Taylor Swift needs your approval. She always has. As an artist and a woman, she’s been conditioned to do the right thing since she was a child. To live for applause. To measure her worth in pats on the head. “My entire moral code is a need to be thought of as ‘good,’” the mega-famous musician confesses at the beginning of Lana Wilson’s “Miss Americana,” a safe but sincere and enormously winsome documentary about Swift’s long road to self-acceptance. And yet, for someone who’s “built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you,” a single murmur in the crowd can be enough to tilt their world off its axis.
Absurd as it might sound to plebes like us, the Kanye incident at the 2009 VMAs was shattering for Swift. It pierced the thin veil of validation that she needed as a buffer between the diaristic intimacy of her writing and the global popularity of her records, and it precipitated a fraught period of her career where it felt as if the entire planet was trying to boo her off the stage.
Anyone who’s paid even a scintilla of attention to pop culture over the last 10 years already knows the words to this song: Every move Swift made was suddenly filtered through the most cynical lens that people could find. Every harmony became a scandal, every chorus became a coded message, and every attempt to rise above the fray only found Swift digging herself a deeper hole. The Grammys — an infallible awards show that has never had any problems whatsoever — didn’t even nominate the superstar’s hyper-reactive sixth album for the same prizes that her last record had won. Like so many people who powered their way into the public eye, Swift just wanted to be liked. And like so many people who have just wanted to be liked, Swift only trusted the people who made a bloodsport of denying her that satisfaction. “I became the person everyone wanted me to be,” Swift sighs, but when too many people wanted her to be too many things, her most reliable defense mechanism was soured into a recipe for self-loathing.
“Miss Americana” is made with the kind of conditional transparency that we’ve come to expect from authorized movies about famous musicians (Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga have all participated in similar documentaries for streaming platforms, to say nothing of glossy studio biopics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman”), and this confectionary portrait definitely functions as a sensational piece of PR. But the decision to hire Wilson — a dignified filmmaker whose “After Tiller” evinced both a deep concern for female agency and an uncompromising distaste for bullshit — suggests that Swift and her team weren’t wholly interested in propaganda. As Swift observes in the movie, powerful women are given the almost impossible task of being “strategic” but not “calculating,” and Wilson is so good at splitting the difference that some of her documentary’s most humanizing moments are beautiful for how they contradict Swift’s intention.
Private without being invasive, “Miss Americana” follows Swift almost everywhere she goes. Wilson walks Swift backstage, waits for her in her armored black Suburban, and sits across from her on the superstar’s private jet. Fans will lose their minds over the studio footage of Swift fumbling through rough drafts of their favorite songs. But certain things are off limits: Her actor boyfriend Joe Alwyn never shows his face to the camera, despite Swift giving a long soliloquy about her soul-completing need to call someone at the end of the night. And her mother’s breast cancer — which Swift explicitly sings about in the heartbreaking “Soon You’ll Get Better” — is only mentioned in passing.
Sometimes those redacted areas leave too much blank space for Wilson to paper over, but at other times they help narrow the movie down to the raw (and all too relatable) story of a girl who’s on the brink of 30 and still trying to find a sustainable measure of serenity. “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if your mom is sick from chemo?,” Swift asks the camera at one point. And in lesser hands, that moment would have settled as a rhetorical question from a beautiful and ridiculously powerful multi-millionaire who’s learning to delineate between the things she can control and the things she can’t. In the broader context of Wilson’s film however, that question doesn’t seem rhetorical at all. The answer is yes. You do always care. Selling out Madison Square Garden doesn’t stop you from feeling alone. Singing like you have nothing to lose doesn’t protect you from an eating disorder. The threat of losing your closest friend doesn’t inure you from the kindness of strangers.
The power of “Miss Americana” is in watching someone who stands astride the world gradually realize that her art is the only thing that she can control. If she can only hear the boos, it doesn’t matter how loudly the rest of the world is clapping, and so she might as well do what makes her feel good. Woke Swift, who rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the singer’s sexual assault trial, is an astonishing thing to see. By that point in the film, we fully appreciate how difficult it is for Swift to alienate any portion of her fanbase, though Wilson includes a heated debate between the articulate star and her overprotective dad for good measure. It’s a thrilling contrast to what happens a few minutes later, when months of careful preparation are poured into a single Instagram post (a hilarious moment that finds Swift and a publicist named Tree Paine swigging wine as they nervously jitter around the musician’s iPhone).
It’s truly enough to make you feel like an asshole for ever thinking that Swift was some kind of Aryan crypto-fascist, and not just a mega-famous young woman who didn’t yet love herself enough to be hated for her convictions. Some astonishingly high praise: Swift’s personal growth is so pure that it redeems the cringe-inducing poptimism of those first two “Lover” singles. By the time “Miss Americana” resolves as an unambiguous plea for young people to vote Trump out of office this fall — complete with a sweet new song to hammer the message home — it’s hard to fathom how people will find new ways to dislike Swift after this. They will (make no mistake, the internet always finds a way), but for now, Taylor Swift has done the right thing by ignoring what might happen if she did the “wrong” one. And she earns our approval.
“Miss Americana” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the the Documentary Premieres section. It will be available to stream worldwide on Netflix starting January 31.