Sam Brooks watches Netflix’s Miss Americana, the new Taylor Swift documentary – and finds it light on revelation, heavy on image rehabilitation.
“My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good. It I was all I wrote about, it was all I wanted. It was the complete and total belief system that I subscribed to as a kid.”
Taylor Swift’s plaintive voiceover opens Miss Americana, the new Netflix documentary that covers the past 15 years of the musician’s headline-dominating life and career. The scene goes onto show Swift composing ‘Ready for It?’, the song that opens her sixth studio album Reputation. She plays a piano as a kitten wanders across the keyboard, then looks through some old journals, laughing at the candor of 13-year-old Taylor, and the pretentiousness of a preteen writing with a quill and ink. She rolls her eyes at herself, quite rightly.
It’s a revealing scene, but not quite in the way it was likely intended. From the outset, it’s clear that this is Taylor Swift as she wants to be perceived: chill, focused on the music, willing to laugh at herself. And ultimately, not the woman you’ve probably hated at some point in the past 15 years. The scene isn’t just about offering a peek behind the curtain of Swift’s celebrity life – it’s also about attempting to rehabilitate her in the public’s eye.
So, business as usual for a popstar music documentary. Or at least, you know, a female popstar music documentary. We don’t expect this kind of curtain-peek, image-rehab, career justification from our male pop artists – because we’re nowhere near as harsh on them. This documentary is not the full-on beatification of Beyonce’s Life is but a Dream, nor the slim concert-doc that was Katy Perry’s Part of Me. And it’s definitely not Madonna: Truth or Dare, as caustic and self-destructive as a documentary about (and authorised by) a tremendously famous person can get.
In the female-popstar-documentary pantheon, Miss Americana sits closest to Lady GaGa’s Five Foot Two. As with that documentary, the most fascinating question in Miss Americana is not what Swift is revealing about herself, or exactly how she wants to reframe herself, but why she wants to be seen that way. Why is it so important for her to be seen as the good girl, and so important for people to like her? The answer to the latter is easy – because it’s a basic human desire. It’s the first question that the documentary focuses most on unpacking. And it’s no surprise that a girl who grew up in the sexist, politics-averse, Dixie Chicks-crucifying American south would find value and safety in being seen as the good girl.
That’s not to say that the documentary isn’t revealing about Swift and her private life, or at least what counts as a private life when you’ve spent more of your life in front of cameras that you have away from them. She discusses her innermost thoughts – about how she felt after winning her second Album of the Year Grammy, her struggle with her public image, and her desire to feel good. One of the best moments, dispensed with early on, revolves around the infamous Kanye 2009 VMAs moment. She says that because of the venue’s acoustics, when she heard the audience boo Kanye, she thought they were booing her. “For someone’s who built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty … formative experience.”
In that pause, Swift effectively reframes “Imma let you finish” as not just part of pop cultural history, but as a deeply formative experience for a real-life human being. These kinds of reflections are sprinkled throughout the documentary, albeit with diminishing returns. Other controversial moments in the Swift timeline – such as her infamous Hydra-esque girlfriend group (“the squad”) and the leaked phonecall with Kanye – are barely even mentioned, and their absence strengthens the impression that Miss Americana’s main purpose is image rehabilitation.
The real joy of the documentary is seeing the artist behind the popstar. Swift’s main selling point as a musician has never been what she can do as a performer – she’s never been much of a singer or dancer – but what she can do as a songwriter. While she’s received a lot of flack over the years for her confessional lyrics, she rarely gets the praise she deserves for crafting songs with more hooks than Clarke Gayford’s backpack, ones that get stuck in your head for years. The most joyous moments of Miss Americana come when Swift is in her element, not performing live or winning awards (and we see pretty much every award she’s ever won) but in the studio, riffing and composing on the fly. We see elation spread across her face when she lands on a classic hook, or a perfect rhyme. We see a stripped back, production-free version of ‘ME!’, her overproduced 2019 blunder of a lead single, and it shows us how strong the song’s musical bones actually are. These sequences are less image rehab than a reminder: she’s not the headlines, she’s the songwriter who made those headlines possible.
But, as ever with these sorts of things, the very best moments are the accidental reveals. There’s still a perverse pleasure in seeing someone famous reveal their eccentricities, like the number of ice cubes Swift puts in her white wine – which is, to be frank, unhinged – or the fact that she hadn’t eaten a burrito until two years ago. In that same scene, in a tired, late-night studio session with New Zealand production superstar Joel Little, the two have a frank discussion about parenting. Little says that nobody’s ever ready for that sort of stuff, but they figure it out, to which Swift responds: “I kind of don’t have the luxury of figuring stuff out because my life is planned two years ahead of time.” Album releases, tour dates, and even documentaries, it seems.
Miss Americana is not especially satisfying as an insight into Taylor Swift the popstar, famous enough that every action and Instagram post is a capital-S Statement. It’s far more successful, and fascinating, as an attempt to bridge the tragic gulf between Taylor Swift the persona and the person behind it, for whom public opinion has never stopped oscillating brutally between near-universal love and near-universal hate. The sad thing isn’t that she wanted to make this documentary. It’s that she that as a woman, as a popstar, as an artist under more spotlights than any celebrity of the 21st century, she felt like she had to.
Miss Americana is streaming on Netflix now.