Taylor Swift is sitting alone on a couch with her cat, makeup-free, hair pulled back in a droopy ponytail. She is anxious.
Starring Taylor Swift
★★★★ out of five
It’s Grammy nomination day in 2018 and, when her manager finally calls, Swift learns she has not been nominated in any major category for her 2017 album, Reputation.
She inhales, the disappointment a slap.
"This is fine," she says, gently cutting off her manager who is attempting, cringingly, to soften the blow. "I just need to make a better record."
This scene of self-flagellation is one of many to be found in Miss Americana, the new documentary about the singer-songwriter on Netflix. Directed by Lana Wilson, it’s an intimate look at the life and career of the spiral-curled country darlin’ turned sleek pop star, with a particular focus on the growing pains of the past few years. There were the public spats with Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Kanye West. There were the prying eyes into her dating life. There was Reputation, an album-length clap-back that, to many critics, felt petty and overblown. There were the three years out of the spotlight, her victory in the sexual assault trial against a radio DJ who groped her, and her subsequent political awakening.
Miss Americana paints a deeply sympathetic portrait of Swift, which might make some viewers bristle. Swift is rich, famous, talented and beautiful — you know, all the things that are supposed to guarantee happiness — and is ferried from one moneyed estate to another via private jet, after performing to sell-out, stadium-sized crowds. It’s lonely at the tippy-top, but as singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis sings in her song It’s a Hit: "it’s a sin when success complains."
Swift, however, doesn’t seem to want pity. What she wants, desperately, is to be understood. The documentary is revealing to the extent that these things are, but Swift is remarkably vulnerable and insightful, especially around her almost compulsive need for outside validation and approval.
Swift, like many women, was socialized to be "nice" and, to be sure, she is a notorious people-pleaser. Being Miss Americana means being demure, being apolitical, taking up little space. Her observations about how all of these things ended up harming her career — and, in the case of being impossibly thin, her health — aren’t just smart. They’re relatable. These are pressures a lot of women feel, in many professional spheres.
But her brand as America’s Sweetheart, which helped her become famous at the age of 16, stopped working for her as she got older. The aw-shucks niceness, the American-as-apple-pie-ness, didn’t just become grating to her critics. It became suspicious.
In the late 2000s and into the 2010s, a raft of cultural criticism was devoted to parsing the authenticity and sincerity of female pop stars and their "personas," which is both sexist and rockist; rarely is there any speculation over the authenticity and sincerity of, say, Eddie Vedder and his persona.
Swift was no exception. By far and away, one of the most-used adjectives to describe her is "calculated," usually in regards to the boundary-obliterating relationship she has with her die-hard fans. During the album cycle for 2014’s 1989, especially, Swift was uncommonly accessible to them — on social media but also in real life, too, sending them Christmas gifts and inviting them to her home.
Miss Americana contextualizes this behaviour, showing us the outsized pressure Swift felt to be the cookie-baking, bridal-shower-crashing, selfie-taking, BFF to all, lest she be abandoned by the very people who made her who she is. This isn’t cold calculation. It’s frantic people-pleasing, writ large.
At 30, she’s no longer wearing people’s projections. She’s a grown woman who has found her voice, and wishes she spoke up sooner. When she wanted to endorse Democratic candidates in Tennessee ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, her team tried to talk her out of it. She’s steadfast in her position and, more strikingly, she’s angry.
The best parts of the documentary show Swift in her happy place, which is clearly in the studio.
There is some weird heavy-handedness in the doc, too, especially the montage cataloguing every mean tweet and thinkpiece about Swift — including a Montreal Gazette article with the headline "Talent to Annoy" that was illustrated with a photo of Swift. Except, the article was not about Taylor Swift at all. It was about trends that should "go away," such as the ‘cold-shoulder’ blouse Swift happened to be wearing. Thick-skinned, she isn’t, but then, she’s the first to admit that.
The drama, however, is not the most compelling part of Miss Americana. The best parts of the documentary show Swift in her happy place, which is clearly in the studio. Wilson offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at her process as she makes "a better record" — 2019’s Lover. In those quiet, late-night, breakthrough moments, the only person she’s seeking approval from is herself.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.