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The Beautiful, Moving Manipulation of the New Taylor Swift Netflix Doc

‘Miss Americana’ shows the musician at her most raw and relatable, like any good pop-star documentary should

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

Miss Americana, the raw and elegantly downbeat new Taylor Swift documentary that premiered on Netflix on Friday morning, is roughly bookended by two startling instances of her patented Surprised Face. Not the Surprised Face when she wins yet another Grammy or VMA or the like, born of an increasingly false-seeming modesty that the media has lampooned from time immemorial; no, this is the Surprised Face when she loses. You’re maybe not so used to that one. Neither is she.

First, early on, we join her on Grammy Nomination Day 2018, curled up on a couch in pink pajamas and processing the news that her stormy 2017 album Reputation was, in fact, not nominated in any major categories—an unthinkable snub for a two-time Album of the Year victor. “This is good,” Swift mutters. “This is fine.” She’s not so much shocked as wearily resigned. “I just need to make a better record,” she adds. “I’m making a better record.”

Much later in the documentary comes a similar tableau: Swift in casual wear, phone in hand, this time aboard a private plane and absorbing the news that Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn has won her Senate race in the 2018 midterm elections, despite Swift’s vehement and uncharacteristically public opposition. “I can’t believe it,” the newly vocally political pop star stammers, slumped forlornly against the plane window. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that she gets to be the first female senator from Tennessee, and she’s—she’s Trump in a wig.”

In the next scene, Swift is back in the studio, writing a strident and inspirational new song called “Only the Young,” as in “Only the young can run,” as in, well, you know. That song came out Friday morning, too, a less grandiose (and thus less cloying) “Fight Song” from a grandiose (though less cloying than usual) pop star who wants us to know she’s finally, definitively not ready to make nice.

Miss Americana—directed by Lana Wilson and culminating with the release of Swift’s latest album, summer 2019’s far sunnier Lover—is a bruising, dispiriting, and disconcertingly vulnerable affair. (That no-major-Grammy-nominations scene is extra bruising given that Lover, though indeed a much better album than Reputation, hardly fared better at the 2020 Grammys.) Topics include Swift’s never-ending battle with Kanye West, the 2017 trial stemming from her sexual assault at the hands of a Denver radio DJ, her struggles with her weight and body image, her fraught and not immediately triumphant public political awakening, and the music industry’s crushing double standards. “The female artists that I know have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists,” she points out. “They have to. Or else you’re out of a job.”

This film is also a pop-star documentary, a long-established genre built fundamentally on manipulation, on painstakingly crafted intimacy, on shrewd reinvention, on blatant calculation. That’s part of the double standard, too, of course: “You are kind of doing a constant strategy in your head as to how not to be shamed for something on any given day,” Swift explains to Lover coproducer Joel Little of her rarefied and perilous position. “But then you get accused of being calculated for having a strategy.” But with warts-and-all docs like this, it bears repeating: You never see anything the pop star in question doesn’t want you to see. Which doesn’t make what’s onscreen fake, exactly; it just means that part of what you’re meant to appreciate about Miss Americana is the skill and the depth of the manipulation.

The only thing I wanted, going into Miss Americana, was for Kanye West to not come up at all, but alas, we are made to re-live the “I’ma let you finish” incident at the 2009 MTV VMAs in agonizing full, and to re-live the decade-plus fallout that resulted. Swift knows you’re tired of hearing about it, that you’d like to be excluded from this narrative, which underscores the shrewdness of making you hear about it again anyway. “It was so echoey in there, at the time I didn’t know they were booing him doing that,” she recalls. “I thought that they were booing me. For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”

Miss Americana’s blunt thesis is that Swift spent the first decade of her career desperate to make everyone happy, desperate for everyone’s approval, desperate to launch a thousand ships without rocking any boats. To wit: “I became the person who everyone wanted me to be.”

And: “When you’re living for the approval of strangers, and that is where you derive all of your joy and fulfilment, one bad thing can cause everything to crumble.”

And, as she starts to care a little less about the person everyone wants her to be: “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if your mom’s sick from her chemo?”

And so forth. The body-image conversation is confined to one agonizing scene in which Swift admits unflattering paparazzi photos goaded her into starving herself: “If you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everybody wants,” she laments, wearily. “But if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, then your stomach isn’t flat enough. It’s all just—fucking impossible.” For Swift to drop an F-bomb, even casually, qualifies as an event, and she knows it, and she knows you know it. But it’s startling, and agonizing, nonetheless.

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I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway. So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to vote.org and you can find all the info. Happy Voting!

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Later, we join Swift and her longtime publicist, Tree Paine, on the couch as they craft the October 2018 Instagram message in which Swift formally joined the political fray, urging her 110-million-odd followers to register to vote, and for voters in Tennessee to reject Blackburn in particular, given the ultimately victorious candidate’s hostility toward gay rights and opposition to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Swift is on her phone, about to hit send, nervous but also determined as hell: “If I get bad press for saying, ‘Don’t put a homophobic racist in office,’ then I get bad press for that. I really don’t care.” Emboldened, she and Paine toast “The Resistance” with giant glasses of white wine; the optics, given the whiteness and the multimillionaire glamour of it all, aren’t fantastic. But that’s another thing she knows you know.

As recent pop-star documentaries go, this is all far more compelling and above all convincing than the vast majority of Swift’s competition. Justin Bieber’s got a new rolling YouTube series, called Seasons, that has unveiled four bite-size episodes so far and hits many of the same notes: In a fun confluence, both projects feature copious footage of our respective stars in their respective studios, arduously crafting what’d turn out to be perhaps their most vapid and disposable singles yet. (Swift’s “ME!” and Bieber’s “Yummy,” respectively.) But on camera Bieber is far more concerned with pimping his new clothing line than in revealing anything beyond his well-documented post-tour exhaustion, his universally-praised-on-camera work ethic, and his galactically adorable marriage to Hailey Baldwin (now Bieber), who indeed seems like a lovely and above all superhumanly patient human.

Miss Americana, by contrast, mentions Swift’s longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn only in passing, and only in careful traipsing-through-a-field silhouette plus one quick, dialogue-free backstage embrace. Another thesis in this movie, of course, is that the outsize attention paid to her dating history is yet another part of the double standard. Swift’s movie does not scold you, exactly, for pining for more prurient tabloid-y details in this vein, but it is firm in its insistence that at 30, she’s a changed woman: changed by the cruel crucible of pop-star fame, changed by our current nightmarish political reality, and above all changed by her own experience with sexual assault and the terrifying fear of possibly not being believed.

To the extent that Miss Americana is a career retrospective, then, it’s a tragedy: “There’s this thing people say about celebrities, that they’re frozen at the age they got famous,” Swift notes sadly. “And that’s kind of what happened to me.” As clumsy as her newfound attempts at merging her art and her politics might be—we get some behind-the-scenes footage of her awkwardly gay-pride-fueled video for “You Need to Calm Down,” too—she is firm in her insistence that she means it, and will only get firmer from here. “I want to love glitter, and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society,” she concludes. “I want to wear pink, and tell you how I feel about politics. And I don’t think that those things have to cancel each other out.”

They don’t, but this doc overall is a far darker shade of pink. In the end, Swift did not attend the 2020 Grammys at all: If she had, she might have performed the pointed Lover track “The Man,” an explicit denunciation of all those gender-based double standards. Amid all the ludicrous chaos of the televised ceremony, what’s sticking with me days later is the performance by Demi Lovato, a fellow pop star who has struggled enormously in the spotlight, and who turned those struggles into the 2017 YouTube documentary Simply Complicated, one of the better (and rawer, and more vulnerable) recent entries in the pop-star-doc genre.

The larger world hadn’t seen or heard from Lovato in a while: She’d been struggling. And the song she sang on Sunday at the Grammys, a bombastic new ballad called “Anyone,” excoriated the monied crowd in the room and the much larger crowd tuning in at home for luridly watching her struggle: “A hundred million stories and a hundred million songs / I feel stupid when I sing / Nobody’s listening to me / Nobody’s listening.” She got a standing ovation. And she was right. And at its most affecting, Miss Americana proves, above all, that Swift can relate.