January 31, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Lana Wilson
Culture Representation: This very filtered documentary about singer Taylor Swift takes an inside look at her life as a multimillionaire celebrity whose inner circle and career team are almost exclusively white, with a few African Americans who have brief appearances as employees or video collaborators.
Culture Clash: The movie gives Swift’s perspective on conflicts she’s had with her critics over her image, her feud with Kanye West, her love life, her 2017 sexual assault trial and her outspoken liberal views on politics.
Culture Audience: “Miss Americana” will obviously appeal mostly to fans of Swift, but the movie should also interest people who like behind-the-scene stories of entertainment celebrity culture.
“Miss Americana,” a completely sympathetic documentary about Grammy-winning superstar Taylor Swift, could have been subtitled “The Emancipation of Taylor Swift.” The main narrative of the film is that she’s all grown up now, and she’s no longer afraid to speak her mind and go public about her liberal political views. While she undoubtedly gets candid in the film about many issues she’s faced in her life, and it’s ultimately a feel-good portrayal of Swift, the documentary (directed by Lana Wilson) has a lot of glaring omissions. The biggest one is that it completely ignores the massive public feud that Swift has with music moguls Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun—a feud in which she’s publicly accused them of using their “toxic male privilege” (Swift’s words) to try to take away power from her and other artists.
What viewers of “Miss Americana” will get are several visual montages (on stage and off stage) of Swift’s career over the years, starting when she was an unknown 12-year-old singer/songwriter from Pennsylvania trying to break into country music, to being a Nashville-based, polished 15-year-old aspiring country star, to becoming one of the best-selling female music artists of all time. There’s the expected footage of her on stage, backstage, on the sets of her music videos, and in the recording studio, including showing some of the songwriting process for her 2019 album “Lover,” with cameos from songwriter/producer Jack Antonoff and Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie.
Swift has transitioned from being a country singer to a pop star. It’s a transformation that could have happened because her musical tastes have evolved, but she also admits in the documentary that any changes she makes to her image are mostly because female artists feel more pressure than male artists to constantly reinvent themselves to remain relevant.
The beginning of the film shows Swift (who’s famously a cat fanatic) playing the piano while one of her Scottish Fold cats walks all over the piano. Swift then shares some of her childhood diaries, and comments: “My moral code, then and now, is to be good. The main thing I tried to be is a good girl. I was so fulfilled by approval, that was it. I became the person everyone wanted me to be.”
It’s a story that people have heard many times from people who were child stars: They’ve been so programmed to get approval from the public that they can lose their true identities and self-esteem in the celebrity machine. There are too many tragic stories of former child stars who’ve been unable to cope with growing up and becoming less popular as they get older. It’s an underlying fear that Swift admits that she has, because she’s constantly seeking approval from fans and she feels pressure to maintain a certain level of popularity. She’s also well-aware that there’s an age double-standard for female entertainers, who are more likely than male entertainers to be cast aside by the industry once they’re over the age of 35.
The documentary clearly shows that Swift (who turned 30 in December 2019) is very good at marketing herself, and it’s a skill that she learned early in her career. There’s a clip of her on stage in 2003, shortly after her country breakthrough single “Tim McGraw” was released, where she mentions the local country radio station and charmingly asks the audience to contact the station to play the song. The movie also makes a point of showing how Swift avoided going public for years about her political views after she became old enough to vote. Her standard response back then was that she was just a singer and people wanted to hear her sing and not tell them how they should feel about politics.
Swift’s songs are very autobiographical; she’s famous for writing songs about her love affairs and breakups. And because she’s dated a lot of famous men (mostly musicians and actors), her love life has already been thoroughly dissected by fans and the media. The documentary includes a montage of media coverage about her love life and how people’s perceptions of her have been affected by the media coverage.
British actor Joe Alwyn, whom she’s been dating since 2016, is briefly shown in the documentary, as he hugs Swift backstage after one of her concerts. Alywn is not shown speaking on camera, but there are some clips of candid off-stage cell-phone footage of Swift where it’s obvious that Alwyn is the one filming it, such as a clip where Swift is singing and then mouths the words “I love you” to the person filming. All that Swift will say about her romance with Alwyn is that she’s in love, and they both decided that they wanted to keep their relationship private. She doesn’t even say his name in the documentary.
What she does reveal in the documentary that hasn’t been made public before is that she’s had an eating disorder for years and is in recovery, but it’s still a struggle for her. She first mentions her eating disorder in the film when she says she no longer looks at photos of herself every day because it can “trigger” the feelings of insecurity that she has about her body. She then goes on to describe that for years, she thought it was normal to starve herself and feel the physical effects of extreme hunger. She now says that she has healthy eating habits and is comfortable if she’s “a size 6 instead of size 00,” but she says the relentless public scrutiny about her physical appearance can still deeply affect her.
Over the years, Swift has openly talked about how the person she is closest to is her mother, Andrea Swift, who is shown several times in the documentary as a constant companion to her daughter. That strong family support is clearly one of the main reasons why Swift has not become a casualty of fame. Andrea Swift’s cancer diagnosis (which Swift has talked about in other interviews, as well as in this documentary) is something that Swift says has had a profound effect on everyone in the family, and it’s why Swift places family and friends as the highest priorities in her life.
Much has already been said and written about the feud between Swift and Kanye West. In the documentary, Swift says that the notorious incident that started it all did long-lasting damage to her self-esteem. That incident was when West got up on stage and interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech after she won the prize for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and he shouted that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video (which was nominated in the same category) “was one of the best videos of all time.”
Although West was universally slammed for that stunt, and he later made several public apologies, Swift says that at the time she was on stage during the incident, she thought the audience booing was meant for her, not West. She says in the documentary that it was the first time she felt so much negativity from an audience while she was on stage, and it was a “formative experience” that took her down a “psychological path, not all of it beneficial.”
Swift is a celebrity who became famous right when social media became part of the culture, so she’s experienced the highs and lows of social media on a learning curve. On the one hand, Swift is one of the most popular celebrities on social media, with followers that total in the hundreds of millions. On the other hand, when she does something that’s considered controversial, that huge level of attention can turn quickly against her.
The documentary mentions the enormous backlash that she received when West’s wife Kim Kardashian released a secretly recorded video of Swift talking to West over the phone and giving West the go-ahead to mention her in his 2016 song “Famous,” which had not been released yet at the time the conversation happened. The song lyric that mentioned Swift turned out be very derogatory and called her a misogynistic name. After the song was released, Swift claimed that she didn’t know her name would be used in that way, while West and his camp said she did know in advance. That’s when Kardashian released the video.
The documentary makes a point of showing how Swift was virtually bullied by West’s fans, including viral footage of an audience at one of his concerts chanting a derogatory statement about Swift. But the documentary does not mention how some of Swift’s fans on the Internet can be just as vicious in showing hate for people who dare to criticize Swift. Several celebrities who have clashed with Swift have talked about how her most fanatical fans can be bullies. Her public feuds with other celebrities (such as Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber and ex-boyfriends Calvin Harris, John Mayer and Joe Jonas) are not mentioned in the documentary, probably because Swift is no longer feuding with them.
Whichever side you believe in the controversy over “Famous,” Swift reveals in the documentary that all the hate she received from “cancel culture” was the main reason why she took a year-long hiatus and came back to the spotlight with her 2017 album “Reputation.” There’s some footage of Swift writing songs that ended up on the album, as well as a scene that shows her disappointment when she gets a call from a handler informing her that the album didn’t get any Grammy nominations in the major categories. (Don’t feel too sorry for Swift. She’s already got several Grammys, including two Grammys for Album of the Year.)
The movie also covers the lawsuit that made Swift go public about being sexually groped by a radio DJ, who later sued her because he was fired over that incident. Swift countersued for $1, to prove that he did grope her without her consent, and she wasn’t going to let him get away with blaming her for the crime he committed. Her $1 counterclaim was her way of telling the world that this issue wasn’t about the money for her. Swift famously won the lawsuit and became an advocate of the #MeToo movement.
In the documentary, Swift makes it clear that her #MeToo experience was the biggest catalyst to her political awakening and her decision to no longer remain silent over the progressive political issues that she wants to publicly support. One of the best parts of the documentary is showing what happened behind the scenes when she made the major decision to give her first political endorsement.
Swift says she was constantly told for her entire career “not to be like the Dixie Chicks,” the female country trio that lost a lot of fans in the early 2000s, after the group spoke out against Republican politics and the war in Iraq. But Swift’s #MeToo experience and the subsequent lawsuits opened her eyes to social justice issues, and she decided for herself: “The next time there’s any opportunity to change anything, you’d better know what you stand for and what you want to say.”
Her decision to go public with her political views didn’t sit well with several members of her team, who told her that she would be making a big mistake. In the movie, the objectors are shown to be all middle-aged men (including her father), who tried to scare her by saying that they were concerned that she would get more death threats and would lose half of her audience if she came out as a political liberal. But Swift firmly did not back down, even though there was some expected fear of the unknown.
The movie shows her apprehension and excitement that she and publicist Tree Paine had together in the moments before she posted her endorsement of Phil Bredesen (a Democrat) over Marsha Blackburn (a Republican) in the 2018 race for Tennessee U.S. Senator. Not only did Swift endorse Bredesen, but she also publicly slammed Blackburn for voting against laws that support rights for the LGBTQ community and female victims of violence. Ultimately, Blackburn won the election, but Swift says she’s hopeful that in future elections, the younger generation will vote to sway politics in a more progressive and inclusive direction.
As Swift says in the movie: “I feel really good about not feeling muzzled anymore. And it was my own doing. I needed to learn a lot before I spoke to 200 million people. But I’ve educated myself now, and it’s time to take the masking tape off of my mouth forever.”
While Swift is obviously a positive inspiration in many ways, as this documentary makes very clear, there are still aspects of “Miss Americana” that aren’t entirely candid. One of the biggest criticisms of Swift is that she has a tendency to portray herself as a victim when things don’t go her way. No one is expecting her to be perfect, but there’s a limit to Swift being honest about her life for this documentary.
Although she admitted to having issues about eating and her body image, not once does she admit to doing anything mean-spirited or cutthroat in her life. There’s no mention of any friends or lovers she might have tossed aside, no remorse or regret about not treating a loved one better, no acknowledgement of less-than-wonderful things she’s done to rivals or former business associates. In reality, no one gets to her level of success by being nice to everyone. In the documentary, the only mistake she admits to making is not being politically outspoken in 2016 for the U.S. presidential election.
For a “behind the scenes” documentary about an artist who’s risen to the top of the music industry, it’s very unrealistic for Swift to not acknowledge any experiences that she might have had with illegal drugs, alcohol, diet pills, prescription medication or even nicotine. If you were to believe everything that’s presented this movie, those things just don’t exist in Swift’s world. The worst “vice” that Swift shows on camera is uttering a few curse words. The documentary might look “revealing” to many people who don’t know what really goes on behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, but for those who do know what really goes on, it’s very obvious that “Miss Americana” is very white-washed indeed.
The narrative here is that bad things keep happening to Swift (stalkers, intrusive paparazzi, tabloid media, haters on the Internet), and she always finds a way to triumph and overcome it all. That is, except for the battle that she lost against Borchetta and Braun, which is not mentioned at all in this documentary. It’s obvious that Swift and/or the documentary’s filmmakers didn’t want to put anything in the movie that would weaken Swift’s “female empowerment” image that she wants to have.
In July 2019, Swift went on the Internet to post a lengthy rant accusing Borchetta (the founder of Big Machine Records, her former record company) of unscrupulously taking her pre-2019 song catalogue and selling it to music manager Braun, whom Swift considers an enemy because Braun was West’s manager during the worst of Swift’s feud with West. Swift claims that she and her management/publishing team (which includes her father, Scott Swift) weren’t given a fair opportunity to buy these master recordings of her songs. Borchetta vehemently denies the accusation, and says that Swift had a chance to buy the songs but she didn’t agree to the deal that was presented. The “he said/she said” fight blew up to such an extent that many celebrities jumped into the fray by either taking Swift’s side or the Borchetta/Braun side.
For all of Swift’s preaching about female empowerment in this documentary, it’s odd that she and this movie’s director have cut out this chapter of her life that Swift has tried to present as part of her fight against male sexism. She used the feud as a platform to speak out about not only male sexism but also artists’ rights and what kinds of contracts artists sign that could have long-lasting effects on their careers.
Swift has presented herself as an outspoken advocate for artists’ rights before (her push to get Spotify to pay reasonable artist royalties is one example—something that’s also not mentioned in the movie), so it’s a major setback in her life and her career that one of her enemies now owns the vast majority of her songs. The fact that this life-changing experience wasn’t even acknowledged in the documentary indicates how much of a public-relations showcase “Miss Americana” is instead of a complete behind-the-scenes look at her life.
The documentary seems to want people to forget that Swift’s feud with Borchetta/Braun ever happened, even though she was the one who took the feud public in the first place and ended up getting a lot of backlash from people who think she misrepresented herself as a victim in this situation. Rather than being fully honest and sharing what she learned from this undoubtedly painful experience, Swift probably told the filmmakers directly or indirectly not to put it in the movie. Let’s be real: Even though she’s not listed as a producer of “Miss Americana,” she obviously had a lot of creative control over this documentary, based on what they chose to show and what they chose not to show.
Also absent from the documentary is any mention of Swift’s attempts to become a movie actress, which have resulted in her appearing in flops such as 2014’s “The Giver” and 2019’s “Cats.” Anything that makes Swift look like a failure or someone who made a really bad career decision is essentially shut out of the documentary. Instead, “Miss Americana” ends with Swift winning Video of the Year at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards for “You Need to Calm Down,” her platform to show her as an ally to the LGBTQ community. The award show took place on August 26, 2019—several weeks after she started feuding with Borchetta and Braun, so there was plenty of time to include the feud in the movie.
Another thing the documentary makes clear is that even though Swift talks a lot about female empowerment, her team is led by men, while women are mostly relegated to traditionally female roles, such as publicist, backup dancer, makeup artist and hair stylist. There are several scenes in the movie where Swift is the only woman in the recording studio. Why not hire more female musicians, producers and engineers? Swift has the power to do that, so there’s really no excuse.
Beyoncé has an all-female touring band of musicians (and so did Prince), so there are artists who are actually doing something about breaking barriers for women in the music industry. It remains to be seen if Swift will take a lot of her talk about female empowerment in the music industry and actually be an agent for change. If she ever wins Album of the Year at the Grammys again, we’ll see if she’s surrounded by a diverse group of people on stage who would share the award with her, instead of the same men who constantly get preferential treatment in the music industry.
For now, “Miss Americana” shows that Swift wants to spread a progressive political agenda and she wants to be praised as a symbol for female empowerment. But if she really wants to empower more women in the industry, she can start with the people she hires to make music with her and who she puts in charge of her business interests, instead of blaming other people for being the problem.
Netflix premiered “Miss Americana” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.