If you’re pressing play on the new Taylor Swift documentary, Miss Americana (out now on Netflix), with any hint of wariness, you’re not alone, and you’re not too cynical. You’re exhibiting a basic awareness of how the pop publicity machine works, and how biographical documentaries, especially those of living celebrities, are often emotionally manipulative. And this isn’t just any living celebrity; it’s Taylor Swift, who’s always seemed impenetrably PR-trained. Even her candidness has a way of feeling performative.
Swift, who has been distressingly young and famous for so long, has spent the formative years of her life building her good girl image. In Miss Americana’s opening scene, while flipping through her old diaries, she explains how this doubled as her evergreen moral code. “Obviously I’m not a perfect person by any stretch, but overall the main thing that I always tried to be was … a good girl,” she says. It becomes immediately clear that this doc, directed by Lana Wilson (The Departure, After Tiller), will try to show the candid, vulnerable side of Taylor Swift, and ask its audience to come to the conclusion that she is, indeed, good, despite the drama that’s surrounded her in recent years.
A quick recap: In 2016, Swift’s social media accounts were inundated with snake emojis from haters, especially after the details of her feud with Kanye West came to light, and she became a martyr of a trending Twitter hashtag (#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty). Then she spent most of 2017 in hiding before coming back with the wryly-titled new album, Reputation. As thinly veiled as its motivations may be, the doc is still convincing and fascinating, and manages to succeed in conjuring empathy.
The pop star’s initial understanding of being “good” came from collecting as many accolades as possible — awards, chart placements, praises. She obviously has met many of those goals. But it also wasn’t long before Swift was blasted for her “OMG I won” reactions, the false modesty she brought to every victory. So it is a bit harrowing when, early on, we see Taylor Swift finding out in real-time that Reputation wasn’t nominated for any major Grammys. Composing herself, she declares that she’ll just have to make a better record, but she seems genuinely shocked — it’s when she loses that we get to see a moment of rare authenticity.
Of course, it’s also hard to feel actually bad for her: She’s been winning all her life, and is, at the end of the day, a privileged, beautiful, thin, white woman who owns $84 million worth of property. But then there’s the flipside of being so rich and famous. Nothing in the film is necessarily groundbreaking in revealing the inner life of a huge star, but it becomes increasingly difficult to envy Swift when we see her narrowly escaping her Manhattan apartment without being swallowed up by the swarm of fans and paparazzi waiting for her by her front door. “I’m highly aware of the fact that that’s not normal,” she says while they drive away.
During this car ride, we find Swift at her most wounded and insecure. She opens up about her eating disorder — how she would be triggered by and fixate on slightly unflattering photos of herself, how she would spend so many shows feeling like she was gonna pass out from starving herself and normalizing that sensation. She turns to the camera and zooms in on a photo that would’ve caused her to go into, as she puts it, a “hate spiral.” “We do not do that anymore,” she repeats four times, because it’s evident that she still needs strong, vocal conviction to turn away from self-hatred. “It’s all just fucking impossible,” she says, resigned, about beauty standards.
What follows is a media blitz of people criticizing Swift from every direction, including for her girl gang of models and her many boyfriends (“got a long list of ex lovers”). Aside from the people who work for her and collaborate with her, though, we don’t really see Swift with a lot of company in this film. There’s a one-on-one dinner with a childhood friend, but her famous squad isn’t given any screen time and her current boyfriend, the English actor Joe Alwyn, isn’t much more than a blur — though to be fair, she explicitly says they wanted to keep their relationship private in an attempt at having a more grounded life. (Halfway through the film, there’s footage of lovingly shot iPhone videos Alwyn presumably took of Swift; here, we get another peek of authenticity from the pop star, probably because they were shot without an audience in mind.)
But otherwise Swift spends most of the documentary alone and, in fact, lonely. She awkwardly stands by when two fans at her meet-and-greet get engaged in front of her. She talks about how tours and public appearances are scheduled so far in advance that dating is already challenging. She has several assistants — at one point an “assistant #5″ speaks off-camera — but she doesn’t really seem to have a core group of friends. A heartbreaking line that still rings in my head is when she says, after a successful tour, “Shouldn’t I have someone to call right now?” Again, all of this is typical celebrity narrative, of a poor little rich girl, but it’s hard not to open your heart to her. If you ever have, or wanted to, hit send on a snake emoji, Miss Americana will make you retreat. It’s certainly a calculated move on Swift’s part — and she’s self-aware enough to know that she will be called calculating for having any kind of strategy — but is she no less human?
The latter half of Miss Americana gives us a front-row seat to Swift’s newest endeavor: politics. She begins by confirming what we already suspected about why she stayed suspiciously mum during the 2016 elections: The people-pleaser in her was “obsessed with not getting in trouble” and afraid of alienating fans. But her lack of involvement during this crucial time ignited many to speculate that she may be a Republican — all until Swift decided to post an uncharacteristic Instagram post in which she urged her fellow Tennessee residents to vote against Marsha Blackburn (“Trump in a wig”), the right-wing Senate candidate who stands against women’s rights and gay marriage. The film’s most heated scene is a meeting Swift has with her mom, dad, and two male associates. The three men urge the singer to continue staying out of politics, but it only gets her more heated; she emphasizes the fact that Blackburn votes against protecting women for stalking, a personal issue for Swift, who at one point during the film talks about the man who broke into her home and slept in her bed.
Swift considers her political foray as the end of her try-hard good girl era, a bit of selflessness on her part to fight for the little people, but the film coherently connects her activist spirit with a personal experience (of radio DJ David Mueller groping her and lying about it in court), and perhaps inadvertently considers that this is just another pandering move. A lot of people were mad at the pop star for staying so neutral during the elections; the aforementioned Instagram post won her back in the good graces of many. She is arguably just a different kind of good girl now.
The afterlife of this film will be another interesting thing to consider. Twenty-four hours after speaking out vehemently against Blackburn, Swift was notified of 51,308 new registrations in Tennessee — that’s undoubtedly impactful. Disappointment would follow swiftly, though: Blackburn ended up winning regardless, a loss that seems even more devastating to Swift than the earlier Grammy snubs. The release of Miss Americana on January 31, days before the beginning of primary season, coincides with the debut of a new song, “Only The Young,” Swift’s most political anthem to date. (By the end, the lyric becomes, “Only the young can run.”) After a decade of relatable love songs, she’s biting back with her own fight song. But is that what we want — or need — from her? Will she fight for causes beyond her personal experiences? And will her foray into activism ultimately alter the fortunes of anyone not named Taylor Swift?