Content warning: eating disorders, sexual assault
In “Miss Americana,” Taylor Swift explains why she declared the Old Taylor dead in her 2017 comeback anthem, “Look What You Made Me Do.” The documentary shows Swift after she returned to the public eye from a year of hiding and explains what she learned about herself in the process. Swift is honest, vulnerable, and earnest in the film, showing sides of herself that even her biggest fans have not seen.
Director Lana Wilson begins the film with Swift looking through her old diaries and explaining how she had understood happiness for most of her life. Swift explains that she had a fundamental need to be seen as good. This need, as well as other insecurities, were at the heart of her decision-making process throughout her career. This is essential to understanding the controversial parts of her career. By telling us exactly what was driving her, we as the viewers are able to understand some of the most famously misunderstood portions of Swift’s life.
Many of the scenes, clips, and performances shown are familiar to fans, but from a far more intimate perspective. Those who bought the deluxe versions of “Lover” have seen selected excerpts of the diaries that Swift flips through as the film opens. To see her read from the pages and analyze how the feelings she wrote down shaped who she was, however, is a far more personal look. Those who went to the reputation Stadium Tour (or watched the movie version on Netflix) are familiar with seeing Swift enter the stage on a sliding platform from the front — watching her step onto the platform from backstage is mesmerizing.
Tight editing helps the viewer connect the public parts of Swift’s life to who she is behind the scenes. As soon as she lifts her microphone and belts the first notes of the concert, the film cuts to Swift on the way home from the show, gulping water from a bottle she holds at the same angle as she discusses how the concert went. A delightful and funny clip of Swift coming up with the bridge of Getaway Car cuts to her singing the bridge in her carefully choreographed reputation Stadium Tour performance.
The film balances footage shot by Wilson and her team with archival footage that contextualizes the aspects of Swift’s life that are most speculated about. Swift explains her desire to be seen as good with a montage of clips with her tumultuous relationship with Kanye West. The montage, of course, starts with the infamous microphone-stealing moment at the 2009 VMAs and ends with her explaining that #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trending number one on Twitter was the tipping point that drove her into hiding: “Do you know how many people have to tweet that they hate you for that to happen?” She explains that on the VMA stage, she thought the audience was booing her, and not West.
Swift is letting us know that she understands the role her own insecurities played in the saga between her and Kanye West. It was never okay for West to get up and steal her moment in 2009 — she was nineteen and clearly floored that she had won a Moonman as a country artist, nor was it okay for West to call her “that bitch” in a song and then claim Swift was the one lying about it. But being happy and feeling worthy and like she belonged, as Swift shows herself learning to do throughout the film, was something that had to come from herself.
The political moments of the film address how Swift decided to endorse Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm election. Swift’s transitioned from being a “nice girl” who “doesn’t force [her] opinions on people” to outwardly lambasting Donald Trump and Marsha Blackburn; these actions were a natural course of events after winning a civil court case regarding a 2013 sexual assault in which a DJ groped her. When she described the trial, Swift noted that she had a photo and seven witnesses who saw the incident, yet she still had to defend herself from victim-blaming and lies from the DJ’s lawyer. Footage from her Tampa “reputation” concert shows her sitting at a piano and telling the audience how being believed by her family and her team kept her life on track. Swift digs into one of the most difficult times of her life to explain why she could no longer hold back her political opinions. In doing so, she makes a compelling case for why she spoke up when she did.
The film keeps its focus on Swift rather than her fans. Swift’s Tampa monologue was prompted by thousands of people in the audience holding up one-dollar bills as an homage to the fact that she won the single dollar she sued for in her counter-suit exactly one year before that show. By being largely left out of the film except for a few moments, fans are able to find their own connection to Swift within the film.
It is simultaneously terrifying and validating to see your idol have the exact same insecurities as you do. In a pivotal scene, Swift gets into a car after exiting her apartment and discusses the struggles she has experienced with disordered eating. She admits that “You don’t ever say to yourself, ‘I’ve got an eating disorder.’ But you know you’re making a list of everything you put in your mouth that day. And you know that’s probably not right. But then again, there’s so many diet blogs that tell you that that’s what you should do.”
Watching that scene and hearing Swift’s words, I flashed back to a summer almost a decade ago of making that list, just like Swift. I knew exactly what she meant when she alluded to thinking everything was fine, “that wasn’t how my body was supposed to be. I just didn’t really understand that. At the time, I really don’t think I knew it.” The connection that so many viewers can make to Swift’s struggle with body image and eating builds one of the most important aspects of the film. No amount of fame, success, or Grammy awards (Swift has ten), fixes your problems. Growth takes work and the willingness to change yourself for the better.
Swift’s admission that she hadn’t ever eaten a burrito until a couple of years before writing her Lover album is a moment that shows that she in no way was trying to convince us that she is relatable. Miss Americana is not a series of scenes of Swift acting out a “celebrities — they’re just like us” magazine feature. Rather, Swift digs into her deepest insecurities and reminds us that she’s always been a real person. The guise of celebrity is a byproduct of Swift’s life and not the goal. We all have moments in our lives that help to define and change us. Things happen to us, and we wake up a different person for it. Swift is no different, except for having almost all of those moments happen with us watching.