1 Hr., 25 Mins.
February 6, 2020
lthough it’s become common, almost an expectation, post-2016-presidential election for A-list celebrities to be blunt about their political leanings, Taylor Swift was for a long time stuck in political arrested development. When she was coming up as an almost instantaneously über-successful young country star, she in no doubt knew where her loyalties were. But she had so internalized the shut-up-and-sing
command often directed at country singers that she felt like public-facing apoliticism was the right thing to practice if she wanted to continue to be popular. Look at what happened, after all, to the Dixie Chicks in the early 2000s. All they did was make an offhand comment at a concert about how they were embarrassed to have George W. Bush as their president and had their career crumble because of it. Swift, who had for years built her entire belief system around being liked and perceived as “good," didn’t want to end up like them. “I’m just a 22-year-old girl,” she told David Letterman in a telling 2012 interview. “People don’t want to hear what I have to say about politics.”
Swift has had a bumpy last few years. After reaching an apogee in her already-whirlwind career with the acclaimed blockbuster 1989 (2014) album and its subsequent tour, two “scandals” essentially dovetailed. In 2016 she was deemed a calculating “snake” after it was revealed that she wasn’t being entirely transparent about her relationship to Kanye West’s “Famous,” his provocative track from that year’s The Life of Pablo. Her unbreakable apoliticism in an era where it quickly became almost blasé for pop stars to be politically outspoken became a problem. Was she too craven to ice out her conservative fan base? Was she perhaps conservative herself?
The narrative around her dramatically, and lastingly, shifted in October, 2018 when she posted a sepia-toned, bedside portrait on Instagram supplemented by a lengthy caption in which she made very clear, for the first time in her career, her political stance. A year earlier, she saw through a legal victory after filing a lawsuit against a radio DJ for groping her at a meet-and-greet in 2013. (She garnered a symbolic $1.) In just a few months, Swift metamorphosed, at least as far as the public was concerned, from an insincere, untrustworthy celebrity too concerned with being liked to someone who was convincingly determined to use her platform for good, regardless of if there might be backlash.
When I wrote a column about Swift’s political coming-out at the behest of my editor in late 2018, I had a hard time discerning the conviction-to-calculation ratio. But I ultimately wasn’t that worried about it, since Swift inspired a lot of young people to be active in the political process and since I’d rather celebrities use their voice to promote social justice than do nothing at all. Following her reintroduction, Swift has evinced herself a relatively shrewd and articulate liberal celebrity, albeit with some notable missteps. With the release of her latest album, 2019’s Lover, which has corresponded with sympathetic, frustrating problems related to the ownership of her discography, she seems to have fallen back into public favor after a period of intense vitriol and criticism.
smaller ways, is about a lot of other things. It divulges details about Swift’s rocky relationship with body image; the toll being a ubiquitous celebrity can take on a person’s mental health; and how a musical genius like Swift operates behind the scenes. (There are some genuinely spectacular scenes of her working through songwriting with producers Joel Little and Jack Antonoff.) This is a stuffed documentary. It charts the entirety of Swift's career and parses through the various key aspects of her public and private personae, striving, apparently, to paint a full portrait. It packs a punch in just 85 minutes; I suspect it might have made for a compelling miniseries.
Surprising about Miss Americana, especially given how often the word “calculating” has been attributed to its subject, is that the movie, arguably, doesn’t feel that calculated. Celebrity vanity-project documentaries like Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012), Beyonce: Life is But a Dream (2013), or Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show (2019) are irksome because we can so palpably sense the subject’s guidance of how they play out. The construction is so obviously meticulous that they feel less like films and more so cinematized press releases. They depict struggles only if they have an inspirational lift; they present successes in almost too-good-to-be-true American Dreamisms. Larger-than-lifeness must be preserved at all costs.
Miss Americana evokes anxiety more than it does inspiration. It doesn’t feel like those movies. It's closer, I think, to the underrated, mosaic-like Grace Jones documentary Bloodlight & Bami (2018). That movie throws at us a mishmash of observations and experiences over a short period of time to an almost disjointed degree. There’s a sense that by stitching together, sometimes jarringly, a collection of thematically different scenes, all will add up to make what feels like a true representation of the subject in question. Documentary conventions like voiceover work and talking-head interviews are used only when necessary. It's a no-brainer, when humanizing a celebrity with a film, to have the structure of it reflect human messiness. No one thinks of themselves or remembers pivotal life moments totally chronologically, or with the same amount of weight.
Miss Americana is much more linear than Bloodlight & Bami. But it matches the latter in the sense that it’s less intent on putting together a streamlined narrative and more so a picture of what it might be like to be this person during this stretch of time. This stretch of time is just particularly fraught. We know Wilson’s direction, which has a blend-into-the-background subtlety to it, has worked over us when a feeling of loneliness starts to overpower the movie. Concert footage suddenly has the almost-horrific surreality Swift discusses. We can see how the unnaturalness of her everyday life has affected her maturation. We can also sense how it has played a part in the delay of her being able to confidently express ideas she worried would take away the successes that have caused this unnaturalness in the first place.
The feature is a pretty unvarnished and pretty powerful depiction of a people pleaser having an epiphany after becoming famous as a child. It’s moving to watch Swift having her come-to-Jesus moment. It’s also thrilling, for instance, to see the drama surrounding the famous 2018 Instagram post — especially the ensuing heated argument she gets in with her dad and other managerial types when they fret over her refusing to keep politically quiet any longer.
It’s true that Swift’s staggering privilege can lend the film underlying “poor me”-isms. A documentary you’ve co-signed is probably the tidiest way to go about cementing how you’ve changed. (Or rather, as the critic Spencer Kornhaber recently put it, how you’ve gotten closer to self-recognition.) Few people have the same sort of outlet. But Wilson also renders celebrity with such clear-eyed nightmarishness that Miss Americana doesn’t inspire much cynicism.
Conversely, it summons surprising sympathy. B+
he new documentary Miss Americana (2020), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was soon after released on Netflix, shows in more detail Swift's transitional period. Cannily directed by Lana Wilson, it’s a movie most plainly about a person who decides, after much rumination, that it’s better to have self-conviction in lieu of obsessively worrying about affirmation from others. The film, in