Taylor Swift is a compelling figure in this look at a transitional period of her very public life, but Miss Americana is more interested in protecting its subject that unpacking who she really is.
Like Kevin Hart: Don’t F**k This Up, there is a particular feeling you get while watching Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (Netflix). Both are supposedly candid documentaries about global mega-stars, one an actor and comedian, the other a musician, who have elevated to a level of cultural prominence that outright prevents them from leading anything even resembling a normal life. And because of that, media about their media, which is to say these behind-closed-doors documentaries which pretend to offer fans an unfiltered peek at the object of their devotion away from stages and television cameras, can’t be trusted. Like so much of a life spent continually developing a brand, reinforcing an ideal, and promoting a product, these films and shows are designed, simply, to appease.
Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana is very much designed to appease fans of its subject, and also to reinforce the aspects of her character which are most integral to it – that innocent girl-next-door charm, that desire to be heard, to be seen, to be valued, to please, and recently to influence a legion of impressionable fans to become more politically active, and speak out against injustice. The first thing you note about Taylor Swift, though, is not the same thing you noted about Kevin Hart in his latest series; these characteristics are healthy and positive, and Swift herself is charming and relatable.
Whereas Hart is defined by an absurd work ethic and a savvy business sense – at least when he isn’t publicly putting his foot in it – Swift has an earnest desire to please. Taylor Swift: Miss Americana finds her between her 2017 album Reputation, which underperformed in the sense of awards recognition and critical appraisal, and her 2019 album Lover; a time of personal and creative transition, from using her voice to seek Grammy nominations to using that same voice to uplift and inspire her fans – and also to seek Grammy nominations, but whatever.
Swift is a victim whereas Hart was always framed as a perpetrator, which is another difference. You’ll be reminded of the time that Kanye West rushed the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and said Beyonce deserved the “Best Female Video” award that Swift had won. You’ll be reminded of the expectations placed upon women and their bodies and behaviors, especially strikingly beautiful women like Swift; and you’ll be reminded of how living life under a microscope makes private relationships public domain. Hearing Taylor Swift recount her experiences in a cutthroat music industry, as a young woman and as an unimaginably popular and influential figure, is like watching someone sweep out the corners of a life they scarcely remember living. In many ways, the woman who humbly just wants to be liked is a passenger in her own body, driftwood on the thrashing currents of international superstardom. It’s difficult not to like her and, on some bizarre level, not to feel sorry for her.
But then there’s the fact that Taylor Swift: Miss Americana just can’t stop patting its subject on the back; just can’t help framing her as a downtrodden hero worthy of nothing but protection and insulation. The transparency of the endeavor is off-putting, and its narrow focus is rarely illuminating. However well-intentioned, this is, for the most part, simple hagiography. Swift’s deeper insecurities and intentions are left unexplored, set dressing for her larger-than-life on-stage performances, the kind she gives to sold-out arenas of baying fans, many of whom don’t have the slightest interest in her life beyond the stage. She is an entertainer, wheeled out to entertain countless masses, but she remains an enigma, a clearly smart and politically active young woman most known for her public romances, breakups, and songs about those romances and breakups. Miss Americana allows that impression of her to persist; only it asks us to thank her for it.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.