Miss Americana (2020) ★★★
Directed by Lana Wilson
For a few years, my friends teased me because one evening in 2009, after I’d been writing for a few days and hadn’t paid much attention to the news, I asked if anyone could fill me in on whatever it was that had happened between Kanye West and Taylor Swift earlier in the week. Um, yeah. They could fill me in. Pretty much anyone I talked to at the bar could have filled me in at that point. I’d thought I was bringing up a piece of light gossip, but my friends quickly informed me that this was a world historical Internet Event, one so engulfing that even President Obama had weighed in.
Watching Miss Americana, I realized that I had never really grasped the import of this event on Taylor Swift, who was only 19 at the time and took Kanye West’s now infamous interruption really, really personally. When West was booed for his rudeness at the 2009 VMAs, Swift thought that she was the one being rejected. It fed into her outsider complex, one that started when she entered the country music scene as a Nashville newbie at age 13, and continued when she left country to sing popular music in her late teens. It also triggered a need to prove everyone wrong, and she followed up her VMA humiliation with record-breaking and award-winning singles, albums, and yes, videos. But it proved to be a spiritual dead-end. When some of her fan base capriciously abandoned her in a West-related kerfuffle years later (it’s too ridiculous to get into) Swift felt lost. “I was so fulfilled by approval that I became the person everyone wanted me to be.”
Miss Americana follows Swift during her years out of the spotlight after the release of her album Reputation. There are a few clips from her Reputation stadium tour — which looked exhausting — but mostly we see Taylor at home, in the studio, and on a variety of private jets and tour vehicles. We meet her mother, a couple of her friends, her studio collaborators, and we get a glimpse of her new boyfriend, but mostly it’s just Taylor, trying to grapple with how to be an incredibly famous person in the age of the internet.
I’ve always had a certain amount of sympathy for Swift, and this documentary only gave me more. This poor woman spent her entire adolescence under an inhuman amount of scrutiny. The fact that she reached age 30 without a substance abuse addiction or nervous breakdown is a minor miracle and speaks to her essential creativity. Writing new songs is always what gets her out of her ruts, and she has matured as a songwriter over the years, even if her lyrics are sometimes childish. Criticism of her lyrics has always seemed a little unfair, anyway, first because she deliberately tries to write songs that will appeal to pre-teens (in a recording session in Miss Americana she describes the chorus of “Me!” as something a little kid could dance to); and second, because Swift was never allowed the chance to mature in an even close to normal way. She can’t leave her house without being swarmed by fans, and she has to deal with fans breaking into her house, as well as a near-constant security detail.
The psychological demons might be even worse than the threats to her physical safety. Over the years, she’s learned not to look at photos of herself online, so as not to wrestle with self-loathing thoughts about how she should be thinner or hear voices in her head parroting mean comments she’s read online. It’s painful to listen to Swift detail her struggles with eating disorders because it’s so easy to see how they arose in an online culture that nitpicks every image.
Swift has always been ambitious: we see clips of her childhood performances, and home movies that show her writing her songs in her early teens. In Miss Americana Swift looks at that ambition and asks herself what can sustain it over the next decades of her career. She realizes that approval is no longer going to be enough for her, nor an abstract idea of goodness. The documentary ends with her decision to stand with the Democratic Party and against female Republican nominee Marsha Blackburn in the 2018 midterm election. This was headline news at the time and I must admit that, as with the Kanye West-VMA debacle, I didn’t fully get what it meant for Swift. In one of the documentary’s rare behind-the-scenes moments — a moment that felt truly private rather than performed for the camera, Swift argues with her management about why she wants to make a political statement. She gets a lot of pushback. I can only imagine what went on when the cameras were turned off. She’s told that she will lose half her fans and that it’s just not worth it. But Swift makes it clear that she can’t live with herself unless she speaks frankly to her audience. And if she’s learned anything over the years, it’s that she needs to be able to live with herself.