The new Netflix documentary “Miss Americana” impeccably reflects the arc of Taylor Swift’s career, swerving from interesting to insufferable somewhere around its midpoint. From the merciless grinder of 21st century fame, Swift emerged an opinionated college freshman, perpetually at the Thanksgiving table waving Howard Zinn in your face. That’s how she wants it.
Mostly chronological, “Miss Americana” walks through Swift’s career year-by-year, capturing her evolution from the girl who took Nashville by storm—America’s Sweetheart—to “Miss Americana,” the girl who “deprograms misogyny,” accuses Republicans of opposing “human rights,” and bravely fights the specter of “fascism.” It’s an extremely political documentary, which is fitting now that Swift styles herself as an extremely political person.
I honestly couldn’t tell who she hates more, Kanye West or Marsha Blackburn, the latter of whom gets as much screen time as Swift’s cats (which are very cute). Yet the documentary’s most interesting moment comes when Swift reflects on how deeply scarring West’s VMA interruption was, largely because it brought her face-to-face with her greatest fear.
“Miss Americana” shows how essential mass approval was to Swift at the onset of her career. That seems like an obvious point, pop stars need the “pop” part to survive, but for Swift, approval was everything, before and after fame, personally and professionally.
So when the VMA audience erupted in boos, and Swift didn’t realize the jeering was for West, the experience cut her deep—and the pain lasted. The best medicine, she decided, was to throw caution to the wind. Kind of.
The second half of “Miss Americana” finds Swift fighting management to come out against Blackburn’s Senate bid (well aware of the documentary crew in tow), performatively ranting about Blackburn in the backseat of a car, and mourning Blackburn’s election to the upper chamber. There’s some interesting footage of Swift in the studio, backstage with fans, at her piano, and with her mother. But then there’s her toasting to the Resistance and calling Blackburn “Trump in a wig,” which is about as creative as the vacuous lyrics to “You Need to Calm Down.”
It all makes a lot of sense. Swift deliberately shifted from craving mass approval to craving select approval, feeding on the plaudits of the people who matter, not the people in general. Swift is the kind of person who’s good at everything, so it’s no surprise she’s accomplishing her new goal of alienating the right kind of people with success too.
While she laudably took the time to “educate” herself before wading into politics, Swift didn’t come up with anything interesting, original, or even particularly educated to say. There are good arguments against the Equality Act, for instance, on both the right and the left. But when Jonathan Van Ness is asking you to support it, what could be so wrong about that?
Celebrities should feel perfectly comfortable speaking out about politics. But Swift is not Bob Dylan. She’s not even Madonna. She’s the ideological equivalent of a women’s studies major at Oberlin, plucked from the suburbs into a new world where abstractions like “deprograming misogyny” are considered acts of revolution.
When you say things like “I want to wear pink and tell you how I feel about politics” with the energy of a person who thinks they’ve just invented an earth shattering adage, people might start to dislike you, but it won’t be because you’re a Democrat.
There’s a telling moment at the film’s conclusion. Before stepping on stage one night, Swift attempts to reassure herself by saying, “No one out there that I know of in the audience actively hates me.” Of course, among the thousands of concertgoers, surely someone, some reluctant boyfriend, some paternal chaperone, actively hated her that night. For everyone except, perhaps, Tom Hanks, mass approval is impossible; controversy is inevitable. That was true before and after Kanye West, before and after Marsha Blackburn. What’s still not clear is whether Swift is actually OK with that.
This dichotomy persists in her music. “Miss Americana” ends, appropriately, with “The Archer” playing in the background, one of her last album’s truly compelling pieces of music. “Lover” has cringe-inducing politics, but it also has poetic personal reflections, steered by a muscle for self-awareness most people will never be forced to develop.
“It’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth. Like, forever,” declares Swift, minutes before the film fades to black. Here’s to hoping she comes up with something more interesting to say, because the Swift of “Miss Americana” sounded more like a Teen Vogue blogger than an artist. Celebrities. They’re just like us.