miss americana

Taylor Swift Really Wants You to Like Her in New Doc 'Miss Americana'

Taylor Swift desperately wants people to like her. That could be read as an assumption inferred from the work she's done to connect with her fans and seem relatable as one of the biggest musicians on the planet, or the public positions (or lack thereof) she has taken. But after her new documentary Miss Americana, which premiered on the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and hit Netflix on January 31, that statement is simply fact. Swift comes out and says that she spent most of her life desperately craving approval, "pats on the head" from strangers. Her entire "moral code," she explains, is a "need to be thought of as good." 

It's obviously no surprise that a famous person wants to be loved by millions of people, but it's generally cooler to leave that unspoken. But someone as famous as Taylor Swift coming out and directly saying that's what motivates her is radical, and it's what makes director Lana Wilson's film another fascinating chapter in Swift studies.

The fact that the documentary had such a prime spot in the Sundance schedule was the subject of chatter and derision on the ground in Park City, Utah. After all, this is supposed to be a festival celebrating independent film and this could arguably be seen as a piece of hagiography from one of the biggest companies in the industry starring one of the biggest pop stars of all time. But there were some wrinkles to that thinking. Wilson's work merited interest on its own. The director is best known for After Tiller, a 2013 documentary about doctors performing third trimester abortions. Perhaps Miss Americana, then, would be more insightful than your average bit of pop mythology? 

At the post-screening Q&A -- where Swift's appearance was met with a standing ovation -- Wilson noted that in her initial meeting with her subject, the singer explained that she didn't like documentaries that felt like "propaganda." And yet Miss Americana is not not propaganda. It never feels out of Swift's control. It's another piece of image building, even as it is about Swift freeing herself from the confines of the image she had previously constructed. 

Wilson brings the audience into the studio sessions for Swift's most recent album, Lover, the camera watching as Swift plucks hooks and lyrics seemingly out of thin air, reacting with glee as she finds the perfect one. Swift tucks chips into burritos with her producer Joel Little, and puts ice cubes into glasses of white wine with her longtime friend Abigail. The star's relationship with food becomes a touchstone later on as, eventually, Wilson sits back and lets Swift narrate her own experience with an eating disorder. From the backseat of a car, Swift details how seeing any photos of herself used to be triggering, driving her to starvation in order to achieve a perfect, modelesque look. In one section, Swift obliquely tells the story of falling in love with the actor Joe Alwyn, offering up footage he clearly captured of her in states of romantic bliss. All throughout, there are cute moments with her three cats, and goofy glimpses at her abnormal life, like when she worries about spilling food on a "Rihanna shirt." 

As it condenses the story of her career into 90 minutes, Miss Americana also rehashes old incidents pretty much every person with a passing interest in pop culture knows all too well. Do we need an explanation of all of her run-ins with Kanye West? Not really. Do we get them? Yes. 

Miss Americana builds to a climax involving Swift's decision to finally make a political statement after years of remaining silent in an effort to appease, well, everyone. Swift talks in depth about her awakening after appearing in court to confront her sexual harasser, and how her upbringing in the world of country music had trained her to remain guarded, lest she suffer the same fate as her idols, the politically outspoken Dixie Chicks. 

When she announces that she's going to come out against Republican Tennessee senatorial candidate Marsha Blackburn, she faces intense pushback from her father, who is worried about her safety. This leaves her in tears, but she remains resolute in her choice. Wilson films as Swift, her mother, and her publicist Tree Paine drink giant glasses of white wine -- a recurring theme in the film -- and hit publish on that Instagram post. But this is also the section where you start to feel most distinctly the absence of any dissenting voice calling into question just when Swift decided to start resisting. Wilson never interrogates the privilege inherent in being able to orchestrate a political coming out the way Swift did that so many citizens are not afforded. It's one of the easiest holes that Swift's haters (who are going to hate hate hate hate hate) and even some of her more skeptical fans might poke in this narrative. 

Your mileage will vary with Miss Americana depending on how inherently fascinating you find Swift. I, admittedly, have always been a little obsessed with her. I've loved much of her music and captivated by her ability to be both self-aware and clueless at the same time. The documentary is an analysis of Swift, provided by Swift, requiring any critical viewers to read between the lines. But there's plenty to chew on in Taylor's own assessment of herself and her insecurities. For years, she wanted to be "good" without realizing what that word really means to her. She's still trying to figure that out.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.