People Pleasing In A World That Hates You: ‘Miss Americana’ and Embracing Imperfection
“I wish I didn’t feel like there’s a better version of me out there.”
Like her or not, Taylor Swift is one of the biggest stars on the planet. She has been around for so long that much of her originally teenage fanbase is now on its way to adulthood. She’s young, tall, pretty, talented, probably incredibly rich. Even more extraordinary: she has the luxury of embodying a deeply American narrative, one of an endearing musician with nothing but a guitar and a good voice rising to stardom solely through her own willpower.
Yet the way Swift talks about herself doesn’t quite reflect the mindset expected of a music industry powerhouse. If anything, she seems to consider her career as a ticking time bomb. As her thirtieth birthday approaches, she admits that the album she is writing as the time of filming, one that will become Lover, feels like a last chance. Even as she talks about the public side of her life, more private anxieties about growing up, motherhood, and the general uncertainty of adulthood sometimes slip. Under the watchful eyes of cameras, tabloids, anonymous fans and famous haters, the personal and the professional never had a chance to stay separated for long.
Wilson isn’t interested in what we think we already know about Swift. She’s not there to feed into what a morbidly curious audience would want. You won’t get to know much about her love life, past and present — there’s been enough about that in the press for a lifetime. Nor will you get more fuel added to dramas from years ago or gruesome details about trauma that may not be healed completely. Anything you will learn about Swift will come from her own mouth.
As a result of this complete trust in its subject, Miss Americana can feel like it tries to tackle too much for its short runtime. We get hints of Swift’s inner conflicts and snippets of her internal monologue, but staying focused can be hard as we jump from one subject to the next before having time to digest what was said. This, however, might exactly be the point of the film. Maybe it’s a bit messy, but it is her story. It will be told at her pace, with her words. There’s something beautiful about witnessing that. To her, there’s also something entirely terrifying about living it.
Through all the stages of life that Swift explores in Miss Americana, a same concern comes up over and over again: her need for approval. Cameras have always been on her, tracking her every move and judging her every word. She reflects on her need to be liked with melancholy at some stages; with shame at others. ‘I used to starve a little’, she says in an unexpected confession of her past eating disorder, obviously uncomfortable, her eyes darting away from the camera. There’s the downfall of celebrity for you: the era where she looked the happiest was the one she was most miserable. It takes a lot for a perfectionist to admit that other people’s idea of what she should be may not be the right one. Sometimes, she slips, doubting herself, thinking of the love she gets as something with an expiration date. But for the most part, she’s getting there.
The scenes taking place in the studio show a different side of Swift’s happy place. This isn’t the face she shows to the cameras. There’s no calculated attitude, no too-tight-to-breathe dresses, no choreography. Just her, a producer, and the music she wants to make. In these moments, it doesn’t really matter whether you think of ‘ME!’ as a catchy song or as something that makes you want to rip your ears out. It feels like watching someone coming home after a long time away. It doesn’t really matter if we’re not invited — just being able to watch from a distance is enough to lift spirits up.
It would be easy for Swift to remove her self-love journey from the rest of the world’s problems. She could be bitter, decide to do anything she wants regardless of what is happening in the world at the time. The best parts of the documentary come when her experiences serve as a reminder of issues outside of her bubble. The key turn in her career and the film comes in the form of her sexual assault trial. If the experience was so traumatizing despite being ultimately believed by the jury, how about those that never had a chance to tell their story ? If she faces backlash simply for speaking out against politicians she doesn’t believe in, how hard must life be for those who are endangered by their policies ?
Miss Americana isn’t a story about learning to stop caring about other people. It’s about choosing your battles. Learn what makes you happy, and recognize the ways you could be better. There’s no point fighting those that have decided they will hate you from the start. If they don’t hate you for the way you look, they’ll hate you for the way you speak or the way you don’t. When every single path will seem wrong for at least a person, the one you pick has to be the one you believe in. Swift leaves us as she records an exclusive song encouraging young people to vote and take the power back. She may still think of her career as uncertain, she may still have her doubts about the future, but if that’s the way things have to be, she might as well use the power she has left for things bigger than herself. That’s something a lot of celebrities could learn from.