Taylor Swift Finds Her Voice and Dunks on Trump in New Netflix Doc: ‘F*ck That’
The new Netflix doc “Miss Americana,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, takes viewers behind the scenes of Taylor Swift’s life, capturing her political awakening.
At a pivotal moment in the new Netflix documentary, Miss Americana—and, it would turn out, a pivotal moment in the singer’s life and career—Taylor Swift’s mother and her publicist are running through all the possible, perhaps catastrophic repercussions to deciding for the first time to speak out publicly about politics.
Swift was about to publish an Instagram post urging Tennessee voters to vote for Democrat Phil Bredesen in the state’s close midterm election, railing against incumbent Republican Marsha Blackburn and her record of voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women ACT, against equal pay for women, and against gay rights.
“These are not MY Tennessee values,” Swift wrote in the post. In Miss Americana, she calls Blackburn, “Trump in a wig.”
The three women are nervously slurping white wine and practically shaking as they discuss the final considerations before pressing send, the equivalent of pushing the nuclear button for a pop star who had strategically and steadfastly remained silent on politics. One of the last things Swift’s publicist warns her about is that Donald Trump could come after her.
“Fuck that,” Swift says, not missing a beat. “I don’t care.”
Miss Americana, which premiered to a standing ovation Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Netflix Jan. 31, reveals a woman who is learning not to care.
That is to say that it is about Swift caring very much. On the cusp of turning 30 and after weathering one of the most tumultuous and formative years of her life, she is caring more deeply than ever—about politics, about the way she’s been treated by the media and pundits, about her family’s well-being, about unfair and misogynistic expectations for women—and is arriving at an emotional grounding where she can finally vocalize it.
Swift has been called calculating and accused of playing the victim as she precariously navigated various controversies in her career, from notorious narratives involving Kanye West to the sexual assault case that she won to maintaining, until that viral Instagram post, total silence when it comes to politics.
Miss Americana—which, in a decision that should definitely be observed, was directed by Lana Wilson, who most notably helmed After Tiller, a documentary about doctors who perform third-trimester abortions—is a study of an artist who, despite being more than a decade into her career and one of the most successful musicians of all time, is finding a voice. It turns out to be one that is charged and a little exasperated, funny and free-wheeling, yet focused with an admirable clarity that is sure to cause both celebration and a stir when the film becomes available for streaming.
(And certainly, too, when the resistance song, “Only the Young”—that the documentary builds up to and plays over the closing credits—is released next week. Meant to rally young voters like her who may have been disappointed in key election results in 2018 to keep crusading, she remarks about it, “You can run from fascism.”)
It’s not the sole focus of the documentary, but the most headline-making aspects of it is the politics talk. After all, frustration over the fact that Swift never joined her pop-star cohorts in weighing in on the 2016 election—a move many cynically suspected meant she was either a secret MAGA fan or she didn’t want to lose out on ticket sales to Trump supporters—is part of what made the backlash against her swell to the point that she very literally went into hiding.
Swift is seen at the point of tears, arguing with her father and unnamed members of her team over the decision to weigh in on Blackburn and the Tennessee race. “I can’t see another commercial [with] her disguising these policies behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values,’” she says. “I live in Tennessee. I am Christian. That’s not what we stand for.”
There are concerns for her safety if she angers political extremists. There are, yes, concerns for the commercial fallout. One person voices concern that the press will take her statement to mean that she is also condemning Donald Trump.
“I don’t care if they write that,” she says. “I’m sad I didn’t say it two years ago.”
Her emotions escalate until she finally lays down her unwavering intention, no matter what her team thinks: “I want to be on the right side of history.” At the Sundance premiere screening, the audience burst into applause.
Preceding this scene is an unflattering montage of Swift over the years smugly touting her decision not to speak about politics because people don’t care what she thinks, that they only want to hear her sing. It was the manifestation of a fear ingrained in her after what happened to the Dixie Chicks when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized George W. Bush.
But it’s also just another iteration of an ethos and belief system that has been at her core for her nearly entire life.
“My moral code as a kid and now was the need to be thought of as good,” she says in the first moments of the film. “Overall, the main thing I always strived to be was, like, a good girl.”
Over the course of the documentary, she explains how a desire for approval and a need to be liked motivated her, made her a star, but also psychologically and publicly tore her down.
“I’ve been trained to be happy when you get a lot of praise,” she continues. “I had that praise of, ‘Taylor, you’re doing a good job at your work.’ Like those pats on the head were all that I lived for. I was so fulfilled by approval that that was it. I became the person everyone wanted me to be.”
One of the reasons it was so traumatizing when Kanye West stormed the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009, interrupting her speech, was because it looked, at least at first, like all of that was coming tumbling down. She explains for the first time in the documentary that when the audience was booing West for his inappropriate behavior, she thought they were booing her.
“For someone who built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience,” she says. “That was the catalyst for a lot of psychological paths I went down. Not all of them were beneficial.”
Miss Americana is hardly a propaganda film. It revisits the missteps she made, especially in dealing with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and the infamous Snapchat video. The things that people said about her are quoted, including criticism from The Daily Beast. It puts into proper perspective just how hated she became.
But it also reveals her journey to perspective.
She became aware of the fact that she likely had an eating disorder that she was ignoring.
Falling in love with Joe Alwyn, she says, was a major step in figuring out the life she wanted to live.
The heartbreak of her mother’s cancer diagnosis was another. “It woke me up,” she says. “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if your mom is sick from chemo?”
When Reputation was snubbed by the Grammys in major categories, she’s visibly hurt, but responds in remarkable fashion: “I just need to make a better record.”
Still, Miss Americana joins the recent phenomenon in which documentary subjects are active participants in championing and promoting the films about themselves. (See: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ralph Lauren, and, also at Sundance this year, Hillary Clinton.)
Not many forms of non-fiction that purport to be objective are so kind to their subjects that they pull double-duty as the scrutinized and the marketing muscle. One could argue that there may be a documentary about Taylor Swift to be made that she would not want to be the face of a press tour for; then again, that documentary would never exist because it wouldn’t get this access.
The result is a film about Swift that certainly lionizes the star, especially in her recent awakening. The last third of the documentary is spent with her speaking passionately and with a palpable, enough-is-enough fire about the way the world dismisses and demeans women, not to mention the unrealistic dichotomies that women must adhere to in order to be palatable to a patriarchal society. At one point, she apologizes to the director for getting on a soapbox.
Then she apologizes for apologizing. The point is to stop doing that. The point is to not care—and therefore care very much. As she says, “It’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth forever.