Being candid gets you into trouble
Review: Miss Americana
I just caught up with the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, which mixes interviews and footage of her backstage and in the recording studio. As well as the usual puffery, it has some interesting things to say about what is fake and what is real, and about what it means to be ‘good’, all made more interesting by the difficult year we’ve had.
The film revolves around a couple of incidents, one of which is her recent foray into speaking about politics, where she backed a Democratic candidate for the US senate and criticised the incumbent, a ‘family values’ Republican. This was especially tricky for Swift – as a country singer she accumulated a lot of Republican fans, and she had previously studiously avoided talking politics. As one of her entourage points out, getting involved in politics is a great way to alienate half your fanbase. But Swift was determined to speak out, partly because she says that the kind of ‘Christian’ values espoused by many Republicans are not Christian. What’s also interesting about this, as she points out, is that there is a contrast between the expectations put on her to be a ‘good girl’ – to be quiet and compliant – and the need to speak out against injustice.
The other incident is the notorious 2009 MTV awards ceremony, where Kanye West, rightly labelled a ‘jackass’ by then President Obama, grabbed the mic and suggested Beyoncé should have won the award Swift had just been presented with. It’s an interesting moment for the fact that amongst the glitz we see Swift simply as a hurt and bewildered young woman. Partly this documentary is about Swift’s relentless desire for fame and then having to deal with it. The Kanye incident is doubly impactful because, as is explored in the film, Swift has carefully managed her career and image, and has received criticism for being too controlling and ‘fake’, for using her love life as a promotional tool and for staging herself as victim. (The film, while showing a more candid Swift, might not entirely mitigate charges of micromanaging her image.) And yet, she says, being candid gets you into trouble, and she tries to be ‘good’ by carefully watching where she treads. It’s a tightrope.
The film highlights the surreal world of pop stardom, where Swift can be talking casually with her family and staff while wearing a mirrorball dress and is then posing in front of rabid photographers or concert-going fans. The contrast shows what a construction the public persona is, how narcissistic it is, and how removed it is from real life. (At one point she says, after passing all the fans waiting at her apartment building’s front door, that she is well aware her life is ‘not normal’.) Swift seems smart and wanting to do the right thing, as she says, but the constant self-analysis, part of the wider scrutiny, seems unhealthy. The film shows the hollowness of fame. She says that when she won an award early in her career she realised she had no-one to share the win with. And after attaining her childhood goal of conquering the music industry she says she had a sinking feeling of ‘what’s next?’
The superficiality of fame has its darker side in her problems with eating and body image, something she seems to have overcome, but you can see, as she talks about it, how much of a hold the media’s portrayal of her had. There is recognition that celebrity ‘ideals’ for body shapes are unattainable, but this recognition comes after years of pain, as it does with many young women suffering similar problems. And Swift comments on how expectations on women are a lot more onerous than those for men, when it comes to being young and ‘fresh’.
All this becomes more poignant after the release of her recent, stripped-back lockdown albums (which have received mixed reviews), where the focus was on writing and recording music rather than posing in front of crowds, on substance more than image.
Miss Americana is streaming now on Netflix.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com