‘Miss Americana’ Captures the Unique Artistry and Evolution of Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift epitomizes the success story with all its peaks and troughs. From country darling to pop provocateur, squeaky clean persona to outspoken agent of positive change, she is an inspiration to millions worldwide. Of course, that goes without saying, but it takes on an entirely new dimension in director Lana Wilson’s Netflix documentary “Miss Americana.” Pointed and poignant, the movie runs with no filler, every shot and snippet serving to create a vivid portrait of a dynamic artist and evolving personality,
The film opens with Swift at the piano, as her cat walks over the keys, somehow not disrupting the melody much. Swift delves into her old diaries, and within a few moments, the stuff of both glossy pop and teenage girl country takes on an unanticipated dimension, as the fanciful details that spurred on the dream make their way into the narrative. For instance, Swift talks of a period during which she actually wrote with a quill and ink, and holds up a relic from the time, full of ornate, painstakingly crafted penmanship. At once, the stardom she has obtained seems an inevitability.
There is footage of Swift growing up, fit to commentary about her mentality during her formative years, with much talk about the importance of being a “good girl.” This preoccupation seems to make its way into her comportment in the reels, never in a way that compromises authenticity, but as a palpable constriction that bares itself when all is taken in context. We see a sign for Tim McGraw, with Swift listed as one of two writers. We peek into the studio, and see songs coming together in real time, with Swift searching for notes on the piano, trying out lyrics for “ME!” with an uncertainty in her voice that humanizes the pop star, and strips away the superficial veneer of glitz and glamour, showing a life-affirming vulnerability. Upon the “ooh-ooh-ooh” part, she throws her hands up, and the practice session audio blends into the studio recording, in a grand moment of realization.
There are shots of Swift at the head of a typical board meeting table, giving the sense of a career steadily developing, interspersed with intimate interviews. She discusses the importance of storytelling in her music, and how she and her fanbase share a certain feeling of growing up together. There’s a clip in which a young, nervous Swift plays a song admittedly finished five minutes ago, followed by a sixteen year-old Swift releasing her debut album, being heralded as the youngest in history to write and perform a number one country song. We see her winning a Horizon award, crying, then playing a much more glittery show years down the line, poised and powerful. Then there’s the dreadful VMA scene in which Swift humbly expresses her surprise at winning an award, being a country artist and all, only to get obnoxiously interrupted by the eternal mystery of nature that is Kanye West.
The film effectively captures the extraordinary work ethic behind Swift’s success, and develops in a way that shows the fruits of her efforts appearing in an immensely gratifying manner. Swift talks of how her life is planned two years ahead of time, with tours, recording sessions, and all the works. At one point, someone quotes a headline reading, “Taylor Swift Is the Music Industry.” Meanwhile, we are exposed to the downside of such zealous commitment to craft. Swift speaks of winning her second Grammy, having achieved all she ever wanted, and not knowing where to go from there. Moreover she talks of how she “didn’t have a partner to high-five,” and in a flash, a hidden loneliness reveals itself.
There is touching footage of Swift and her mother bonding on plane, trying to salvage their dinner amid turbulence. Moments later, however, Swift talks of how her mother eventually was diagnosed with cancer, putting things into perspective succinctly, as she reckons, “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today?” In this sense, the bit of grave subject matter ends up with a positive spin. Further lightening the mood, an especially priceless scene follows, in which Taylor hosts a friend for lunch, and the friend drinks wine with ice. They talk of another friend who recently became a mother, and Swift quotes her summary of the experience: “Feed ‘em, change ‘em, they sleep.” There could hardly be a more effective snapshot of women at this particular age, in a winsome limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
The film brings us into the darker side of the industry, with clips of catty nobodies talking trash. Kanye returns with his lyric about making Swift famous, as if she weren’t obviously famous already. Swift talks about her struggles to maintain her weight, and at one point gasps, “It’s fucking impossible.” There are snippets of gossip about her romantic life, and flashes of tabloid doing whatever nonsense tabloids do. Swift puts it succinctly: “It gets loud.” Eventually, a shift becomes apparent, and a new confidence emerges. She speaks of having to “deconstruct an entire belief system for my own sanity.”
Eventually, Swift talks of wanting a private relationship, which cues snippets of “Call It What You Want” with her laughing charmingly, while speaking of “happiness without anyone else’s input.” Then come bits of “Delicate,” with the lines “My reputation’s never been worse / So you must like me for me” especially striking home in context. There’s Auto-tune in the recording, and we are worlds away from the early sepia country recordings. Footage with producer Jack Antoff in the studio is a highlight, with Swift turning on her light-up sneakers before a vocal take, and chiming in after a certain vocal inflection to explain it as a “Dylan-ey kind of thing.” We see the chorus of “Getaway Car” come together in real time, with Swift and Antoff feeding off one another’s excitement. Other studio footage shows Swift and Brendon Urie, with Swift envisioning the video to come, hilariously describing, “Emo kids, theater…” for Urie, and “dancers, cats…” for herself. The opening footage of Swift piano and cat comes to mind, and the trajectory could hardly be more perfect.
Along with stardom come the responsibilities of being a public figure. The catalyst for Swift’s foray into politics is Tennessee republican candidate Marsha Blackburn, whose opposition to such measures as reauthorization of the violence against women act, and gay marriage, force Swift to become vocal about her views. Flashbacks to the Dixie Chicks criticizing George W. Bush, followed by trucks demolishing their CD’s, are set to Swift’s recollection of always being told, “Don’t be like the DIxie Chicks,” Nevertheless, she takes the risk. Sexism in the music industry is also explored, with a snapshot of the radio DJ who groped Swift, was fired, then sued Swift for millions of dollars, only to be countersued for $1. Swift zeroes in on the glaring issues in public perception, quoting people’s questions,“Why didn’t you scream?” and “Why didn’t you react quicker?” She expresses her righteous indignation at the courtroom experience, feeling “angry that people are paid to antagonize women,” and describing how “all the details were twisted.”
Fast forward to exactly a year later, we find Swift singing to a packed stadium “for people who weren’t believed.” When she performs “Clean,” belting, “The rain came pouring down,” the song takes on a new, meaning, and shots of the roaring audience are cathartic and exhilarating. The implicit confidence promptly makes its way into other facets of Swift’s life, as she stops being shy about politics, declaing, “I want to be on the right side of history,” in spite of her father’s precautions, protesting Marsha Blackburn’s stances, insisting, “Those aren’t Tennessee Christian values.” Swift speaks out, and the media have a field day, and eventually we find her reacting, “Donald Trump likes my music 25% less,” gawking without even having to fully laugh. Blackburn ends up winning anyway, and another media montage follows, including an uncharacteristically slappable Stephen Colbert remarking, “I guess Tay Tay didn’t have that much sway sway.” Right. More importantly, we hear Swift admit she feels good “about not being muzzled anymore.” Always articulate, she speaks of the expectation to “live out a narrative that we find interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable.”
It rings triumphantly when Swift voices her reaction to such expectations, simply asserting, “I want to wear pink and tell you how I feel about politics, and I don’t think those two things have to cancel each other out.” The single line encapsulates the entire movie. A newly bold Swift appears at another VMA ceremony, accepting a prize for the aptly titled “You Need to Calm Down,” talking about a petition for the “Equality Act,” which has accrued five times as many signatures as it needed to warrant a response from the white house. The lyrics “Uh-oh” strikes on cue, and the audience erupts in concerted elation. As the film winds down, we return to Swift’s old diaries, going back to a time when she tried to practice songs, psyched herself out, and consoled herself, “I’m young. I’m talented. They’ll see it in me.” They sure did.
“Miss Americana” begins streaming Jan. 31 on Netflix.