn’t walk away from the doc feeling jubilant, though (as this review might make clear already). In fact, I think the doc actually makes one feel rather sad about the way in which fame and public scrutiny can really affect one’s self-perception and mental health. After I finished watching the documentary I didn’t quite know how to feel for a while. I didn’t reaaaallllyyy like the way in which the documentary was interspliced with “Age 23, ” “Age 25” markers, for instance. If they wanted to divide it up in that way, I would’ve almost preferred they included more information (e.g. “RED era”). Aesthetically, I didn’t really like the white-font-on-black-background look.
Similarly, I thought the doc included way too much footage from reporters. Like, waaaayyy tooo much (loads of which I’d already seen before, but then again, I arrive at this doc with 12 years of experience). The fact that this footage predominantly appeared in the first half made me think that maybe it was a directorial/artistic decision to show us how everything we know about Taylor comes from public judgment. But I felt that an over-reliance on media to tell Taylor’s story actually does her a great disservice. The whole doc is about how she wants to shape her own narrative and tell us her own truth. So why is SO much of the film filled with other people telling us about her? Esp. people from the past? I almost wish that we saw her family/friends tell us about her instead; I would’ve wanted to see original content, not rehashing of old footage. I guess a big reason for this is that the doc primarily wants to tell you about Taylor’s political present/future, not necessarily what she was like as a kid (they’re saving that angle for the next doc in like 15 years, I think). But, it was a bit unnerving to see the first ~6 years of Taylor’s career practically narrated to us by reporters/journalists, whereas Taylor has always told us about her life through music. In some ways, music wasn’t really the focus-focus of the doc, even though we certainly see and hear a lot of it. Did we really need to see that much Marsha Blackburn (I guess yes, if you buy my earlier argument about the 2 Miss Americanas)? In some ways, Miss Americana felt a bit like a collage. As I mentioned earlier, I liked moments in the doc where you could see the director making her own editing choices (e.g. the montage). But the viewing experience is drastically altered when many of the clips comprise of news recordings, many of which take place in the past. Tellingly, two reporters who are featured criticizing Taylor have since come out to apologize for their words (as well as express surprise at their cameos in the film). I kinda wonder how many people they had to get “permission” from to use footage. But I guess it’s as Taylor said; it’s about more than just the music now.
All in all, I love Taylor. I love how much the documentary allows us to see what’s important to her, and also what’s important to America. I’m happy for Taylor, and feel extremely lucky to be alive at the same time as her. Here’s to seeing what Miss Americana does next!