“I just need to make a better record,” Taylor Swift says on the phone to her publicist after finding out that her then-newest album, the bite-back Reputation, had been shut out of every major Grammys category. “This is fine,” she says, fairly unconvincingly. So begins Miss Americana, Netflix’s new Lana Wilson-directed documentary depicting the recent turbulent years of Swift’s life. Swift wishes to set the record straight, finally and formally, after half a decade of sudden changes to her career. “I’m making a better record,” she says again, shaken to her core by an unmistakable disregard of her work.
Praise is the linchpin to the superstar’s life, controlling her behaviour and deciding her outlook. She has been conditioned, so she tells us, to attribute success to sweeping, untouchable acclaim and has “built a belief system on getting people to clap”. Swift appears to suffer under the weight of a perpetual and consuming need to be liked. For a time in her career, this was easy to deal with. “America’s sweetheart” was the phrase most often attached to her name. She entered the music scene as a nice, normal country girl, one who rejected overt sexuality and kept opinions to herself; and the young singer was often reminded that this was the key to success.
But this anxiety surrounding that please like me persona imploded in 2009, when the now-infamous Kanye West VMA speech interruption occurred. The incident has become cemented into pop culture in a way that erases its initial shock factor; video footage from the night itself highlights Swift stood shiningly alone, flabbergasted. But there is no recognition by Swift of West’s reasoning for being there; to showcase the frustrations of artists of colour at the continuing lack of diversity at mainstream award shows. Instead, Wilson focusses on the repercussions for Swift: how it, rightfully so, affected her as a nineteen-year-old girl (“I thought they were booing me”.). From this point onward, we see how Swift suppressed any political, opinionated inclination that may have crossed her being: “I can’t change what’s going to happen to me; but I can control what I write”. Swift has since lived a carefully controlled, arguably contrived career; she has refrained from delving deep into issues that could splinter her fanbase – until, she implores throughout the film, now.
November 2018 was a watershed moment for Swift, as she endorsed the Democrats for the first time. The men – and it is mainly men – who surround her had one message: you’ll pay the price. And it seemed she did: 2019’s Lover was her first album since 2008 that failed to sell one million units in its first week. Yet it seems that the politicisation of Taylor Swift, though marginally damaging to her sales, has freed the singer. “I feel two hundred pounds lighter,” she claims. And she looks it.
Miss Americana is multifaceted: cynically a PR film, it paints Swift as a self-conscious person who can realise her mistakes but has equally suffered under the hand of a callous industry. But despite its focus on evolution, there is certainly a missing trick here. Where the film could dissect and challenge Swift’s fourteen-year career, it instead manoeuvres quickly on to another segment of it. Swift remains a mysterious figure, one whose formula for dealing with criticism is to prove she was indeed right all along, if only you’d look a little closer. A phenomenal, unparalleled artist? Absolutely. The fully transparent figure the film claims she is? I’m not so sure. But we do see the singer in a light rarely seen: one that is truly retrospective, as she heads towards an older, undeniably wiser future.
Illustration: Hannah Riordan