‘Miss Americana’ attempts to restore Taylor Swift’s reputation


Courtesy of IMDB

Taylor Swift in “Miss Americana.”

Taylor Swift and I have a complicated relationship.

Ever since I was nine years old, Swift and her music have been a large fixture in my life. I still have nearly every word of her 2009 album “Fearless” memorized and I listen to her music almost daily. In a way, we grew up together and she is arguably the most important artist of her generation.

However, as Swift has spent the last decade in the public eye, her public image has taken a hit. You’ve probably heard her sing about it. As her reputation became messier, my feelings for her became more complicated. While I think she faced her share of unfair sexism from the media, her characteristic, thin skin and seeming lack of self-awareness have often left me rolling my eyes.

When it was announced that a documentary about Swift’s life and political awakening entitled “Miss Americana” would debut on Netflix, I found myself at a similar crossroad. While a look into the lives of one of the most famous people on the planet is interesting by design, the framing of the documentary felt much more like spin control than a raw, unflinching look into Swift’s life.

So, naturally, I watched it almost immediately after it came out.

The film is, of course, an attempt at narrative control from Swift and her team. This has less to do with Swift’s character or authenticity and more to do with the nature of the celebrity: Controlling the narrative is the best way to beat bad press or obscurity.

This is characteristic of nearly all celebrity documentaries: They are one part introspective look and another part public relations.

“Gaga: Five Foot Two” is just as much about Lady Gaga’s attempt to retain her previous commercial and cultural dominance as it is about her struggles with chronic pain and loneliness.  

“Homecoming” is just as much about Beyoncé’s need to prove she is still unmatched in talent as a performer following her complicated pregnancy as it is a behind-the-scenes look at her landmark Coachella performance.

Perhaps the most important pop star documentary of all time, “Truth or Dare” is just as much about elevating Madonna to the top of the film industry—an avenue she infamously found little success in—as it is documenting her Blonde Ambition Tour.

Fascinating moments find their way outside of the film’s narrative, like when Swift is informed by her publicist that her 2017 album “Reputation” has failed to be nominated for a Grammy in any of the major categories. It clearly isn’t the news Swift was expecting, and she lets the look of pain and disappointment linger on her face a moment too long before remembering the camera is on her. 

Another highlight occurs as Swift discusses her sexual assault trial while performing to a sold-out crowd. As Swift’s voice begins to shake as she discusses the prospect of survivors not being believed, it appears as if a layer is being pulled back; she isn’t attempting to convince the audience of anything, she is simply expressing gratitude that her allegation was taken seriously and sadness towards the countless that were not.

Despite the more introspective moments offered, they are ultimately not what the film is about.

“Miss Americana” is ultimately about Swift finding her political voice, following criticisms of her apolitical nature coming to a head after the 2016 election. 

The documentary blames Swift’s start in country music as the reasoning behind her silence. According to Swift, she was advised to not speak out politically, unless she wanted to end up like the Dixie Chicks: blacklisted for speaking out against conservative politicians.

While this explanation makes sense, I found myself rolling my eyes once again. I don’t doubt that Swift started her career believing that in order to stay relevant, she had to keep her opinions to herself.

But she didn’t keep her opinions to herself. As Swift’s star grew, so did her voice against perceived injustices. In the mid-2010s, there were seemingly countless soundbites of Swift denouncing those who criticized her number of highly publicized breakups and seemingly related songs as sexist. 

By using this explanation, the documentary fails to acknowledge that Swift is no longer a starry-eyed teenager, forced to keep her opinions to herself in the hopes of avoiding alienating a conservative fanbase. She still faces creative challenges–as her 2019 falling out with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun has highlighted–but she is one of the biggest celebrities in the world, with a ravenous fan base to match. 

The America of 2006—the year of Swift’s ascent to stardom—is far different from 2016, where political passivity was largely considered irresponsible. The documentary fails to portray Swift’s political journey as a personal epiphany, making it seem more like a calculated move against previous criticisms. 

In this sense, the documentary fails at its intended goal. While I don’t doubt that Swift cares about politics and using her platform for good, the documentary acts as if she is a political maverick challenging the status quo, rather than a 30-year-old privileged white woman expressing surface-level liberal beliefs. 

For all its faults, “Miss Americana” succeeds in one major way: I left the film with a hankering to listen to Swift’s music. For whatever narrative they may be trying to push or whichever artist they are attached to, pop star documentaries all have the same intended goal: buy the music of its subject.