Miss Americana, Netflix's new Taylor Swift documentary, is both slick PR product and cutting pop critique

Taylor Swift has always been as fascinating as she is divisive — as a mainstream musician, as a cultural obsession, as a supposed pop confessionalist. Tabloids have speculated breathlessly about her relationships, her feuds and her friendships, and yet the most she has personally let us in on her life is through her lyrics, which have long been considered vulnerable diary entries set to buzzy, danceable melodies.

I'll admit I once approached Swift with a sniffy condescension. I saw her celebrated switch from country to pop as opportunistic rather than organic, and I was dubious of the authorial control she reportedly held over her own music and image. But I've been proven wrong, not only by Swift's longevity but by the sheer irrepressibility of her songs, and I've been converted from skeptic to casual fan.

So I watched Miss Americana, a new feature-length Netflix documentary about Swift, with about as much appreciation as cautious incredulity. Either this film is a carefully calculated PR campaign, or a rare instance of a famously private celebrity granting us unadulterated access, however brief, into her universe. Or maybe it's both, because perhaps those things don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

Lana Wilson's film neatly bisects Swift's career into two distinct eras: There's the rise of Taylor Swift the politically neutral superstar, followed by the recent emergence of Taylor Swift the opinionated individual. The first half of the doc is presented in a rush of media coverage, a breathless montage illustrating Swift's rise from girl-next-door country ingenue to Top 40 crossover, the revolving door of A-list boyfriends, the infamous moment when Kanye West interrupted her during the MTV Video Music Awards, the hatred she regularly inspires online. The second half, meanwhile, has Swift talking candidly about the unfair scrutiny with which she views herself, her struggles with an eating disorder, and how a self-imposed exile refocused her career.

And then there's the moment Swift, raised in an industry that shuns divisiveness, finally gets political. Much of this was spurred not only by a sexual assault case Swift brought against a Denver radio DJ who groped her in public, but by the 2018 senatorial election in Tennessee. Despite misgivings from her management, Swift took to social media to denounce Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn, a surprise coming from a high-profile celebrity who had heretofore been totally apolitical.

We see all the behind-the-scenes machinations of that decision — how Swift's father worries about it affecting her career and her safety, and how the statement itself is meticulously worded and vetted before it's uploaded online. It might seem ridiculous to treat an Instagram post as an act of defiance (or even as an act of minor heroism), but it made national news and was even credited with inspiring a minor bump in youth voter registration in Tennessee.

Miss Americana has been advertised as a more personal portrait of Swift than we're used to, but as with any pop star documentary, the moments of truth are shot through a Vaseline-coated veneer. The vulnerabilities we're allowed to see, after all, have been handpicked at the behest of the artist herself.

But in the ways it dissects the harsh truths about the ways women are treated in stark contrast to men, Miss Americana kind of makes a case for that exact kind of premeditation. That might sound like a weird contradiction, but then again, being Taylor Swift is fraught with inherent contradictions. She says so herself: She has to keep reinventing herself to appease critics, though the very act of reinventing herself makes her seem less genuine. She wants her songs to sound effortless, as all the best pop music is, but being too effortless makes it appear as if she isn't trying hard enough. And if she speaks out about her beliefs, she's shunned into silence. Silence, meanwhile, is cowardly.

In that sense, the carefully manicured image that is superstar Taylor Swift comes across less like a craven calculation than mere defense mechanism. "It's time for me to take the masking tape off my mouth," Swift says near the end of Miss Americana. "Like, forever." ♦

Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival @ Gonzaga University Jepson Center

Through Feb. 5
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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.