Miss Americana Grapples With Taylor Swift's Definition of Goodness

Lana Wilson's Netflix documentary treats the superstar’s ethical—and professional—struggles and triumphs with care

Music Features Taylor Swift
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<i>Miss Americana</i> Grapples With Taylor Swift's Definition of Goodness

I remember the first time I heard a Taylor Swift song, and if you’re also a millennial or Gen Z-er, chances are you do, too. I was 10, maybe 11, hanging at my friend Erin’s house, which was two doors down from mine. She whipped out a fluorescent blue iPod Nano before passing me an earbud and cranking up “Our Song,” which Swift performed for her freshman year talent show and released a few years later in 2006.

Taylor Swift  is a tall memory in many of our childhoods. Over the last 15 years, she became the youngest person in history to win the Grammy award for Album of the Year (twice), achieved hit after hit and eventually became one of the biggest—if not the biggest—pop stars in the world. In Swift’s new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, she recognizes, with an almost maternal gesture, this relationship to her listeners.

“There is an element to my fan base where we feel like we grew up together,” Swift says about a few minutes into Lana Wilson’s excellent movie, streaming now on Netflix. “I’ll be going through something, write the album about it and then it’ll come out, and sometimes it’ll just coincide with what they’re going through, kind of like they’re reading my diary.”

Swift’s diary has been broadcasted across the world for the better part of two decades, and that means normalcy has been hard to come by. Miss Americana doesn’t strain to convey the opposite. It’s not a “the-stars, they’re-just-like-us!” event. Throughout its 85 minutes, Swift is greeted by masses of screaming fans as she exits her NYC apartment, flies in a private jet with her mom and her giant Great Dane “Kitty” and is met with millions of lovers and haters in equal portions. Where the film really proves that Swift actually could be just like us is in her internal ethical struggles—and her innate desire to be liked by other people. These conflicts are just on a much grander scale than yours or mine. Swift’s drive for approval isn’t just a desire—it’s her livelihood.

We watch Swift mature from a peppy, young country rarity to a monumentally popular star who’s confused about how to handle her massive influence. Miss Americana tracks Swift’s often conflicting desires to be liked and make everyone happy and to do what she feels is morally right. “My entire moral code as a kid, and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” she says at one point. The film does a great job of showing just how Swift’s perception of goodness has changed over the years. Initially, she was good because she had talents. Her talents won her awards, and then she didn’t always have those (one scene shows Swift on Grammy nominations morning, when she found out Reputation wasn’t nominated in any of the four main categories). Then she wasn’t always so beloved—Kanye West made sure of that, and much of America likened her to an annoying virus. Long gone was America’s sweetheart, and that concept of goodness was dwindling.

As we inch closer to the present day, Swift finds some goodness—or at least some satisfying control—in her agency. She can’t control what people say about her, but she can control what she says about herself. She can’t control what the Recording Academy awards and what they don’t, but she can turn around, stand up, get a grip and make a glorious new album without skipping a beat. The climax of this arc comes to a head when Swift and her mother Andrea, seated on one side of the room, are in a face-off with two older, Boomer-age gentlemen from her management team, and her dad. It’s 2018, the Senate race is raging on in her adopted home of Tennessee and she’s at a moral crossroads—sit silently while Republican Marsha Blackburn (who voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act) runs a campaign she finds abhorrent, or endorse the other candidate (Democrat and former Gov. Phil Bredesen) and risk alienating a potentially substantial portion of her fanbase? Swift felt especially passionate about the issue following a 2013 incident where she was groped by former radio DJ David Mueller.

The three men strongly urge her to avoid political affiliation of any kind. Swift, bawling through her plea, is minimized to a child getting a scolding. She—a multi-millionaire and one of the most successful faces in music—physically shrinks. They warn that the media could accuse her of opposing Trump.

“I wouldn’t care if they write that!” she shouts in reply. “I’m sad I didn’t two years ago, but I can’t change that.”

She went on to write the political social media post, but Blackburn eventually won anyways. And there was no going back. In addition to her political awakening, we also walk with Swift as she works through other personal peaks and valleys, but they’re only briefly mentioned. Her friends are notably absent. There’s no sign of the Hadid sisters nor Karlie Kloss, models who the media love to highlight alongside Swift whenever possible. When she discusses her Grammy AOTY win for 1989, she says with a sigh, “Shouldn’t I have someone I could call right now?” She eventually alludes vaguely to current boyfriend Joe Alwyn, but we never catch a glimpse of him. There’s a mention of mother Andrea’s cancer, but Swift doesn’t dwell on the illness. The movie is careful with these personal storylines, both in how it documents them and the frequency with which it mentions them. But Miss Americana doesn’t feel like a reel of punchy, all-positive Taylor Swift propaganda put together by a dodgy PR machine dead-set on avoiding certain topics. It has freeness to it. While we’ll never know how much access was granted to Wilson, it certainly feels like a lot. She delicately and quietly follows Swift on the journey. Her tread is light, making the documentary easy to consume.

Among other, possibly more important things, Miss Americana is also a joyride for those fans who’ve been around all along. We get to watch Swift ascend to her rightful place as queen of the music industry. We get to cheer her on as she finally finds a love worth keeping private—and survive her struggle with body image and eating disorders. We observe as she and childhood friend Abigail Anderson (of “Fifteen” fame”) dump ice cubes in their white wine and babble on about a friend who had a baby. We watch as she works through early drafts of songs like “Lover” and “ME!,” even giving us a new appreciation of the latter, which I once considered to be objectively terrible. After watching her triumph over writer’s block in the studio, I’ll admit I’m coming around to it.

Taylor Swift  could, in general, be more forthright and outspoken about her political views and feminist matters. If she showed real support for a candidate in the 2020 election, there’s no telling what kind of effect that might have. 65,000 people alone registered to vote in the 24 hours after Taylor Swift made that Marsha Blackburn Instagram post. But given the need to protect her own livelihood, and after seeing just how hard she had to fight to make that one post, it makes sense that she’s slower to speak out. Swift may be bolder in her own time. For now, some action is better than none at all.

As for Swift’s personal journey, it’s one not yet completed. Maybe we’ve previously classified Taylor Swift eras by album, but what if this decade was just the first of many? And with that newfound sense of control—or at least the acknowledgement of what she can’t control—Swift seems better poised than ever to shape the career and life of her 13-year-old dreams. “My life, my career, my dream, my reality” are the words etched on one keepsake diary from her middle school days, as shown in the film’s first five minutes. Maybe the reality hasn’t always been what she anticipated, but her skin is all the thicker for it.

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