It’s lonely at the top. Nobody knows it better than Taylor Swift. The country-turned-pop star, girl-next-door, singer-songwriter extraordinaire reveals her behind-the-scenes life in what seems to be the only form of media she hasn’t yet touched: documentary. In director Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (2020), Swift’s rise to fame is documented in the generic montage format a celebrity documentary can be expected to have, but the pops of vulnerability exhibited by the star’s inner thoughts will leave fans and critics alike able to contemplate the most candid version of Swift to reach the media so far.
A woman of many faces and phases, Taylor has rotated from public adoration to hate and back again in her indisputably successful career: from her blossoming as the curly-haired, guitar-strumming teenager singing love ballads on Fearless, to her 2009 VMA acceptance speech steal by Kanye West, to her recent emergence as a Democratic supporter in the 2018 Nashville Senate race, and finally, to the release of her two alternative folk albums of 2020 that represented uncharted territory for her.
Despite all of her success, Taylor’s diligence hits you fast. She lays out her moral code before the title even rolls across the screen. “… a need to be thought of as good… it was the complete and total belief system I subscribed to [as a kid].”
“I’d been trained to be happy when you get a lot of praise,” she continues as she flips through pages of diaries from her youth, one of which lists her career aspirations that she penned at the ripe age of thirteen. “I was so fulfilled by approval that… that was it.”
That was it. That is it. Taylor’s driving quest seems to be to reach the peak of the never-ending climb toward total adoration. Total goodness. It is easy to imagine the satisfaction of performing to crowds of thousands, the sounds of their praise overflowing your cup. But what happens when the adoration turns to contempt? When your self-esteem is founded on the fickle approval of strangers? Taylor learns the difficult way.
When the 2018 Grammy nominations are announced, Taylor lounges on the couch in pink sweats and velvet socks, alone, aside from the company of the camera filming from below and her cat perched next to her. When her manager informs her that her comeback album, Reputation, wasn’t nominated for any category, she swallows hard—it’s a blow, and the pain sits on her face. She visibly holds back tears. There is no one she can share this moment with. Instead of expressing any outwardly pointed unhappiness, however, Taylor sets her jaw and simply says, “That’s fine; I need to make a better record.”
Taylor’s self-criticism spirals out of control with the confession of her eating disorder that stemmed from constantly picking apart her own photos and reading the plethora of negative headlines written about her. She crumbles after the release of a secretly recorded conversation between her and Kanye West, which causes the media to overwhelmingly turn on her. #TaylorSwiftisOverParty is the number one trending hashtag on Twitter globally. For someone who has built her life on the praise of others, this event could have been the final straw.
However, after a period of nursing bitterness, she slashes back with Reputation, which may have lost Grammy nominations, but gave Taylor her voice back.
On a more lighthearted note, the film shows Taylor with various collaborators, spinning music seemingly out of thin air, as the lyrics flow from her lips with little effort. There is no doubt that storytelling is her superpower. Seeing the process is unsurprising—we knew that Taylor Swift is a lyrical genius, so watching her create becomes the least captivating part of the documentary.
We see her metamorphosis from apolitical to political with her decision to publicly support Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen in the 2018 midterm Senate elections, much to her PR team’s dismay. With her strong Republican fanbase, they speculated that Taylor’s decision would anger many of her supporters. Taylor stood adamantly against their advice, and this is the most intense and passionate Taylor we see yet—one who seems to have blossomed into someone whose confidence no longer hinges on being universally liked. She is finally willing to embrace criticism in return for standing up for what she truly believes. It is a refreshing step of growth. “It really is a big deal to me,” Taylor says, voice breaking. Finally, Taylor has found a cause bigger than her own career.
Still, as personal as this documentary is, it is easy to feel as though we are still swimming on the surface of Taylor Swift’s story. Her beloved mother Andrea has cancer during this time—and yet her illness is rarely discussed. Taylor’s romances are also omitted, though this may be purposeful, as they have already been the most talked-about aspect of her public persona. Miss Americana leaves us with a clearer picture of who Taylor is, yet we are still yearning to know more. Perhaps this is the right amount of mystery required for Taylor’s future reinventions.
Taylor is a deeply complicated, multifaceted entertainer who is sure to keep surprising us. Lana Wilson captured a woman in her downfall and subsequent reconstruction, leaving us with excitement about where she is to go from here. Let’s hope Taylor continues to let us in.