Throughout her entire career, Taylor Swift has presented herself as the relatable girl next door. As a country star, she wrote songs every highschooler could relate to, she had celebrity crushes — see the song “Superstar” — and she loves cats and baking. To be one of the biggest stars in the world, Swift has managed to feel more down to earth than most, but her relatability was superficial. With her new documentary — “Miss Americana” — she lets the world in on what makes her tick, her fears and her insecurities.
The biggest of these insecurities is Swift’s desire for approval and fear of being disliked. “Pats on the head,” as she describes them in the film, were what she built her self-worth around — approval from fans, critics and the Recording Academy. The documentary takes viewers through the moments and controversies in the “Love Story” singer’s life that both amplified her need for approval and helped her to grow out of it.
One of these controversies is her decade-long feud with rapper Kanye West. The story has been recounted endlessly, but “Miss Americana” shines a light on how impactful the fight has been for the singer. A 17-year-old Swift was not just humiliated on national television — she was traumatized. Swift called the event a “formative experience” and the instigator for numerous “psychological paths” she went down. She also cites the feud as the reason behind her disappearance from the public eye in 2016.
The film touches on unknown territory for both fans and the general public alike. Most notably — Swift’s admission of loneliness. Loneliness, although an ordinary feeling, is a surprisingly private detail of the singer’s personal life to share. Having spent her entire career in several high-profile and heavily-scrutinized relationships, the revelation of loneliness is both shocking and humanizing.
Insecurities and vulnerabilities aside, the heart of “Miss Americana” lies in the discussion of Swift’s sexual-assault case and her decision to become politically active. In 2013, Swift was groped by a DJ before a concert. The DJ was consequently fired but proceeded to sue the singer for defamation, to which Swift responded by countersuing for $1. In 2017, the DJ was found guilty in court. In the film, Swift meditates on her feelings about the case — particularly anger and fear. She was angry that no one believed her, angry that she experienced victim-blaming in the court and — worse yet — she felt fearful for women in situations worse than hers, who had less evidence and less legal support.
“Miss Americana” depicts Swift’s sexual assault as one of the catalysts for becoming politically active — primarily through her support of Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen over Republican Marsha Blackburn in the 2018 Tenessee midterm election for the Senate seat. The film shows how adamant Swift is about speaking on political issues despite pushback from the men in her life. Audiences also get a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the singer’s LGBTQ+ anthem “You Need To Calm Down,” which encouraged viewers to sign a petition in support of the Equality Act — a bill passed in the House of Representatives in 2019 which would provide explicit protection from discrimination against LGBTQ+ people through the extension of existing civil rights laws.
At the time, Swift’s venture into politics seemed calculated. Many thought it was a response to the backlash she faced for her silence in the 2016 presidential election and felt “You Need to Calm Down” was an attempt at pandering to the LGBTQ+ community. However, the film shows how genuine the singer is about wanting to be on “the right side of history.” For instance, Swift showed visible outrage when Blackburn won the Tennessee primary. While filming the music video for “You Need to Calm Down,” she asks Jonathan Van Ness — “Queer Eye” host and outspoken advocate of the LGBTQ community — if there is anything she can personally do to help the cause.
“Miss Americana” is not a groundbreaking documentary. It does not shine a light on marginalized groups like Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” did for the LGBTQ+ community, and it does not let fans in on some unforeseen work ethic like Beyoncé’s “Homecoming.” However, it is an open and honest look at the life of a celebrity whose image was so carefully crafted early in her career. Fans and viewers alike get to see the complex and messy parts of the singer’s life. The documentary is an intimate look at what makes “Miss Americana” human — what makes her Taylor Swift.