Full disclosure: I love Taylor Swift. I’m that girl who woke up her whole family at five in the morning to listen to Lover, her latest album; who skipped double French in lower sixth to bag a prime spot at her Reputation tour; and who, I shamefully confess, waited outside the St. Pancras Hotel for four hours to watch her film the music video for the single I Don’t Want to Live Forever.
So, trust me when I say: don’t bother watching Miss Americana.
I had high hopes for this 85-minute long Netflix documentary directed by Lana Wilson. The film follows the last few years of the star’s life as she attempts to reinvent herself from America’s sweetheart to pop icon-cum-activist. Marketing for the film promised revealing insights into Swift’s private life, which has remained firmly veiled since the 2016 ‘Taylor Swift Is Over Party’ destroyed her public image and drove her into hiding for over a year. While in the trailer we see her preparing to finally break her political silence during the 2018 midterm elections, interviews given by Wilson prior to the documentary’s release teased even greater revelations, including her famously private relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, struggles with an eating disorder, and her mother’s cancer.
Unfortunately, Wilson seems to have spilled all of Miss Americana’s best secrets before its release.
Granted, Swift does address some of the more infamous moments in her career, but for someone wanting to come across as raw and genuine, she does a staggeringly poor job. Everything she says sounds like it has had to be approved by three different publicists, four label executives and her mother before she says it. I don’t think she once appears on camera without make-up. About the notorious incident at the 2009 VMAs when she was interrupted onstage by Kanye West, Swift merely offers the mechanical soundbite that it was a ‘formative experience’.
Other voices could have shed fresh light on these old controversies, but by having Swift as the sole interviewee, Miss Americana fast becomes a tedious panegyric to the popstar. Wilson looks back at her 2016 feud with West over whether or not Swift had given her blessing for his track Famous, in which she is referred to by the lyric ‘I made that bitch famous’. Once again turning down an honest and transparent discussion, Swift goes over old ground and refuses to view her role in the scandal in any light other than as a victim – and there is nobody to say otherwise.
Swift is similarly selective when discussing her political activism. After publicly voicing her opposition to the anti-women, anti-gay and self-proclaimed ‘hardcore conservative’ candidate Marsha Blackburn, Swift congratulates herself on refusing to be ‘muzzled’ anymore. But the film doesn’t tell the whole story: what exactly was it that made Swift, who was rumoured to have performed at the 2008 Republican National Convention, suddenly decide that enough was enough? Why does she think that the music industry holds women in particular to these kinds of oppressive and outdated standards? Aside from feminism and gay rights, what are Swift’s wider political views? What could have been an important exploration of the role of politics in the music industry ends up being yet another segment where we see Swift smugly patting herself on the back.
It isn’t all bad. Occasionally Swift lets the mask drop, and these are the film’s best moments. A 20 second clip of Swift running into Alwyn’s arms after a show gives us the smallest glimpse into her love life, and she is startlingly candid about her past body-image troubles, admitting that while performing she would sometimes feel like she might faint from starvation. At the times when Swift does not sound like she’s reciting from a carefully crafted script, she comes across as articulate, intelligent and even funny. After she instinctively apologises for speaking too forcefully during one of her interviews with Wilson, Swift sarcastically corrects herself, joking ‘was I being too loud in my own house, that I bought, with the songs that I wrote, about my own life?’.
These moments, as well as the montages of vintage performances and a preview of Swift’s latest track Only the Young, might just be enough for me and other die-hard fans to reach the end of the film with the same view that Swift shares about year long hiatus: ‘It was really horrible, but I was happy.’ I fear that others may feel differently, and I fear they may be right.