On Jan. 31, the release of Taylor Swift’s intimate documentary “Miss Americana” took Netflix by storm.
Directed by Emmy-Award winner Lana Wilson, the documentary follows Swift on her long-winded search for “happiness without anyone else’s input,” highlighting her struggles against criticisms, loneliness and constant visibility — the prices that must be paid for a place at the top.
From a bird’s-eye view, this documentary is an intersection between a reflective biography of her musical journey and a forward-looking pretext on how she plans to use her voice as a celebrity. Swift appears to be standing not at, but rather a few steps past, a fork in the road — with one path identical to all the terrain before it and another that looks rough but rewarding. Swift has already chosen the latter and now invites the cameras — and us — to join her on this hike to explain why.
Unlike the traditional rags-to-riches, American dream storyline, Swift’s struggles are brutally shown to arise only after she obtains the luxury of fame.
In the beginning, the documentary’s cinematography overuses the surplus of footage of Swift’s lit-up concerts and flashy stage routines that conveniently punctuate the story of a well-documented star. While such clips offer immediate visual appeal, they contribute nothing new. However, after peeling away layers of PR-constructed pageant smiles, model-filled Instagram posts and heaps of awards, “Miss Americana” eventually does withdraw from the front row and delves deeper behind the curtains to reveal Taylor Swift at her core — a lonely girl who desperately wanted the world to love her back.
“My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good. … I was so fulfilled by approval that … I became the person who everyone wanted me to be,” Swift narrates over a montage of her triumphantly basking in front of her fans. “(And) when you’re living for the approval of strangers, and that is where you derive all of your joy and fulfillment, one bad thing can cause everything to crumble,” she later adds. This line catapults the audience into the thick of her perspective on the public rampage against her image — which all began when Kanye West took the VMA stage to notoriously rain on her parade back in 2009.
Dwelling on and beyond the tense battle between West and Swift, “Miss Americana” organically strings together a walk down a difficult and ongoing memory lane, navigating body image, sexual assault, gender inequality and politics. In discussing her struggles with body image, she admits that a single unflattering photo taken by paparazzi would prompt her “to just starve a little bit — just stop eating.” She proceeds to rebuke the unattainable beauty standards that fuel the development of such eating disorders: “Because if you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everybody wants, but if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, then your stomach isn’t flat enough. It’s all just fucking impossible.”
Other moments of hardship Swift opens up about include her 2018 sexual assault case against an assailant who groped her at a meet and greet and then sued her for a million dollars after he was fired from his occupation. Acknowledging the case, she speaks out with disheartened disbelief and newfound realization about the countless fellow victims who go unheard: “The process is so dehumanizing. (My difficult victory was) with seven witnesses and a photograph. What happens when you are raped and it’s your word against his?”
In reflecting upon her unexpected, crippling loneliness that dawned after winning a Grammy for Album of the Year, Swift recalls how she felt she had nobody to relay her deep-set feelings. “Shouldn’t I have someone to call right now?” she remembers asking herself.
And finally, she addresses why she recently broke her fifteen-year-long silence on politics by endorsing a Tennessee Democrat — an act which sparked a staggering 65,000 voter registrations statewide. Instructed by executives to be a “nice girl who doesn’t make people uncomfortable with her views” ever since she entered the industry, Swift shows us her desire to “be on the right side of history.” In heated meetings disputing her political image, we see Swift voraciously pushing back against her advisors — and even her own father — before releasing her endorsement.
“I want to love glitter and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. … I want to wear pink and tell you how I feel about politics. And I don’t think that those things have to cancel each other out,” she affirms.
As the film’s end credits roll across the screen accompanied by Swift’s song “Only the Young,” her most recent composition that empowers youth activism, audiences are left with resonating empathy for the Southern girl who charmed America with her storytelling.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that "Miss Americana" was available on Netflix on Jan. 23. In fact, it was released to Netflix on Jan. 31. The Herald regrets the error.