Taylor Swift is an immensely private artist. Everything she does is a calculated move to maintain or alter her public image. She has to be. She’s a woman superstar with a background in country music, an industry so brutal against women artists and anything resembling leftism that the Dixie Chicks had to take fourteen years away from the studio after their comments against a President who lost the popular vote. She has been under the magnifying glass since sixteen years old. Unlike most child stars, she has learned how to maintain an image despite that. Miss Americana is probably the most personal image of her we’re going to get until her inevitable autobiography when she reaches her sixties or seventies.
To be clear, Miss Americana is no less calculated than everything else she does. But it displays a vulnerability of her that we haven’t seen before. The emotional crux of the film is Taylor learning how to stop being a “good girl” and be Taylor Swift. Drawing both on extremely humanizing archival footage (I absolutely adore baby Tay’s poor singing) and extensive filming done in the past two (three?) years, the film is an exceptional illustration of a young woman who had to grow up late, who had to fight for her beliefs when people were telling her not to and just be a “good girl.” Her realization that she needed to speak up began with her sexual assault trial in 2017, but blossomed into an attempt to unseat TN Senator Marsha Blackburn and advocacy for the Equality Act.
The film documents some great emotional growth by Taylor. Starting from a place of great insecurity and fear of other people’s opinions and thoughts on her, you see her become confident in the notion that people whose hate stems from reactionary bigotry shouldn’t get her down. The journey’s clearly not done yet, she still has a lot of emotional growth to do, but the leap she’s done already is commendable. It’s a realization that seems to have started with the Kanye feud. There’s a lot of egotism and entitlement in Kanye’s actions towards Taylor that seems to have sparked an awakening for her. The problem with the diss in his song “Famous” was not that he called her a bitch, it was the blatant sexualization of her and the idea that he was the reason that she was successful (a key reminder here that her first album garnered seven number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100). It’s a level of self-centeredness that perhaps primed Taylor for the Trump era.
The elephant in the room in the whole film is the absence of any commentary on Katy Perry. The two were harsh rivals for years, climaxing with Taylor timing her return to Spotify to drown out Perry’s album Prism. The two publicly made amends in the “You Need To Calm Down” music video that premiered in June 2019, just two months before Perry was accused of sexual misconduct by three people. Taylor’s hard stand for sexual assault victims — both with her high profile court case and with her opposition to Marsha Blackburn for voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act — winds up falling a little bit flat when this connection is not discussed.
Nevertheless, Miss Americana is a beautiful documentary about coming of age politically and learning how to speak out against injustice, and anyone with interest in the power politics of the music industry should watch it.
Miss Americana is available on Netflix now.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.