“Be new to us. Be young to us … Live out a narrative that we find interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable,” Taylor Swift said describing the burden placed on female artists to constantly reinvent themselves in the new documentary “Miss Americana” (2020). Swift’s disillusioned narration plays over a series of shots from her performances — we see her country-era concerts, back when she still donned her long curls; her “Red” (2012)-era kookiness at the 2013 Grammys; her sparkly, contemporary “1989” (2014) looks with her chopped bob; her moody, gothic “reputation” (2017) performances, complete with fog and pyrotechnics; and finally, her Candyland-colored shoot for the “ME!” music video from her most recent album, “Lover” (2019).
“Miss Americana,” a Taylor Swift documentary by Lana Wilson, takes us through Swift’s tumultuous rise to stardom, starting from the wild success of “Tim McGraw” (2006) and ending with the release and success of “Lover.” On first watch, it’s an intimate look into Swift’s life as a pop star. For any Swift fan, it’s an exciting opportunity to go behind the scenes of her larger-than-life career — to watch her hum out half-written songs with her producer, Joel Little; to see her practicing a cappella backstage before a performance; to see her speak rather candidly about her experience in the spotlight for the past 15 years. Much of the documentary is dutifully shot and thoughtfully composed, and much of it a rather compelling look about the, oftentimes, startling struggles of being someone so completely and utterly famous.
Think a little more beyond that, though, and the documentary becomes more difficult to untangle. It’s hard to deny that “Miss Americana” is a very raw and honest look into everything that comes with being as famous as Swift — she seems just about as thoughtful about her career as she can be, reflecting on her rise to stardom through her narration as though she were speaking in a particularly sobering therapy session. However, it’s hard to know what, exactly, the documentary seeks to communicate about Swift herself and her relationship with her fame.
If one were to define a general arc for “Miss Americana,” it would be that Swift’s life and career has been leading up to the moment where she finally breaks her political silence, refusing to give in to the pressures of her fans, producers and anyone else who might be offended by her views. “A ‘nice girl’ doesn’t force their opinions on people,” Swift narrates bitterly over footage of herself, primly dressed, on TV interviews as she refuses to answer questions about politics. “A ‘nice girl’ smiles and waves and says thank you. A ‘nice girl’ doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.” For Swift, it seems, finally speaking out politically — supporting Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen for the 2018 Tennessee Senate race over Marsha Blackburn — was enough of a turning point in her career to necessitate an entire documentary reflecting on it.
Now, Swift has had her own share of traumatizing controversy fall upon her — all worth sharing — between Kanye’s disrespect at the 2009 VMAs to the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty Twitter trend to the 2017 David Mueller sexual assault trial. Her career has certainly been a dramatic and informative one, and “Miss Americana” does an excellent job of contextualizing Swift’s album releases alongside her struggles within her career for those of us who weren’t paying as close attention to it. However, the framing device of Swift’s constant self-assessment in “Miss Americana” only reinforces how entangled Swift had become with her own self-image through her rise to stardom. It’d be going a little too far to say that Swift is a victim of her own fame; however, “Miss Americana,” whether intentionally or not, seems to suggest that she has almost always been at the mercy of it.
It is with this realization that Swift’s commentary about reinvention becomes more troubling. She is correct in that she has had to reinvent herself — it’s incredibly jarring to see how much she has changed since the release of “Tim McGraw” — but the extent to which Swift has been, over the course of her career, pushed and pulled by this desire for freshness and newness is even more terrifying. Between “1989,” “reputation” and now “Lover,” Swift has oscillated between different personas with almost dizzying frequency, constantly, it seems, seeking to find a persona that feels right to her.
And therein lies some of the dissatisfaction that comes towards the end of “Miss Americana”: we’re meant to believe that this is Taylor at her most authentic, now on the other side of this revelation about speaking out politically. Her cynical reflectiveness about her past career seems to suggest so, after all. But “Miss Americana” may have been preemptive, as we have no idea how this turning point in Swift’s career will come to impact her future work. Can Swift’s new political awareness really undo the years of pop-star values that “Miss Americana” exposes and that Swift so very obviously struggled with? Is there a chance that we might’ve arrived at Swift’s “true” musical and public personality with the release of “Lover”? Or is “Lover” simply representative of another incarnation of the ever-changing entity that is Taylor Swift? We may, unfortunately, have to wait and see what her next album is in order to truly know.