Taylor Swift has sought validation all her life. More than the VMAs, #1 albums, and Grammys, Swift has just wanted to be wanted. In Miss Americana, that is never hidden. Directed by Lana Wilson, this is not the typical PR feature that pop stars have done in the past. It would be reductive to label it as such because, like Swift, the contradictions and complexities of her presence as a pop star, a politically informed citizen, and just as a woman in her thirties begs a closer look.
Swift, who has been in the industry since she was fourteen, has had a unique presence both as a brand and as an individual. While maturing in her songwriting, she still talks to her fans like they’re high school lunch table buddies. ‘Swifties’, as they are called, are given the treatment akin to a being in a friend group chat rather than a far away admirer. This is Swift’s brand, something that reflects so acutely to her personality. She posts about her cats, uses gifs that were relevant in 2011, and still has an active Tumblr. She has relentlessly defended herself and has pushed the narrative that she is a feminist above all else. Now, thirty-years-old and already a veteran in the music industry, Swift is a celebrity that both feels like a close friend and a far off entity. Who is Taylor Swift really? Is she the ‘bitch’ that Kanye talks about in his song “Famous”, is she a feminist who preaches 2014 social politics in a late-capitalist and post-Trump world? Or is she just a woman trying to care less about what others think of her? Instead of answering this question, Miss Americana only complicates it more.
One of the first things that Swift says in her 2020 documentary is that her “entire moral code, as a kid and now [was] a need to be thought of as good.” One can say that this is the thesis of the film. Everything that Taylor has done and has not done, has been predicated on the reaction she will receive. After reputation, her 2017 follow up to the critically acclaimed 1989, fails to be nominated for the big three awards, she sheepishly replies to her manager: “This is good. This is fine….I just need to make a better record.” After she hangs up the phone, she stares out the window, completely ignoring the camera and reveling in her self-punishment.
It is very obvious that winning mean so much to her. But can one really blame her? An artist who has been taught her entire adolescence that she is only successful because she has worked hard and been nice to people, this innate need to be liked is something that is so deeply ingrained in Swift that she blurs the lines of performance and authenticity. One of the most perplexing parts of the documentary is that we never really know when Swift is “on” or “off”. Obviously you know that the theatrical side of Swift will be on display when she is on stage and a more subdued version of herself will be in the car post-concert, but with her persona in flux, it isn’t that easy to label.
Her duality is something that Swift is transparent about in the general sense and vague about in the personal sense. Has she been in the industry for so many of her formative years that she does not even know how to show herself at her most genuine? Is her proclamation in the film that she is learning how to care less about others’ opinions of her really that true? Or is she just saying that so people like her even more?
While Swift may be underdeveloped on that front, she is the most self-aware she has ever been in another. Swift declares that “we do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re thirty-five.” She knows all too well how she and her female counterparts in the pop genre are seen by others. She knows that her relevancy is ticking:
“The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves twenty times more than the male artists. They have to or else you’re out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent, constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny. Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way and only the way we want. And reinvent yourself, but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you. Live out a narrative that we find to be interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable. This is probably one of my last opportunities as an artist to grasp onto that kind of success. So, I don’t know, like, as I’m reaching thirty, I’m like…I want to work really hard…while society is still tolerating me being successful.”
Both an indictment of how women are treated in the pop world and acceptance of the role she has to play in it, this is a big leap from the #GirlBoss feminism that Swift has been synonymous with since her “girl squad” came into prevalence in the mid-2010s. To be fair, Swift has since said that this was a symptom of her intense insecurities in her twenties. Focusing on white feminism talking points for the majority of her career, Miss Americana makes the case that Swift may be maturing in more ways than one. However, before we get too comfortable with that growth, the camera captures Swift writing the overly idealist and borderline tone-deaf political ballad: “Only the Young.”
When co-writer and producer Joel Little says that the song is about how young people’s “time will come if you just hang on” and Swift concurs, it seems like a misunderstanding on the nature of our country’s political turmoil. In a country with rampant voter suppression and a world that has ten years left to mitigate climate change before it becomes irreversible beyond repair, how much longer can we really hang on? While it must be said that the revolution will not start or end with millionaires’ approval or leadership, there is a fascinating juxtaposition of Swift’s self-proclaimed progressive politics and subsequent career choices like headlining at the Amazon Music Concert to celebrate Prime Day (a show that included people apocalyptically chanting “free shipping”).
Taylor Swift has always tried her best. She has worked hard to dodge controversy as much as she has tried to revel in it. One cannot predict Swift’s next move because just as quickly the world changes, so does she. The film’s biggest triumph may not be the all-access Swift gives to director Lana Wilson, but rather the complexity and endless contradictions that Swift indirectly shares with the director, the viewer, and herself. As she tells director Lana Wilson, “I’m trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people, on how to deprogram the misogyny in my brain. Toss it out, reject it, and resist it….We [women] don’t want to be condemned for being multifaceted.” Taylor Swift may say she’s ready to let it all go, but she still has yet to reckon with dualities that are innate to everything she has been, is, and possibly will be.