Taylor Swift really wants you to like her. She’s certainly likable, having spent the majority of her life honing her public persona and musical talents into a Grammy-award-winning, 50-million-album-selling icon. Even as I type this, I’m listening to “Only The Young,” Swift’s latest single from the Netflix documentary about her, Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, and it is, as the kids say, a bop. The lyrics are accessible and inspiring, the melody an instant earworm. It is so well produced as to feel over-produced; its relevance and enjoyability is almost off-putting . And this, I think, is the paradox of Miss Swift: she’s both relatable and inscrutable, a down-to-earth human being and an elevated goddess. She’s both celebrated and spurned, embraced and dismissed. Such a subject creates unique challenges for a documentary filmmaker, and I think director Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana is about as sincere and intimate as Swift might allow such a filmmaker to get. Which is to say, it’s still hagiographic, on-brand, and at a bit aloof; it’s a well-crafted work which reveals only as much as the camera-aware Swift chooses to reveal. If it is a powerful film, it’s because Swift is a powerful woman.
This is not to say that Miss Americana is insincere or overly worshipful of Swift. Far from it; the film often shows present-day Swift in the studio with her producers, working on songs while laying on the couch in sweats or pajamas, trying out beats or lyrics. As a musician and artist, these brainstorming sessions are fun to watch; it’s witnessing someone in the workshop doing their craft, experimenting and dreaming. Interspersed are key moments in Swift’s rise to fame, the major highlights (and lowlights) of her personal life and career. There’s the teenage country Taylor, the young adult getting interrupted by Kanye West at the VMA’s Taylor, the Grammy-winning Taylor, the shift to pop with 1989 Taylor, the angry at the world Reputation Taylor, and the politically-active present-day Taylor. Whether or not we ever gain access to The Real Taylor is debatable. The editing of images and the chronology of the film’s structure (as well as its formal decision to eschew the typical “talking-head interview” of many such documentaries) means that what we see through Wilson’s camera is what we get. And what we get is mostly brief behind-the-scenes moments of Swift writing songs, putting on makeup, or traveling on tour. A scene with a friend coming over to Swift’s for dinner feels like a well-constructed attempt at showing how down-to-earth and relatable Swift is. In contrast, the few moments of Swift with her beloved mother feel the most authentic and open. I realize this response is highly subjective—how can one judge when something or someone “feels” genuine or staged?—but such is the tension I felt watching the documentary. It generates questions of identity and persona, of private and public life—who is the real “you” or the real “me”? As Swift has somewhat reinvented or rebranded herself with every new album, is there a core identity we (or she) can ever know?
There’s a late scene in Miss Americana where Swift is having a conversation with her parents and various managers and agents about her political position regarding the 2018 elections. As she passionately contends that she wants to speak out on behalf of women and marginalized groups, to speak against the Republican candidate in her local Tennessee, the group of older men sitting across from her raise concerns about how this stance will affect her image and ticket sales. Sitting on a couch with her mother next to her, Swift shifts in and out of focus in the frame, as if the focus puller cannot quite get the distance correct. It’s an emblematic moment for Miss Americana as a whole, a documentary trying to capture the right image and focus of Swift even as she remains somewhat opaque and perpetually mediated and performative. Even if it’s mostly a surface-level exploration of Swift, it’s a likable and worthy film, one which makes me intrigued about the next identity or persona Swift will adopt in the decade to come. And whatever people say about this film, I imagine she’s gonna keep cruisin’, can’t stop, won’t stop moving. She’ll just shake it off.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11388580/