“For so much of my life in the public eye, when I get sad or sad or humiliated or angry or go through a really horrible time, I feel like people are trying to lean in. You never did that.” Taylor Swift spoke those words to her director Lana Wilson on stage in the minutes following the January 23 premiere of her documentary Miss Americana on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. That’s why, she explained, she felt so comfortable having the cameras around her even at her most vulnerable. The result is an insightful and intelligent look at one of, if not the biggest pop star of her generation.
And while Miss Americana does check the boxes of a prototypical music doc — old home video footage, a victorious awards show montage, glimpses of world tour exhaustion are all included — the focus here is on her future and not her past. (She doesn’t even really go there with her exes and her current boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, is only seen from behind. UGH.) Now 30, the onetime teen queen is does hiding behind the wholesome-good-girl sheen. She’s ready to fight back, and she has the arsenal to succeed. Here are the five biggest revelations, and kindly note that this list does not include her admission that she had never tried a burrito until two years ago.
1. She lives for approval
Granted, the need to feed off applause is de rigueur for anyone in the limelight. But what’s surprising here is that Swifts cops to it early and often. Reflecting on her teen diaries from 2003, she admits, “I needed to be thought of as good and do the right thing.” She strived for those approving pats on her head, and she knows her image as a Nashville starlet with flowy curly hair and a plastered awestruck expression helped cement her ascension. Still, her excitement at hearing herself on the radio and making a name for herself was genuine. In one recorded video, she opens an issue of Billboard and proudly notes that her new album is No. 60 on the country album charts.
2. The Kanye Moment caused “psychological problems”
The awkward scene at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards plays in its entirety, and, ahem, the clip has not aged well. Swift confesses that Kanye West’s decision to rush the stage during her acceptance speech for Best Female Video, grab the mic and praise Beyonce led to longstanding trauma. At the time, Swift was still considered a country music star, and when she heard the boos rain in the auditorium, she assumed the noise was directed at her because she didn’t belong in such edgy pop company. The experience was a “catalyst for psychological problems . . . that were not all beneficial.” Longing to prove herself worthy, she pushed herself hard for acceptance among fellow celebrities and the pop music industry.
3. She’s struggled with body dysmorphia
She doesn’t outright say she had an eating disorder (at least I didn’t hear it), but Swift discusses her body issues in a way that should hopefully inspire her impressionable young female fans. Talking from the backseat of an SUV in New York City (where fans and photographers swarmed her as she got into the vehicle outside her apartment), she explains that unflattering paparazzi photos and nasty social media comments used to send her into an emotional spiral. She starved herself to the point that she’d feel weak and dizzy while performing. If she became too skinny, she fretted over her lack of a curvy butt; if she put on weight, she worried she appeared pregnant. Swift says she has finally come to realize that maintaining a perfect standard of beautify “is f—-ing impossible” and “it’s better to look fat than sick.”
4. Her Grammy snub led to Lover
In one of the most insightful moments in the film, Swift is on the speakerphone with her publicist on the morning of the 2018 Grammy nominations. The voice on the other end breaks it to her that she was snubbed from the major awards for Reputation. A visibly miffed Swift pauses and then curtly replies, “This is good, this is fine. I need to make a better record.” Cut to her at a piano working out the chord progression for her pop ditty “Me!” Indeed, Swift is seen in her recording studio for much of the film as she smooths out catchy lyrics and musical arrangements for her Lover tracks while producers look on in admiration. In case anyone ever doubted it, her talent as a crafty songwriter and storyteller is the real deal. (Alas, Lover also came up empty-handed for the coveted categories in the 2019 Grammys, grrrr “Old Town Road”….)
5. She entered the political fray because of #MeToo
The need to please, the Kanye fiasco, the Grammy awards, the Twitter backlash that led to her 2016 hiatus . . . these are all building blocks to Swift’s transition into an outspoken feminist political voice. She says she was scarred by her experience being dragged into court because a DJ groped her during a backstage photo opp and got fired. (He denied it and sued her; she countersued and won in 2017.) As Swift puts it, she had photographic evidence and multiple witnesses and still had to fight for her rights —she couldn’t fathom what it must be like for non-celebrities who were also victims of sexual assault. A year later, she decides to stop hiding her beliefs and finally become politically active. With one Tweet, she throws her allegiance toward a Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee because his Republican female rival doesn’t share her women’s-and-gay-rights ideology. She does this despite strong pushback from her team and her dad, Scott Swift, who worries for her safety and cautions that she could lose half her audience. “I’m sad I didn’t do this earlier,” she replies with conviction. “Even if this doesn’t work, at least I tried.” It’s the only scene in the film in which she cries.
Miss Americana is available to stream on Netflix on Friday, January 31
Also published on Medium.