Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, “Miss Americana,” was released at midnight on Jan 23, and of course I stayed up to watch it the second it dropped. Taylor has inspired me since my pre-teen years, a constant reminder of the person I want to be: kind, intelligent, and (I realize this one especially is specific to me) an excellent writer. “Miss Americana” did nothing to decrease my admiration for the country-turned-pop musician, but reading people’s reactions to the film has furthered my understanding of why such a documentary, in which Taylor tells her own story, is crucial. While the film has mostly been received with critical acclaim, I’ve noticed that much of its opposition stems from people who harbor the view that Taylor is “calculated,” a word that has been used for years to criticize her and ultimately diminish her success. These people are reluctant to believe that the veil surrounding “America’s Sweetheart” is truly lifted, as the film is told from Taylor’s perspective and Taylor is clearly the one controlling the story.
Of course, the film is calculated—and this is not a bad thing. Taylor has been strategic throughout her entire career in a laudable attempt to stay good, stay relevant, and please the world that now holds a magnifying glass over her life. In the film, she chooses to show us clips of cowgirl-boot, sparkly-dress teenaged Taylor, not only to let us relive her exciting rise to fame, but to make her first major struggle in celebrity life—Kanye West interrupting her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs—that much more agonizing. She wants us to experience that fall with her, and we do, because minutes after watching a home video of a young Taylor unwrapping a guitar on Christmas morning and exclaiming, “I am happy!”, the last thing we want to see is her standing speechless on stage, while Kanye takes the microphone and the crowd boos (a reaction that Taylor thought was directed at her). She’s intentional with the home videos, interviews and performances she gives us in the film because she’s showing us the ways that she has changed and grown. And after over a decade of being scrutinized by the media and public, doesn’t she deserve the chance to tell us the story she wants to tell?
The film initially seems to have several shifts in focus, lingering on scenes of Taylor in the recording studio as she writes songs for her reputation and Lover albums before propelling us into another setback in her life that she wants us to understand. There is no “climax,” so to speak. Instead, we get alternating highs and lows, moods that can be sweet as sugar one minute and turn sour the next. This is what makes the film feel real. First, we listen to her talk about the way she’s wrestled with the pressure to be thin. Then we get a rare look into her relationship with boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, as she describes falling in love. We see her struggle with the case of the DJ who groped her during a photoshoot, and then we see her bounce back, stronger and with more wisdom. We watch her convince her management team that she wants to speak out on politics to, in her words, “be on the right side of history.” Without difficulty, one can identify the common thread through the various facets of her life we get a peek into: Taylor wants us to witness her growth and the specific ways it has come about. She wants us to see the ways that she has changed, and to do that she must touch upon the hardships that have affected her along the way, as well as the good stuff. She’s calculating in the way she portrays her life in stardom, but she isn’t manipulative. She’s not forcing us to watch the film. She isn’t telling us what to think.
The end of the film is a montage of performances and meet-and-greets paired with one of Lover’s best tracks, “The Archer.” We see Taylor greeting thousands of screaming fans from clips spanning her various eras before a voiceover begins in which Taylor says, in the last scene, “I want to still have a sharp pen and a thin skin and an open heart.” This ending doesn’t really feel like an ending but rather a summation of where Taylor understands herself to be at this point in time, with a hint in her confident tone that there is more to come. Taylor stays strategic with “Miss Americana,” but still allows herself to be vulnerable—and that’s what makes her so beautiful to me.
Born and raised in Sacramento, CA, Juliette Stoltz is a first-year fiction writer in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of New Orleans. She enjoys playing the piano, baking and running half marathons.