I’ve long held my own notions about Taylor Swift. She’s a star, a fashion icon, a sexpot, and someone I found utterly contrived. The cutsie country she opened her career with didn’t do it for me, and I ignored her right up until the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” a song I found laughable at the time. I was part of the crowd that thought, “ruh-roh, Tay-Tay got dumped again so we better brace for a new album.” When the documentary about her career and stardom, appropriately titled Miss Americana, began to get fantastic reviews coming out of Sundance I wavered and got curious enough to follow its release schedule. It landed on Netflix and just never wound up on my radar enough to give the time of day. The global pandemic has left me trying a lot of new things that I’d never thought hard about, and the release of Swift’s eighth album folklore exploded all over the internet. I tossed it on and a little over an hour later was in shock and this achingly sincere set of stories being told through the beats of a songwriter that had a lot more to offer than I’d given her credit for.
Then I took the time to watch Miss Americana.
The documentary, directed by Lana Whitson, is a brutally frank portrayal of a star beloved by millions that nonetheless feels utterly alone. Swift has always needed approval, that was obvious from her quiet ad meandering demeanor. While other stars delve into political activism and aggressively bold statements to rally their fans behind their causes, Swift kept her mouth shut and her opinions vague to keep from rattling cages. She needs our applause, our praise, and our approval. The rough thing is that she’s blatantly aware of just how much she needs it, raised to strive for it with every step she takes. It’s what caused her to fight for her career the way she did, to suffer through eating disorders, and to put up with shitheads like Kanye West when they stepped on her. Taylor Swift needed to be everyone’s favorite person.
Miss Americana explores her stepping out of that role. A lot of attention is paid to her struggle to win a sexual assault trial, to stand with her home state of Tennessee against Marsha Blackburn (whom she refers to as “Trump in a wig”), and her struggle to feel worth something while Twitter openly railed against her very existence. A lot of attention is paid to the behind-the-scenes events during the recording of her albums Reputation and Lover, both of which I’ve listened to and am now a fan of. Where once I saw another pop star propped up by corporate advertising, waiting to be tossed away, I now see a human being that forced me to explore my own underlying issues with things like celebrity, misogyny, and respect towards outlets of creativity that aren’t designed to appeal to me.
Something insane that is represented by the attention paid to Taylor Swift this year is that during a global shutdown she’s managed to be a focal point, and potentially America’s biggest artistic name at the moment. While filmmakers and touring music acts fight to bring audiences despite the danger, Swift released a documentary available to anyone with a Netflix subscription and an album that is perfect for listening to with a mug of hot tea and light rain. She’s told us how desperately she wants our love and then quietly offered something sweet in exchange, and it’s a welcome change from other music documentaries. We love the antics of bands like Metallica or The Foo Fighters, the showmanship of Lady Gaga, but rarely do we get someone that wears their heart on their sleeve and asks, “Will you love me?” Whitson’s lovely portrayal of Swift, in all of her glory and shame, and asks us if we can love this kind of person.
Turns out I can.