People often say that you need to be objective to be a good critic, but I’ve often found that being invested in a work can illumine more pathways into what it’s trying to do and how well it succeeds. Of course, it’s not necessarily a “better” perspective, whatever that means, just a different one. Being a Swiftie, I find the Taylor Swift on screen in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (2020, aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana) to be a familiar presence from all of the interview and behind-the-scenes footage of her that already exists, some of which is used in this documentary. As Swift suggests in an early interview, also included, fame and career longevity have always been on her mind, and the film grounds such abstract musings in raw and emotionally vulnerable moments, captured as they happen.
Even so, the dominant cultural narrative of the second half of the 2010s was one of distrusting Swift, so it’s not surprising that most reviews have fixated on the question of how “authentic” a Taylor Swift we’re getting here, which also constituted part of the reaction to her releasing selected diary entries for the Lover deluxe album. But to me, that’s an unfalsifiable question: If she really is exactly like this when the cameras are off, unlikely as that may be, how would you be able to tell? As Matthew Panzarino writes in his review for TechCrunch(!), “What you won’t find in this doc is some sort of lurking personal demon. Instead, the demon is the way that internet culture reduces anyone with a modicum of fame to slivers of projected personality.”
A more productive way to look at the film, then, is by asking what story it’s trying to tell. We don’t get “gotcha” revelations because it’s not a tell-all; rather, it’s a bildungsroman. That might seem weird to say about a 30-year-old pop superstar, but as she says in the film, like many celebrities she’s stuck at the mental age when she first became famous. For me, the key theme of the film is how one can be extremely famous and achieve every trapping of worldly success, and deservedly so, due to a highly refined skill set, yet still be psychologically immature at heart. Anna Gaca, reviewing the film for Pitchfork(!!), says that Swift is “someone who’ll never have to work a traditional job, and who paid for that privilege by forgoing some of the wisdom ordinary folks earn in their teens and 20s. When you employ people to plan your schedule years in advance, autonomy becomes a more complex kind of challenge.”
As the film makes clear, her need for validation, sense of isolation, and megastardom combine to form a dark vortex of internalized misogyny, impostor syndrome, and disordered eating. What drags her out of it is, ironically, one of the worst things to ever have happened to her: not her mother’s cancer, which David Ehrlich points out doesn’t outweigh her other concerns but just adds to them, but rather her sexual assault and trial, which made her feel how much the world could use a voice like hers for more than just singing. As often happens, by focusing on others she saves herself.
Given the disparate topics broached in this lean 85-minute film, its team of editors (Paul Marchand, Greg O’Toole, Lee Rosch, Lindsay Utz, and Jason Zeldes) score a major achievement in somehow managing to make it all feel coherent. The only points without a smooth segue are intentional, to denote a shift into the next act, from past to present, from present to future. Backing up a lot of this are some well-chosen Swift songs; Wilson and her team select and highlight some lesser-known Swift songs that further showcase her talent to viewers who may only have heard her singles.
Surprisingly, the Pitchfork review doesn’t connect the film to Swift’s music; for that we have to turn to Wesley Morris, who mentions among other songs “The Lucky One” from Red. If Swift hadn’t taken a political turn, this might’ve been the film’s theme song instead of the post-2018 midterm election anthem “Only the Young.” The lyrics tell the story of a famous singer who didn’t find fame all it was cracked up to be, so she left; in the third verse (technically the bridge), Swift herself shows up and starts to come to the same conclusion. Miss Americana shows us how that realization affects Swift, and what she decides to do about it.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.