A Twitter “cancellation,” an eating disorder, a sexual assault — these are just some of the things traversed by “Miss Americana,” a Netflix documentary telling Taylor Swift’s life story through the lens of her recent political activism.
Swift has dominated pop culture conversations since rising to fame in the late 2000s. From the Kanye West Video Music Awards scandal to her infamous feud with Katy Perry, Swift has been a constant tabloid force for over a decade.
In 2017, Swift reclaimed her narrative with her chart-topping sixth studio album, “reputation.” She followed the explosive record with an entrance into the political scene in fall 2018 when she endorsed a Democratic candidate, Phil Bredesen — a first for the formerly neutral artist.
Released Jan. 31, the documentary directed by Lana Wilson opens with scenes of a young Swift to set the stage. Swift discusses her past with a bittersweet sentiment of someone who can’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the life she’s lived.
Discussing her drive in the past, Swift acknowledges her former need for recognition and her struggle to move past this.
“I was so fulfilled by approval that … that was it,” Swift shares in the documentary’s early moments.
It’s a raw realization that shows Swift’s growth as a member of the music industry. Having spent her entire career seeking praise, Swift felt shattered in the wake of 2016’s “#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty,” in which Kim Kardashian torpedoed Swift’s credibility in regard to her feud with West.
Filming for “Miss Americana” began during the production of “reputation” in order to showcase Swift’s rebirth into the industry. In the film, Swift describes her 2016 Grammy win for Album of the Year with “1989” as a definitive moment for her career in which she began to wonder what’s next.
The answer? “Miss Americana.” As the film provides a fresh depiction of Swift’s last few years, it focuses on her latest foray into politics.
Enraged by 2018-Tennessee senatorial candidate Marsha Blackburn’s views and voting against the Violence Against Women Act, Swift decides to end her long-standing political silence. Swift notes her own history of stalkers as well as the reported sexual assault she experienced during a meet and greet as pivotal reasons she ended her silence and spoke out against Blackburn.
This provides an easy standout scene in which Swift and her father argue over her decision. Swift’s tears and genuine desire to use her platform for a positive change resonates well, especially given she’s hardly good enough of an actress to fake this (see 2019 disaster, “Cats”).
Approaching “Miss Americana” as a story detailing Swift finding her political voice, it’s mostly successful. Yet it lacks in other areas.
The film’s 85-minute runtime doesn’t allow for the depth needed to fully drive the message home. Glimpses into Swift’s life are certainly illuminating but viewers are rarely given a moment to breathe.
Behind-the-scenes flashes of Swift’s songwriting process for her last two albums (“reputation” and “Lover”) are engaging and wholly interesting. Had the film focused more on these scenes, it would have enhanced the connection to Swift’s purposeful artistry.
When Swift discovers “reputation” received no big-category nominations for the 2019 Grammys, she claims she needs to make a stronger album. It should be a pivotal moment, yet this scene is undercut by the irony that follows: a scene showing the birth of panned “Lover” lead single “ME!” It’s embarrassing, to say the least, for the documentary to hint that “ME!” is the result of a recharged Swift and not a reductive, lyrically devoid misfire.
Swift is far too talented to continue to waste time pretending “ME!” and gay-pride single “You Need to Calm Down” are the pinnacle of her artistry. Reminders of these songs only weaken the film’s narrative and Swift’s message as a whole.
Ultimately, the political leanings of modern Swift, and the film as a whole, would land stronger if the music itself was better. The political undertones of “Lover” were trite at worst and inoffensive at best.
To hold the lyrical simplicity of “Lover” entirely against the film would be unfair, however. Yes, the album rarely said anything truly revolutionary or new in regard to politics, but Swift has done more than dip her toes in the pool of politics. And for that, she deserves recognition.
After all, “Miss Americana” itself reminded viewers of the vile rejection The Dixie Chicks faced in light of their criticisms of former President George W. Bush’s move for a war in Iraq. Swift’s political moves may seem like easy pandering but as a former country artist whose image had leaned conservative, Swift risked isolating her fanbase with her statements.
That’s why “Miss Americana” works in ways “Lover” didn’t. It’s imperfect but it still showcases Swift’s passion to move beyond impartial musicality into being a voice for people much less privileged.
“Miss Americana,” rated TV-MA, is available now on Netflix, as well as in select theaters nationwide.