“Miss Americana” Shows Taylor Swift’s Human Side


Taylor Swift and Lana Wilson at the premier of Miss Americana at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23 // sahiwal.tv


On January 23, Lana Wilson’s film about Taylor Swift, Miss Americana, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The next week, it was released on Netflix, bringing it to a massive audience of all types: fans, haters, neutrals, and everyone in-between. The documentary offers a remarkable look into the life and mind of the mega-star, touching on topics from cancer and eating disorders to burritos and cats. In the way only Swift knows how, this film both stirred up controversy to many and humanized the singer-songwriter to more. This time, however, it wasn’t through lyrics mourning a break-up—it was through intensely personal glimpses into the politics, family, health, and rise of the woman learning to grow out of her role as America’s sweetheart.

Near the start of the film, wearing long socks and overalls, Swift tells the camera, “My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good.” This sets the stage for the rest of the documentary. After this admission, the film runs through a reel of how she rose to fame, from receiving her first guitar through her 2015 world tour for her 1989 album. The striking amount of home-videos included indicates the kind of environment Swift grew up in—one tainted with the pressure to always be perfect to the cameras, to be celebrated by those who she does not know but might see her through the lens of media. At the end of the highlight reel, Swift summarized, “I became the person that everyone wanted me to be.”

It is with this context that we move into the rest of the documentary. From a stationary camera, we see Swift learn that her 6th album, reputation, hasn’t won any Grammy nominations. With tears in her eyes and her voice breaking, she tells the person on the other side of the phone, “This is fine. I just need to make a better record.” Thus begins her journey writing her next album, Lover, of which we see many clips of throughout the movie. This pattern—heartbreak followed by writing—is consistently shown throughout the film.

Swift’s music is used as a backdrop for her deeply personal yet publicized journey. At one point, before she hit it big, she asked a small crowd to call the local radio station to play her first single, “Tim McGraw.” After she made this assertive request, she added a “please,” almost as an afterthought. This moment foreshadowed her tendency to go fiercely after what she wants while knowing that unless she is a good, polite girl, she won’t get it. Later, the film cuts between a 2015 performance of “Out of the Woods” and various media sources praising her. One would have thought that by then, she really was out of the woods of vulnerability and into an infinite clearing of invincibility. However, that turned out not to be the case at all. 

In the summer of 2016, the life Swift had so precariously built came tumbling down. She broke up with her longtime boyfriend, became entangled drama with Kanye West and his family, and experienced the true wrath of the internet when #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended #1 worldwide on Twitter. Her mental health rapidly dropped and she went dark on social media and all public sightings. “Nobody physically saw me for a year. And that’s what I thought they wanted,” she reflected. However, as this movie showed, the brokenness she felt was what gave her the time to rebuild her life on a sustainable, healthy foundation. 

The cover of Lana Wilson’s documentary // IMDb

Part of this growth came due to her mom, Andrea’s, battles with cancer. Swift credits this intense struggle with giving her the perspective she needed. “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today, “she said, “if your mom’s sick from her chemo[therapy]?” Another fuel for her healing was her budding romance with C-list actor Joe Alwyn. The film didn’t betray any details about the couple other than a few touching clips, but Swift said that their relationship, which was meticulously kept from the public eye, gave her “happiness without anyone else’s input.”

During this time Swift also recognized her eating disorder. For years, when she saw a picture of herself that she viewed as imperfect, it triggered her to, “starve a little bit, just stop eating.” She said that she used to think it was normal to feel like passing out in the middle of a show, and had to learn that eating is important for stamina and strength. Now, she works on “changing the [self-criticizing] channel in our brain” because she knows that the weight she has gained since has made her healthier and happier. In a movie full of honest reflections, this stuck out as a rare moment of truly unsettling vulnerability.  

Swift had to use all this newfound strength to handle her next obstacle: a sexual assault trial. In 2013, a radio host in Colorado groped her while posing for a photo, and after a series of suits and countersuits, a trial was held in August of 2017. The jury sided with Swift, awarding her the $1 she had countersued for. While haunting court drawings flashed across the screen, Swift displayed her incredible growth of character as she acknowledged her privilege throughout the whole process. She, one of the most famous people in the world and with photographic evidence, seven witnesses and more than enough to pay for the best attorneys, had a tough time getting through her trial. How might the process be for someone without any of those assets? “I was angry that I had to be there. I was angry that this happens to women… you don’t feel a sense of any victory when you win because the process is so dehumanizing.” 

This dehumanizing experience pushed her politics over the edge from strictly private to public activism. In the 2018 midterm election, Republican Marsha Blackburn was running against Democrat Phil Bredesen for an empty Senate seat from Swift’s hometown of Tennessee. Swift was appalled by Blackburn’s opposition to women’s and LGBTQ rights and wanted to break her precedent of silence on the political front to endorse Bredesen. Not everyone in Swift’s camp agreed she should speak out. The film shows a conversation between Swift, her parents, and two other white men on Swift’s team. The men argued against her proposed activism while Andrea defended her daughter. Scott, Swift’s father, said he agreed in her choice of candidate but warned against declaring it because of concerns over her safety. Eventually, a teary Swift said with conviction, “I need to be on the right side of history… Dad, I just need you to forgive me for doing it, ‘cause I’m doing it.” This dynamic was to be expected—earlier, she said, “No man in my organization of family will ever understand what [the sexual assault trial] was like.” 

Swift’s ensuing Instagram post collected millions of likes and caused extraordinary levels of voter registration, but Blackburn won the election. Said a devastated Swift, “she won by being a female applying the kind of female males want us to be in a horrendous 1950’s world.”

The film then circled back to Swift’s writing as a healing balm by displaying how she wrote her newest song, “Only The Young”, which was released alongside the movie and meant to inspire young voters and activists. “Break away from this,” Swift explained succinctly. “You can run from facism.” The song gives hope to the people who are at the same age Swift was when she was so extremely criticized for not having political opinions, those who are choosing to use the youth voice that she did not. 

As with any of Swift’s endeavors, Miss Americana hasn’t entered the world without some controversy. Many point out that the narrative is biased and left many unanswered questions. A lack of detail surrounding her relationship and her wealth, among other things, has been scrutinized. However, it is Swift’s prerogative to share what she pleases. She could have easily not created this movie. Just because the content has been calculated doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. A large part of learning to use her voice, the heart of this story, was learning to say what she wanted to and nothing more. Swift is not perfect, that’s for sure. But the point of this film was to dive deep into those imperfections, to reveal the human behind the face of Miss Americana herself. 

There’s one scene in the film that is especially telling. After a performance of her reputation stadium tour, Swift is grinning in the back seat of a car. “Oh my god man,” she says to no one in particular. “I’m so… happy. Everybody was so happy watching it.” The genuine joy she derives from pleasing other people is apparent. After all, that’s what drives the best entertainers. Perhaps, as suggested by this documentary, it’s also what breaks them.