Film & Television

‘Taylor Swift: Miss Americana’ — A Pop Star Finds
A New Voice

In 2004, Taylor Swift, the prodigious singer-songwriter, became, at just 14 years old, the youngest recording artist signed by Sony. Her first album, which went triple platinum, was released the following year. But she didn’t really make it onto my radar until 2008, when two things happened. 

One, my daughter, then 11, asked for Swift’s second album, Fearless, for her birthday. I confess that, while I found the tunes pleasant in a pop-music sort of way, I was not all that impressed. In fact, as a former English major, I was mildly irritated every time the hit “Love Story” came on and she cooed “You were Romeo and I was a scarlet letter and my dad said stay away from Juliet.” (Had the girl read any literature at all?)

The second thing that happened was that she was profiled in The New Yorker, a magazine that has never suffered fools gladly. The story, by Sasha Frere-Jones, was titled simply “Prodigy,” and pointed out, “Though prodigies are always surprising, the surprise is only in degree, not category; what is surprising about Swift is her indifference to category or genre. She is considered part of Nashville’s country-pop tradition only because she writes narrative songs with melodic clarity and dramatic shape — Nashville’s stock-in-trade. But such songs also crop up in R&B and rap and rock . . . Swift is not an agent of revolution; she, much like Beyoncé, is a preternaturally skilled student of established values. Her precociousness isn’t about her chart success, but lies in the quality of her work, how fully she’s absorbed the lessons of her elders and how little she seems to care which radio format will eventually claim her. Change the beat and the instruments around the voice, and her songs could work anywhere.” 

In other words, ladies and gentleman, Swift is the real deal.

Twelve years on, the documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson, certainly reinforces Swift’s image as a preternaturally gifted young musician. However, it also focuses on the superstar’s loneliness, insecurities, and a rising sense of social responsibility as she nears her thirtieth year.

Miss Americana starts off with Swift looking through the diaries she kept as a young girl. Her ambition, imagination, and writing skills are already on display. This is the story of a talented (and fortuitously beautiful) little girl who got a guitar one year for Christmas and never looked back. Her family, supportive from day one, moved from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. Her mother continues to tour with her and is described, unironically, as Swift’s best friend.

The documentary, promoted by Netflix as “raw and emotionally revealing,” is intimate, focusing as often on a make-up-free Swift in flannel pajama pants as it does on the glittery pop goddess she becomes onstage. Tabloid fame is presented as a curse as well as a blessing. Swift, described by many as a princess, is candid and articulate about her body issue challenges after near-constant media scrutiny resulted in an eating disorder. “I can be a size six,” she declares (the woman is 5′ 10″); “I don’t have to be a 00.” We see her disappointment, then determination, when she isn’t nominated for a Grammy: “I just have to make a better record.” She opens up about her shame when Kanye West pulled the microphone away from her at the 2009 Grammy Awards to announce that Beyoncé should have won. (“I thought they were booing me,” she admits—an excruciatingly painful confession for a woman who grew up on constant praise.) And she explains the impact of her legal battle with David Mueller, the radio personality who groped her in a publicity photo and was consequently fired. He sued her for defamation and damages; she counter-sued him for sexual assault. (It should be noted that he sued for millions and she for one dollar.) The experience gave her a sense of awareness and empathy she hadn’t known before. “I had six witnesses and photo evidence, and I still had to fight to be believed,” she recalls. “What happens to the woman when it’s her word against his?” 



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