Taylor at the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Awards.
CC BY-SA 4.0 © Glenn Francis, http://www.PacificProDigital.com

On January 31st, Netflix released the hotly-anticipated Miss Americana, a documentary shining light on Taylor Swift’s personal life throughout her career. As a longtime fan of Taylor, of course I was excited for this production. However, even I was surprised at the depth and breadth of topics covered in this film. Most prominently, it covers the psychology behind Taylor’s life in the public eye – how chasing approval physically and emotionally destroyed her; how a harassment case changed her perspective on keeping quiet about women’s rights; and finally, what went into her choice to take a public stance in politics.

We see Taylor as young as 13 in Miss Americana, already writing songs and playing the guitar for her family. At 16, she came into view with a breakout track, “Tim McGraw.” And since then, she has never escaped the public eye again. Since 2006, Taylor Swift has made millions of fans, won 10 Grammy awards, and set records for album and concert ticket sales. But it hasn’t come without a price.

“My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good.”

Taylor Swift’s psyche is dissected in detail here, in ways super-fans will find new and intriguing, but also heartbreaking and painful. From the start, Taylor reveals that performing music for audiences has tied her self-worth and happiness to the sound of applause. “My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” she says in Miss Americana‘s opening scene. This will be one of the central themes the film explores: the price you pay for deriving happiness from the approval of others.

At 16, Taylor received a VMA for her video to “You Belong With Me.” In an infamous moment, Kanye West took the stage and interrupted Taylor as she was giving her acceptance speech. “Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,” he said on live television (in case you forgot). The live audience booed this move, while Taylor, a young country star receiving an award on a mainstream music stage, stood stunned on stage.

“I thought they were booing me.”

Taylor’s memory of standing on the 2009 VMAs stage while thousands booed resonated for years. “I thought they were booing me,” she says in Miss Americana. She never, ever wanted to feel that way again (like, ever). From that point forward, she was committed to being excellent. She had to prove to everyone (and, therefore, herself) that she was worthy of praise. That she was good enough.

In 2014, Taylor released a pop album so good that it’s often recognized as one of the best of the 21st century: 1989. The production was clean and sharp. The lyrics were A-grade as always (minus “Bad Blood,” but it’s still a mega-popular record-setting bop). It was, without any doubt, an excellent album – arguably her best ever. And it won her her second Grammy for Album of the Year.

But in the 1989 era, Taylor fell victim to Hollywood body-shaming. While chasing the most perfect version of herself, she transformed her body to be closer to that perfect image:

“There’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting. ‘Cause if you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everybody wants, but if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, then your stomach isn’t flat enough. It’s all just…fucking impossible.”

Taylor Swift, Miss Americana (2020)
Taylor during the 1989 concert tour.
“Taylor Swift 130” by GabboTCC BY-SA 2.0 

This is one of the most upsetting parts of the documentary – seeing someone as beloved as Taylor Swift struggling with body image issues. The can’t-win standards of the industry poisoned her mind, and the montage of news personalities criticizing her every action – from her weight to her dating life – is tough to watch.

Taylor has a reputation (wink) for playing the victim. In fact, this is maybe the most common complaint non-fans have about her. However, Miss Americana demonstrates in undeniable detail that Taylor really has been a victim in several ways. Taylor Swift isn’t alone in this regard; her experiences are shared by many entertainers, particularly women. Perhaps, then, it’s her outspoken opposition to the unfairness she’s faced that makes her an easy target.

In 2013, Taylor Swift was groped by a DJ at a meet-and-greet during her Red concert tour. In 2017, after the DJ had lost his job because of the incident, he filed a defamation lawsuit seeking $3 million. Taylor counter-sued for one single dollar. She ended up winning, but in Miss Americana says “you don’t feel any sense of victory when you win, because the process is so dehumanizing. This is with seven witnesses and a photo. What happens when you get raped and it’s your word against his?”

In 2016, #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended worldwide on Twitter. This followed Taylor’s angry reaction to Kanye West’s lyric “I think me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” The public cancellation of Taylor Swift came when Kim Kardashian-West shared Snapchat videos ostensibly de-bunking Taylor’s rage as an insincere drama-stirring tactic. In those videos, Kanye asks Taylor for her approval to use the line “I think me and Taylor might still have sex,” failing to mention the “I made that bitch famous” part (oopsies).

With self-worth tightly bound to public approval, this was game-over for Taylor. “Do you know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen?” she says in the film, regarding the hashtag’s rank on the Twitter’s trending topics at the time.

“When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to make them change their mind. They just don’t love you anymore.

Taylor disappeared from everything for a year. No social media posts. Very few appearances in public. And in Miss Americana, we see in-depth what happened in that year of isolation.

First of all, she was writing a legendary comeback album in reputation. But more importantly for her health, Taylor was experiencing a promising new relationship. “It was happiness without anyone else’s input. It was just: we were happy,” she shares.

Free to write a new album in peace, she still “felt like a wounded animal lashing out.” Her lyrics were a little bitter, and edgier than ever before (clock the first-ever swear word in “I Did Something Bad”). But they electrified fans and ignited the record-setting reputation stadium tour. Most importantly, Taylor began to identify her true source of happiness: her loved ones, and herself.

However, her drive to be positively recognized hadn’t died. We see her get the news from her publicist that reputation wasn’t nominated for any Grammys during the award season, and she’s visibly disappointed. “I’m going to make a better record.” she says, even when her publicist assures her “reputation is a great record.”

Miss Americana shows us behind-the-scenes clips of Taylor brainstorming lyrics and beats for her most recent album, Lover. With all the bitterness behind her, and a more centered foundation for her happiness, she crafted “sixteen to twenty” songs to include in this newest release (if you’re curious, 18 made the cut). Almost none of them showed any hint of bitterness or reference to past conflicts.

Around the halfway point in the documentary, the focus shifts to Taylor’s transformation from sweet country singer to political activist. In 2018, Taylor finally broke her silence on political matters. It seems that, following her trial in 2017, human rights became an issue she felt empowered to speak on.

“Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks.”

Earlier in the century, Dixie Chicks (a hugely popular country band that Taylor loved) lost their reputation overnight after criticizing then-President George W. Bush. In 2018, Taylor felt the drive to speak out against Marsha Blackburn, the Republican senatorial candidate in Tennessee’s midterm election, but the risks weighed heavy. What if she, too, flushed her career down the toilet for speaking disapproval against a political figure?

Despite the risks, Taylor spoke up.

In regard to Marsha Blackburn being a supposed proponent of “Tennessee Christian values,” Taylor says “I lived in Tennessee. I am Christian. That’s not what we stand for.” For reference, Senator Blackburn is an outspoken opponent of two issues that matter most to Taylor and those close to her – women’s rights and gay rights. In a conversation with her publicist, Taylor says “I think that it is so frilly and spineless of me to stand on stage and go ‘Happy Pride Month you guys!’ and then not say this when someone is literally coming for their neck.” For Taylor, speaking up became less of a choice each day. She had (and still has) the power to make a difference.

So she did it. We see the moment when Taylor Swift posted her first political message ever – backing the Democratic candidate in Tennessee and encouraging fans to register to vote. We know today that Marsha Blackburn won the election in Tennessee, but within twenty-four hours of Taylor’s post, 51,308 more Tennesseans had registered to vote in the state.

Taylor’s decision is consistent with her personal growth. Taylor may be an incredible artist, but she’s not a miracle worker, and she can’t please everyone. Could this polarizing moment have cut her fan base in half? Sure. But if the album sales for Lover are to be believed, Taylor had little to lose and much to gain with this choice. Her political message is true to who she is and what she values, and this braveness is a huge “Yes, queen!” moment in the film.

Miss Americana finishes with feminism wrapped in a pretty bow:

Image: Cosmopolitan UK; CC BY 3.0

“I’m trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people, on how to de-program the misogyny in my own brain – toss it out, reject it, and resist it. Like, there is no such thing as a slut. There is no such thing as a bitch. There is no such thing as someone who’s bossy. There’s just a boss. We don’t want to be condemned for being multifaceted. Sorry, that was a real soap box. Why did I say sorry?

Sorry, was I loud? In my own house that I bought with the songs that I wrote about my own life?”

Taylor Swift, Miss Americana (2020)

In the closing moments of the film, it’s hard not to feel inspired. Taylor Swift, one of the most famous artists this generation, has human struggles like the rest of us. The exposure of these struggles makes Taylor even more likable and relatable. She may be famous, but she has been abused too. She may be famous, but she has something to say about politics, too. She may be famous, but fame is not what has made her happy.

I’m a super-fan, but even I wasn’t expecting Miss Americana to be as insightful as it is. It is a captivating peak behind the curtain of one of today’s most popular celebrities, and it isn’t afraid to go in-depth into personal issues that we’ve only heard and read about through Taylor’s songs and headlines. It humanizes Taylor as we watch her learn to navigate some of life’s toughest struggles, all in the public eye. Miss Americana speaks on women’s rights, gay rights, sexual harassment, and mental health, when its minimum bar was just to show us more of Taylor Swift. It’s a bravely sincere documentary that should please fans and secure Taylor’s status as a heroine for the modern masses.