Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s documentary on Taylor Swift, tells the story of a pop princess frozen in time and juggling self-esteem issues with truth-telling and politics. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.
Celebrity lives are famous for looking like a Coca-Cola advertisement and feeling more like an empty house after a party. This appears true of Taylor Swift’s life in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana, which is spent, largely, not in any of the musician’s lavish homes but in the nondescript white rooms of backstage areas and hotels. She is nearly always alone. When she is with others, they are most often doing the listening, facial expressions in neutral.
On the set of the music video for “Me!”, director Dave Meyers is filmed watching as Swift offers a biting critique of her own performance and appearance. “I have a punchable face,” she remarks, female perfectionism and insecurity embodied. The silence of the director here is striking: to disagree would be to contradict Taylor Swift; to agree would be to echo the cruel chorus of voices in her head.
Elsewhere, during recording sessions, producer Joel Little sits quietly at the sound desk, listening to the musician render her political opinions into songs for the first time, refusing to voice any of his own. Wilson shows us Swift as a female pop star in complete control, and also the underside of this existence, the loneliness of being one of the most powerful artists in the world.
Wilson has said she wanted her documentary to show a Swift to which any young woman could relate, although Swift’s “relatability” has always been one of the most contested aspects of her image. The all-American girl-next-doorness is one of the most beguiling ways she has sold herself and, judging by her album sales, we the public have happily consumed. However, in recent years, Swift’s attempts to appear “like one of us” have garnered criticism as manipulative and inauthentic.
As it happens, the moments of Miss Americana that show Swift in extraordinary circumstances are the most human. We watch as she receives a phone call from her publicist, Tree Paine, informing her Reputation has not been nominated in any of the “big four” categories at the Grammys. “This is good, this is fine,” Swift tells Paine, as the publicist scrambles to tell the pop star the other categories are yet to be released and reassures her it was a great album. “I’m making a better record,” Swift replies, bluntly. It’s heartbreaking and, for a brief moment, Wilson achieves her goal.
But other moments feel less considered, as though the director is trying to frame Swift’s reinvention as the perfect feminist empowerment narrative – a woman speaking truth to power and that power being the self-serving patriarchy. In one scene, Swift is challenged for her desire to “become political” by her team of middle-aged men who argue she should remain neutral rather than weighing into a political stoush. It raises many questions, namely, if Swift is a feminist businesswoman, why is the team that makes her most crucial decisions, besides her mum and publicist, made up of old white men? Surely, as the chief executive of a vast empire built upon her own talent, she is in a position to hire young women like herself to make up her team. Wilson leaves the audience to answer this for themselves.
In Miss Americana’s retelling, Swift’s political awakening was catalysed by a court battle with David Mueller, a radio DJ who assaulted her during a meet and greet in 2013. When Swift told her mum she had been groped, Andrea Swift called Mueller’s workplace, which promptly fired him. When Mueller sued the singer, she countersued for damages and won, claiming a token $US1. As a viewer, you want to be sympathetic to Swift in this moment. The experience of sexual assault is, of course, horrific – as is having to make a case for your story in court. But the film’s narrative presents her win as a win for all women – and it grates. How does her win really change my vulnerability as a woman to sexual assault and the societal, and perhaps legal, denial of its existence? If anything, it confirms an invisible truth: that power, beauty, whiteness and money do not protect a person from assault, but they can change society’s reaction to it – in subtle and dramatic ways.
Listening to Swift speak, it becomes clear she has almost certainly been to therapy and this has enabled her to create a newer, stronger narrative with which to make sense of her immensely privileged life. Hers is an evolution from an obsession with female “goodness” towards something more sustainable. Wilson draws candid interviews from the musician about the malignant ways this obsession manifested in her younger years – smiling, saying the right thing, demurring instead of disagreeing – and also in the disciplining and perfecting of her very thin, white body. Swift admits she starved herself, in response to photos where her stomach was too pronounced, needing not only an image of sexual prurience in her songs and interviews but also a body that seemed clear of desire, strong with self-control.
Swift talks about moving from a size double zero to a size six between her 2014 album 1989 and Reputation, released in 2017. By the time the latter album cycle began, she had emerged playing the villain, which predictably meant imitating/stealing, for the first time, from hip-hop and rap-inspired sounds. The album was by no means a flop – but its critical and commercial reception couldn’t compare to that of 1989.
At her thinnest and physically weakest – in the film she admits to routinely feeling as though she would pass out while performing during this time – Swift was also at her most commercially and artistically powerful. During the 1989 season, she received not only commercial success but also critical acclaim. She shed her much-mocked surprised face – “Who, me?” – for a clear-eyed businesswoman’s stare: “Yes, me.” Wilson cuts together a montage of Swift’s shrinking body and growing career alongside the musician’s descriptions of her disordered eating. The director seems to be asking: What is wrong with us, with a society that needs women to be completely enervated before they are respected for their art?
Wilson doesn’t seem to be afraid of discomfiting her viewers, although she must be aware that Swift’s ardent fans are those most likely watching this documentary. In one scene, the musician is shown walking out of her New York apartment and into a car, driving away from a huge crowd that she calls “her front yard”. I am one of those eager fans in the crowd, metaphorically speaking; how could I not be? Swift is one of the finest songwriters of her generation and one of its most compelling personas. But it’s clear that those of us gathered, in our desire for proximity – no matter how rich we’ve made her – are also part of the pressure that has made her life unbearable at times.
At the end of Miss Americana, Swift says that, like many celebrities, she was frozen at the age she became famous. It took her a lot of growing for her to catch up to 29. (The singer turned 30 in December.) Like anything she reveals, though, the line serves to only stimulate rather than satiate her audience’s desire for more biographical detail. I want to ask: What age was she frozen? How did that affect her psyche? How did she catch up? She remains oblique. I do not know whether it is Swift’s perfectionism or her desire for privacy that makes Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana so elliptical and fascinating to watch. But the film is a maths equation that promises us it has added up all the right answers, except all of the working out has been scrubbed away.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 22, 2020 as "Look what we made her do".
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