Taylor Swift is an easy target. She knows it. Her prodigious pop / country talents gave her a meteoric rise and accompanying scrutiny from fans in every political and social corner. At age 30, she’s keenly aware of the time limit inherent to being a woman on the main stage of American popular culture. Her relevance has already started to wane; by 35, she’ll be a nostalgia act. “Women stars need to reinvent themselves 20 times more than male stars,” she says. “Everyone is a shiny new toy for two years, and then …”
Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana is essentially an infomercial for Swift’s latest reinvention. But despite its inherently hagiographic nature — which is the point of this type of documentary — Wilson does a great job portraying Swift in an empathetic and contemplative light. What social responsibility do women hold in popular culture? How much of their success is determined solely by their ability to be precisely what audiences want, including those audiences with whom they vehemently disagree? And what does it mean to be politically active in 2020, as the costs of inactivity over the previous decade come due?
Swift’s 2018 album, Reputation (which also generated a Netflix concert film), failed to garner Grammy nominations in the most prestigious categories. The year before, Swift was involved in a high-profile court case against a radio DJ who groped her. As a person whose entire self-image was based on accolades and audience approval, these two events led to a reinvention of her public persona from America’s sweetheart to a more politically active pop star. Later that year, she made social media waves by endorsing the Democratic ticket in her home state of Tennessee versus Marsha Blackburn, who ultimately won anyway.
“When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to change their mind. They just don’t love you anymore.”
The primary thread of Miss Americana is Swift coming to grips with the change in how she is publicly perceived, and how she can use it. Her rise to stardom a decade ago was accompanied by extreme scrutiny and derision — the Kanye incident at the 2009 Grammys is covered in some detail — but also enormous and unmitigated success. Home-video footage and new interviews with Swift detail her lifelong desire to be loved by an audience, and the realization, as she faced 30, that she had nobody beside her to share any of it with apart from her mother. Wilson doesn’t dive deep into darker turns here; little is said about Swift’s various high-profile relationships besides the media circus surrounding them, and her mother’s battle with cancer is kept private. Swift’s eating disorders are briefly touched on as an example of how the constant attention has driven her to unhealthy expectations of herself.
By and large, though, Wilson’s focus is on the positive impact Swift aims to achieve now as an openly political figure. Her success during the early 2000s led to a reclusive stretch through the 2016 elections, and her activity in 2018 is, she hopes, setting a stage for a greater impact in encouraging young voters as the 2020 election nears. The question of whether Swift’s brand of liberalism — largely involving the Equality Act and support for relatively mainstream Democratic politicians, with a healthy dose of self-effacing comments about her privilege — is substantial enough for those with stronger belief sets isn’t something Miss Americana sets out to answer. It’s easy to write Swift off as the pinnacle of white feminism and not practicing proper intersectionality. At the same time, is “good” ever “good enough”?
I have my own feelings about it, but I think the documentary does a good job portraying Swift’s present status to her target audience: young women from pretty average, middle-class white families who are becoming more politically aware of the way in which society treats them, and what it expects from them, who face the same kind of pushback as Swift did about her choice to speak up. There’s a pivotal scene where she explains her decision to her father and managers, who resist her choice to make a public endorsement during the 2018 midterm election. They try to dissuade her, telling her half her audience will leave her, but she decides to make the choice to be active anyway.
It seems to have helped her. It’s a reinvention based on calculated awareness of our political climate — what pop-star is going to appeal to kids without being open to equal rights? — as well as her own beliefs and experiences. The subsequent scene of her on a couch debating whether to tweet out her choice feels decidedly siloed into a specific realm of political convenience. But it’s important for Swift’s audience to see that her story about expressing the viewpoint is aimed at those who say she’ll be worth less in doing so. Whether Swift is practicing in good praxis overall is up for debate, but at least she’s not staying silent anymore.