In its opening scene, Taylor Swift’s new documentary Miss Americana looks set to demystify the relationship between celebrity and fan, using the artist that defined a decade of pop as a case-study.
Unfortunately, it never quite gets that far.
The film opens with Swift reading from her childhood diary, and telling the audience that “there’s an element to my fan base where it feels like we grew up together.”
Director Lana Wilson smartly lets the imagery drive the rest of the documentary – interspersing warm shots of Swift with friends and family with confessional-style pieces to camera in a way that cleverly manufactures intimacy.
The rapidly crumbling barriers between music idols and their listeners have given way to a new experience of fame, and new challenges. The social media generation demands access, relatability, and the appearance of reciprocity.
Despite setting itself up as a critique of the pop-star industry machine, Miss Americana ends up feeding the beast.
The documentary treads familiar ground early: Swift’s ongoing feud with Kanye West – which began when he infamously took the microphone from her during her acceptance speech to opine that Beyoncé should have won instead.
Wilson doesn’t linger on the ins and outs of the drama, rightly assuming that most of us know it already – but focuses instead on Swift’s reaction to her first-ever public humiliation.
A particularly harrowing shot of nineteen-year-old Swift standing gobsmacked in front of a booing crowd as West leaves the stage is played over Swift’s confession that she hadn’t realised the crowd was actually booing at him.
“I thought that they were booing me,” she says. For a young woman who’d built her identity on “getting people to clap for her”, this was devastating.
Even so, the narrative is frustratingly controlled. While West’s faux pas is now often read as a point (incredibly poorly made) about Black visibility in music awards, no one ever challenges Swift about the politics of the moment in question or asks her to wrestle with either her privilege or Kanye’s misogyny.
A video of the crowd at a Kanye concert, in which a crowd of mostly men sing Kanye’s lyric “I made that b**ch famous” before starting up a chant of “f*ck Taylor Swift,” seems to answer for us where she stands on the issue.
But the film neatly side-steps the question to instead critique online mobs, fame, and ‘cancel culture’.
Instead, the film lingers – sometimes compellingly, sometimes in ways that feel uncomfortably self-congratulatory – on Swift’s late political awakening, which sees her tearily argue to a panel of old, white men that she needs to speak up for once.
A brief explanation of her years of silence follows – her status as a young country artist influenced by the Dixie Chicks’ notorious blacklisting due to their comments on the Iraq War paired with a career’s worth of publishers and executives telling her that “a nice girl doesn’t force her views on people.”
Still, the documentary allows Swift to redefine herself as a political artist somewhat too easily, given how many years she spent as a straight-up pop star.
The most compelling part of the film comes when Swift confesses that for years of her career she struggled with disordered eating. Cut with a montage of talk show hosts complaining about her body, Swift explains the root of her mental illness – the need to be liked, praised, and thought of as good in an often-times incredibly sexist industry – in a way that clearly shows she’s been to therapy and is well into the process of recovery.
It’s a sobering moment, watching her cuttingly explain something most of us already know, at least subconsciously; that “there’s always a standard of beauty that you’re not meeting.”
No documentary can feasibly cover everything. To its credit, Miss Americana is tightly produced despite the scope of topics it touches (however lightly) on, and following the creation of two separate albums.
But it’s telling what the film chooses to focus on, and what it pulls away from.
As Swift told Billboard late last year about the process of writing her tongue-in-cheek smash hit Blank Space, “because I’m in the public eye people were allowed to shame me, joke about me, and make me feel like I was doing something wrong, [but] “In reality, I was a 24-year-old young woman who was meeting people and dating the way everyone should be allowed to.”
Yet in Miss Americana this complicated history is wrapped up with yet another montage of media personalities brazenly slut-shaming her. Neither Swift nor Wilson delve into the details of how this affected her or her relationships – likely (and understandably) to protect her privacy.
Instead, it’s bundled in with the evidence of how Swift’s body was also presumed up for debate – leaving viewers with cutting commentary on how the industry treats female artists, sans the humanity of more personal stories.
Similarly brushed over is the responsibility Swift clearly feels to her fans.
In footage of a meet and greets, Swift is kind but reserved and at times awkward as people cry and hug her. One young man tells her she looks “like a barbie” – a remark that reads as cutting given what we have just learned about her struggles with her body image.
Swift, of course, is obliged to thank him politely.
Next, a couple gets engaged as Swift is forced to witness in somewhat-pleased shock. She gives the new fiancée’s matching awkward high-fives before they leave.
In a scene where Swift– fully made-up and impeccably dressed– is ushered out of her hotel by multiple security guards as a crowd of screaming fans wait to catch just a quick glimpse of her, she tells the camera wryly that she is “fully aware that’s not normal.”
Later, in conversation with Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, she mentions offhandedly that a “fan” had once broken into her house to sleep in her bed. Neither of these things are mentioned again.
The dynamic vaguely recalls controversy which sprung up last year, when pop star Charli XCX’s fans appeared to use their power over her – as essentially paying clients at meet and greets and the people who determine her success – to cross reasonable boundaries.
But Miss Americana once again leaves this fascinating dynamic hanging. Swift is never asked how she really feels about it all. Instead, we’re subtly reminded that this is a documentary made for the fans, and it goes to great pains not to alienate them.
Ultimately, Miss Americana is a portrait of a woman just turning thirty, having grown up in an industry that tends to discard women by the time they get there.
“I’m running out of opportunities to reinvent myself,” Swift says, in a cutting critique of the fame machine that will nevertheless feel intimately relatable to anyone born into the internet age.
Miss Americana serves as a timely reminder that structuring your happiness around getting people to like you is dangerous. But in an ironic duality, it’s most apparent shortcoming is its careful construction of a narrative that the audience approves of while tiptoeing around what they presumably wouldn’t.
Image by Rachel Darling