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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Taylor Swift's 'Miss Americana' Is Pointless in the Instagram Era

When you are a mega-celebrity, the partition that separates real life from performance becomes wafer-thin—especially if you’re the kind of celeb who stages their own life on Instagram, like an autopaparazzo. The distinction is further confused for the subjects of the currently booming subgenre of pop star documentaries, which attempt to collapse the wall entirely by inhabiting the lives of entertainers like Lady Gaga (Gaga: Five Foot Two), Beyoncé (Homecoming), Katy Perry (Part of Me), and Serena Williams (Being Serena). The latest of these, Netflix’s Miss Americana, trains its camera on Taylor Swift, an artist known for both her social media prowess and her skill in controlling what, exactly, the world knows about her.


There is little sense of why Swift—or director Lana Wilson, known for her documentary film After Tiller, about doctors who perform third-trimester abortions—chose to release Miss Americana now. Her last album, Lover, came out last summer. She's not at a crossroads in her career. Her most recent public relations dustup, involving the record executive Scooter Braun and licensing rights, goes unaddressed. (Filming seems to have ended before the fallout began.) Instead, the film responds to some of Swift’s more persistent criticisms, like being “cold-blooded and calculating,” possessing a “ridiculous victim mentality,” and “peddling a lie” about who she really is behind the pop-star veneer. Miss Americana is Swift’s attempt to humanize herself, to show a peek at the real person who wears the celebrity skinsuit.

In the documentary, we watch Swift come to grips with 15 years in the spotlight. Sort of. She invites cameras into her recording studio, workshopping song lyrics on her iPhone. She ducks fans and paparazzi outside her house and explains that she had an eating disorder, worsened by seeing her body captured in so many surprise photographs. She rereads her teenage diaries and pets a kitten while playing the piano.

A question lurks beneath every moment: Where does the Swift persona end and Swift, the person, begin? It goes unanswered. Instead, the key moments of the film—some of which are endearing, some of which are not—feel more like an extension of the brand Swift has so successfully created than a look at what’s behind it.

For fans, parts of the film will feel like watching a rerun. We’ve already seen the making of the music video for “You Need to Calm Down,” because before it appeared in Miss Americana, Swift made an Instagram story about it. We’ve already met her mom’s “cancer dog”—a Great Dane named Kitty—on social media, too. She told fans about her mom's cancer diagnosis on Tumblr back in 2015. We know her political beliefs because she posted them online too.

Celebrities don’t owe anything to their fans, nor should viewers expect any real glasnost in documentaries about their lives. But without real candor, the genre feels like an extension of what artists already put out on social media—like a 90-minute-long TikTok. As the writer Amanda Petrusich wrote in her review of Gaga: Five Foot Two in 2017, the modern pop-star doc “often either feels like unapologetic hagiography or is revealing only in extraordinarily calculating ways.” The documentaries are personal, often uncomfortably so, but they aren’t sincere. The intimacy is superficial.

The trope is repeated again and again. In Homecoming, we see more of the hardworking, creative, superstar Beyoncé we already knew. The struggles of having just given birth to twins, via emergency C-section, are largely downplayed. When Lady Gaga takes her top off in Five Foot Two, it’s clear that she’s trying to appear naked, emotionally and otherwise—yet she struggles to articulate her history of chronic pain, sexual assault trauma, and reliance on antipsychotic medications. The worst of these is perhaps the new YouTube docu-series on Justin Bieber, Seasons, which amounts to several hours of watching Bieber trot around the recording studio with his new wife. The 2012 documentary about Katy Perry, Part of Me, manages to knock the star off balance a little—only because the cameras happen to be rolling when Perry goes through a painful divorce from Russell Brand, capturing a backstage meltdown from the heartbreak. The result is deeply humanizing.

The documentaries, then, only serve to extend the self-curation of pop stars’ personal stories. That’s a product of the genre, says Chris Moukarbel, who directed Five Foot Two. “If this were a documentary about WikiLeaks, it would be a totally different process,” he says. Instead, he and other filmmakers want to work with artists to tell a story together, with approval from the celebrity at the end. For that reason, the documentaries appear tightly edited, with the celebrities controlling the narrative. “Even if they try to stay guarded, though, the idea is there’s inherently some information coming through to the viewer that is revealing,” Moukarbel adds. He points to Truth or Dare, the 1991 documentary about Madonna, which he obsessed over as a kid. “That’s a very highly constructed movie, but the things that audiences remember and the things that were most iconic, were these details she couldn’t necessarily plan—like the fact that she always drank Evian water,” he says.

Miss Americana has its share of moments like this: Swift feeds her cat directly on the kitchen table, like a member of the family. Her oven is covered in kitchy magnets. She has all of her teenage diaries, one of which includes the preface “my life, my career, my dream, my reality.” Still, it’s hard to grasp what any of this adds up to. What the film shows more of is Swift reacting to other people’s reactions to her: detached disappointment when she learns that her album has not been nominated for a Grammy; frustration when her father dissuades her from making an Instagram post about the 2018 midterms; sparkling relief when her producers like a lyric she has written; all-consuming self-doubt when Kanye West interrupts her award acceptance at the 2009 VMAs.

In another scene, Swift appears at the 2018 American Music Awards, wearing a mock-neck mini dress affixed with thousands of mirrored squares that catch the light of the photographers. She sparkles like a walking disco ball. It’s an apt metaphor for the version of Swift we see in the film: a composite of everyone else’s opinion of her, reflected back. Miss Americana shows us the fractals of Swift as a public person—first a precocious young songwriter, then a newly political entity—but there is no real through line to connect them, other than that Swift’s perception of herself hinges entirely on other peoples’ perception of her.

If the genre does one thing well, it’s exposing the profound loneliness of a life in pop music. Lady Gaga languishes in her beautiful home; Katy Perry crumples in the heartbreak of her divorce. Taylor Swift, who popularized the “girl squad,” seems perhaps the loneliest of all. In Miss Americana, Swift’s only regular companionship comes from her mother and her cats. Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, appears only momentarily. When she reflects on winning Album of the Year in 2016, she recalls having no one to celebrate with. “Shouldn’t I have someone that I could call right now?” she says of the memory. It’s the most authentic moment of the whole thing. Whether onstage or off, in her real life or in performance, it’s exceedingly lonely at the top. That’s something you can’t fake for the cameras.

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