Taylor Swift, over the course of a thirteen-year career spanning about as many conceptual reinventions, has experienced the pinnacle of public adoration and the bottomless depths of public derision. It was my hope sitting down to watch her new documentary Miss Americana, that I would achieve an answer to that universal question, “Is Taylor the artist you love to hate, or hate to love?”. After the 90-minute insight into what narrative this pop phenomenon and her team have offered to the public, I felt quite liberated to discover the answer is neither; Taylor Swift is the artist about whom my opinion is super fucking wonderfully irrelevant.
The much-anticipated documentary about the once-saccharine-sweet picture-perfect girl who all of a sudden ‘can’t come to the phone right now’, is a fan’s dream come true: 90s camcorder home footage, road-to-success super-cuts, intimate songwriting montages and ‘candid’ glasses of wine with friends.
The first narrative note struck in the film is how Swift’s professional and personal lives have been tortured by a stranglehold of being seen as a ‘good girl’ – a note somewhat undercut by her playing piano in a pink shirt and dungarees while a kitten totters on the keys BUT this will all make sense later.
Watching this documentary as someone who has only enjoyed Swift’s music begrudgingly, I definitely felt it was painted by numbers in what has become a Beyoncé grand tradition that might have maybe I mean arguably started with Katy Perry’s 2012 Part of Me film. In amongst the costumes and pop psychological reflections of a woman navigating coming of age under massive speculation, unimaginable industrial pressure and THAT VMA Award acceptance moment, I found myself wondering what this contribution to the pop-pseudo-doco was actually about. You think it’s about her mum getting sick, which they touch on, you think it’s about her struggles with eating, which they try to explore but it doesn’t seem like something Swift is truly self-determined to fully unearth – except in one of the most important quotes of the piece, “there’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting…it’s fucking impossible”.
Then about halfway in, it hits: this film is about how all of Taylor’s experiences contributed to her decision to politicise her very personalised music career. There is an excellent piece of footage where Swift sits before her very homogeneous management team to announce her new record plans, and the only one to applaud, or show any excitement is her mother. It is a common misconception that an artist, particularly a female artist, is in entire control of her own outputs – a misconception that shouldn’t be uncommon bearing in mind everything we know about Whitney, Diana, Marilyn, Gaga, #FreeBritney, Selena and her killer, Drew Barrymore and her mum, Lindsay Lohan and her dad, Jelena Dokic and her dad, Shania Twain and her ex-husband ad infinitum. This moment is mirrored epically when Swift takes on her team about the decision to share her backing of a Democrat political candidate. The documentary does not shy away from the Dixie Chicks’ controversy, and one gets the sense the real fight was a lot uglier than we see on-screen.
From this moment on, the film glides in a powerful message about girl-into-womanhood, weaving in her experiences as a sexual assault victim, her attempts to improve her own understandings of equality, and deprogram her own internalised misogyny. Another excellent quote, “I’m sorry, was I loud? In my own house that I bought, with the songs that I wrote, about my own life?”.
The only interruptions were some animated sequences and found footage peppered throughout that seemed purposed only to zero-in on the sorrowful narrative that we already know, and pathos we’re familiar enough with that it felt somewhat indulged to waste time on, when I was more interested in Swift’s reflections on having been made aware of them.
Ultimately, whether you think Taylor Swift is a puppet, or fake, or that Miss Americana is nothing more than a PR marketing ploy, the point remains that the message matters. This is a film that is purposed for good: to rally young people to change the world in whatever way they can. From popstar to pauper, trailer trash to top of the charts, everyone has the ability to mean something, to fight for something they love.