The Oxymoron That Is Taylor Swift: A Review of ‘Miss Americana’
In ‘Miss Americana,’ Taylor Swift’s platitudes finally start holding depth
Miss Americana opens with Taylor Swift at the piano, her newly-adopted kitten Benjamin Button curiously exploring the keys as gentle notes float from the pop star’s baby grand. All throughout the film, director Lana Wilson shows us a side of Swift that we rarely ever see: The “Blank Space” and “Love Story” songstress without makeup, her hair tousled and unstyled. She inhales a giant burrito, kisses her boyfriend’s hand, drops a few F-bombs, and sobs in the arms of her mother. She talks about her eating disorder, her political awakening, her sexual assault case, and how she’s had to unlearn everything she’s imbibed since she started out in country music at the age of 13.
Swift has always worn her heart on her sleeve and that is perhaps what contributed to her undoing. She’s always written and sung about heartbreak and past loves, always giggled too much and smiled too saccharinely, always received an award with her jaws dropped and her eyes in shock—something that the public has endlessly taunted her for, and something she’s very much aware of (in her music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” she attacks herself for her “annoying, surprised face”). Swift had been targeted for embracing her femininity, and the fight, since Day One, has always been between her and internalized misogyny.
This isn’t to say that Swift is an innocent. For all of 1989, she’d drawn flak for her self-serving politics and her white feminism that felt like nothing more than a gratuitous PR move. She’d stayed apolitical for so long that people had believed her to be a conservative and was even hailed the poster girl for neo-Nazism. Drunk with the success of the record that produced hits like “Style” and “Out of the Woods,” Swift had been all about her squad of tall, thin, white model friends and leaving the gym in heels and a full face of makeup. For the first time since she broke into the music industry, she’d become so universally loved, and after her admission in Miss Americana of having the need to be thought of as good, it only made sense.
But a lot of the criticism she’s received hasn’t always been fair—she’d been accused of playing the victim card, of lying, of being calculating, and while all those could be very well true, which of her male counterparts hadn’t done the exact same? The public’s treatment of Taylor Swift is a chilling reminder of how nasty people can be towards women, and Swift is already white, beautiful, and successful.
Any devoted fan would recognize that most of the footage taken specifically for the film were shot during the reputation and Lover eras. This is one of Swift’s specialties; with each album cycle comes a new version of her, a reinvention—something that is rarely ever done by male artists, she muses in the film’s last few minutes. By the start of the 1989 era, her public image had changed from Maneater to A Girl’s Girl, thanks to the tireless work of her fiery-haired publicist Tree Paine, with whom she clinks glasses of white wine alongside Swift’s mother, Andrea. Some of the film’s best moments come with the appearance of Tree and Andrea—Swift, after all, is so often surrounded by men at work, whether in a meeting room or at the studio, that when these two ladies are by her side, it’s such a breath of fresh air. Swift’s rapport with women is so natural and easy that the noticeable lack of her 1989 best friend Karlie Kloss makes my heart ache.
In Miss Americana, a gracious, well-crafted exploration of Swift’s inner life, she mothers her three cats and stands up against a conservative, homophobic, Tennessean senator. It’s the Education of Taylor Swift, named after the seventh track on her seventh album, and while there are moments of genuine emotion and sincerity, one can’t help but think that she’s holding back. There’s a certain contradiction to Miss Americana, a feeling that even now, five days later after seeing the film, still lingers in my stomach. It’s plastic and hollow, so much about Swift’s public image, but it’s also deeply honest and intimate, too. At first it’s unnerving not to be able to settle on just one feeling, but perhaps that’s something to be expected from someone as image-obsessed as Swift. She’s both—always both, and that’s okay. She’s guarded, rehearsed, and distant, but not for nothing. She’s always protecting her heart, perhaps having learned from her past that showing too much of it only leads to more pain.
Miss Americana is neither sensational nor revelatory—it is ultimately a quiet portrait of a pop star’s loneliness and all the sacrifices and compromises she’s had to make for over half her life. (It’s easy to forget that Swift only recently turned 30.) She’s generously allowed the public to see moments of disappointment, hurt, and true happiness, but Miss Americana, more than anything, is a reminder that there will always be a side of her that she’ll reserve the right not to show; a side that she doesn’t owe any of us, fan or otherwise; a side that she can—and perhaps will—keep hidden for as long as she wishes.
In the end, Miss Americana is essential viewing not for Swift’s fans, as they are guaranteed to flock to this, but for those who have always had their doubts. Finally, Taylor Swift is in control of her narrative.
Lead photos from Netflix