This review of Miss Americana contains spoilers.
I’d never really thought about it, but it wasn’t until I was entering my twenties that I came to realise that I had gone through every Linkin Park, every Avril Lavigne, every Paramore, every One Republic, and every Taylor Swift album. Indeed, Miss Swift was one of the defining elements of my radio-fuelled forays into music back in my juvenile years. I was young… naïve… subscribing to infinite wisdom such as being “fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you gotta believe em’” (OMG the cringe). As a musician, I was enchanted into listening to these artists and learning the chords to their songs. Of course, that translated into high school performances… and uhh… singing those songs with my crush (ahem). Gosh, those were good times.
I have to admit that those days were left behind by the time I graduated from university. New album releases weren’t a priority for me. There were other pressing issues that required my attention. The pursuit of a stable job. Bills. A vehicle. And of course, my love of film. Swift’s 2019 album, ‘Lover’ had actually gone under my radar when it was released, and even when I found out, it still wasn’t an urgent matter for me.
However, going back to December last year, I noticed a new Netflix release called Miss Americana that was about Tay-Tay. Directed by Emmy winner Lana Wilson, Miss Americana debuted on the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January and was subsequently released on Netflix to become the highest-rated documentary for the streamer. Yet, I put off watching it as the world was all safe and sound and theatre chains were keeping their eyes open at the time. However, with this cruel summer rendering everything entertainment to a halt, I finally decided to go out of the woods and see Miss Americana. And I wasn’t ready for it…
Like it or not, Taylor Swift is one of the definitive forces in the music industry today. Her music might not be the most ground-breaking but her constant adaptations with every new release confirm her ability to stay relevant and sway the industry to her will. She is one of the rare country artists to successfully break the mould into mainstream pop. And she does it is with her penning skills, creating lyrics that people really dig or relate to. 10 Grammys, 29 AMAs, 23 Billboard Music Awards, and six Guinness World Records throughout her decade long career are a testament of such.
The film opens with Swift on the keys, playing a four-chord progression in the key of C while her tiny white cat, Benjamin Button, prances atop the ivory, destroying the illusion of ambience. It’s a humble opening, but one that quickly delves into the simplicity of her life at home, penning songs with her cats. It immediately gives Swift a certain relatability while she peels off her layers in the scenes to come with her incumbent rise to superstardom being shown.
Many times, there’s a tendency to only look at the glitz and glam that comes with being one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Sold-out concerts, talk-show appearances with Ellen, SNL sketches, the list goes on. But that’s only the surface. The showcase. What about the hard work that transpires behind the scenes? What about the developments and the journey in getting to the final product? What about the sentiments that may result from critics and how much does it affect an artist’s life?
Miss Americana creates a whole new perspective on being a celebrity who always has to deal with the ruthless nature of the public and the lack of privacy that culminates from it. Swift is seen shifting from place to place and there will be an entire horde of fans waiting for her outside. But once you’re in the black walls of the limo, the deafening screams are gone. And it’s just her, alone with her thoughts and with her ability to express.
And that’s why I applaud Swift for opening up in here. There’s certain transparency and some relatability to Swift in a pink top and overalls while stroking her snow-white kitten. She shares little nuggets that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. There’s an air of awareness throughout as she showcases her various battles such as media scrutiny, cancel culture, her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and her struggles with body dysmorphia. It’s a glimpse into her life and also presents the audience a chance to empathise with her.
“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time! I’m just giving off my body on the stage and putting my life at risk, literally.” – Kanye West
Remember that infamous incident at the VMAs back in 2009? It was and still remains one of the most awkward events in television history. Swift had just won the best female video award when the lone rapper walked up to the stage, took the microphone from Swift mid-speech, and dropped his mind with Queen B looking absolutely perplexed from the whole situation.
At that moment, the public may have thought “My, what a rude ass. Why you gotta be so mean? Just let her have her glory, dude. She worked for it!” We may have booed his antics. However, what we may not have considered was the impact this may have had on a young and budding artist.
According to Swift, while the victory may have been sweet, the bullish antics of an individual she did not have any prior connections to was indeed a formative experience. Her clear shellshock on stage was then clouded with the perception that the disapproving boos were meant for her. For someone who had built an essence in getting the audience to like, approve, and clap for her, this garnered the opposite of what she wanted in her life and career. It didn’t feel right. And she couldn’t just shake it off.
Indirectly, ol’ Yeezy became the catalyst for the growth she was about to experience. One that would transform her into the person she was today. She upheld an entire belief system to be thought of as good, to be approved, but all of that came crashing down.
That very same desire to maintain approval in the public eye also led to her struggles with her body image. She detailed how the self-criticism of her own looks created a negative effect on her. She would starve herself for the sake of maintaining a particular body shape just because she thought she looked fat. It took such a toll on Swift when she realised that she could not physically keep up with her lifestyle and schedule due to her lack of energy. And that was when she realised, she should’ve said no to those demons.
There are two distinct halves to this film. The first half is personal and deals with her individuality and growth as a person. The second segment, on the other hand, details her abrupt political involvement and why she chose to do so. Prior to her 2019 album, Swift was known to be politically neutral. As such, her leftist affiliation and riles in getting people to vote in the mid-term US elections came as a surprise. Nevertheless, there was a precedent for it.
Swift had previously gone to court for a groping case that happened while she was on her Red Tour. To her, that was THE turning point in which she felt she could not stay silent anymore. It became a personal mission to make sure that any ideologies against women’s/human rights were not in a place of power. This was the departure of a stance that her role was simply to smile and wave and say thank you. This was a turn from “A nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views”. Even though she was cautioned from doing so in reference to the sharp decline of the Dixie Chicks, she simply did not care. Thankfully, she maintained her ground and did not fall from a state of grace.
That being said, I do not buy into certain aspects of this documentary, specifically with reference to the second half. Despite Swift denying her calculations to her successes, the manner by which the film’s narrative is framed suggests that this documentary, Miss Americana, is precisely that: a calculated measure. Heavy subjects are brought up, but most of them are essentially skimmed through. The carefully selected critics only appear in montages who are then defeated with the singer subsequently claiming easy victories. The conflict, therefore, seems as though it is not fully explored.
Besides, I get that this is a documentary about Taylor Swift. It’s meant to delve into her world and how she perceives her obstacles and failures. However, it is unabashedly one-sided and therefore lacks the depth I would have personally preferred to witness. The blank space resulting from the lack of a subjective discussion cheapens the message. In the end, what was presented were interpolations of rainbows and sunshine that never quite reaches its full genuine potential.
“I wanna be defined by the things that I love. Not the things I hate. Not the things I’m afraid of, I’m afraid of the things that haunt me in the middle of the night, I just think that you are what you love.” – Taylor Swift’s closing lines in Daylight
The sheer will of the pop star is apparent. Whenever Swift has a goal, she wings it. If she intends to do something, she will do it. And that’s what makes her character so endearing. Indeed, her changes are very much reflected in her music as she further shed her country skin and donned her own style. There was no need to serve the public anymore. The personal growth of the character is indeed sweeter than fiction.
Miss Americana is Swift’s culmination arc. Her coming-of-age has been completed. In her Lover release, The Archer, she compares herself as having been the prey, but now she has what it takes to be Katniss Everdeen against the world. She knows that she has the power to be a force for good, and that is what pushes her on. This is no tale of the heartbreak prince. No, this is Miss Americana’s story.
No doubt, it’s great that I got to see an artist that I have respect for all these years in a new light. Whether you agree with everything she says or not, it’s entirely up to you. But she definitely does not need our validation anymore. She still desires to be “good”, but it is on her own terms right now.
Miss Americana might not have totally been my new romantic for a couple of reasons, but it did make me care. After watching the documentary, I spent some time to listen to her discography in its entirety yet again along with watching all those interviews she had been in. The childhood memories flooded in as a result. It made me ponder on how much I’ve grown since then and I find it interesting that Taylor Swift had been intertwined to my own personal journey to adulthood.
I reminisced on all those nodes in time and it reminded me why I subscribed to her art in the first place. Of course, I can’t exactly relate to everything that she went through, but if there’s one thing I can take away from this is that I too, can be a force for good.
Thanks, Taylor. Look what you made me do.