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“Miss Americana” begins like Taylor Swift’s career: with diaries. Sitting cross legged on a window seat, Swift thumbs through her first journal surrounded by a rainbow of notebooks, their covers dotted with stickers and smudged doodles. This is Swift’s core talent: the ability to channel her innermost feelings, those that would usually be relegated to the pages littered around her, into massive, chart-topping songs. From this simple beginning, director Lana Wilson paints a rich and compelling portrait of the person behind the celebrity. If the viewer watches the film with an open mind, cleared of tabloid headlines and vitriolic tweets, they will leave the theater having seen a side of Swift that few stars of her caliber are willing to share with the world. Or, like the 1,300 audience members who watched its Sundance premiere, they will stand and applaud.
Early on, the film established Swift’s deeply ingrained need to be seen as a “good girl,” to somehow hang on to the approval of, well, everyone. Viewers see a young Swift’s face light up as she unwraps a gift on Christmas morning: her first guitar. Dressed in pink pajamas and buried in a pile of wrapping paper, she gleefully shouts, “I am happy!” Just a few moments later, the camera moves to Swift in another pair of pink pajamas, nervously clutching her cell phone as she hears that her recent album has not received any major Grammy nominations. There is something inspiring yet heartbreaking in her response. “This is fine,” she stutters. “I just need to make a better record.” To Swift, it seems inevitable that people will eventually stop listening.
Like Swift herself, “Miss Americana” leans into vulnerability. Beyond the challenges of “Lover”’s lack of award show recognition, it also documents the fallout of her fall from grace and feud with the Kardashian-Wests. It goes without saying that the moment when Kanye West grabbed the microphone from Swift’s hand at the 2009 Video Music Awards has become a bit of a punchline. But watching 19 year old Swift’s crestfallen reaction is painful. Today she describes the incident as “sort of a catalyst for a lot of psychological paths that I went down… fueled by not feeling like I belonged there. I’m only here because I work hard and I’m nice to people.” Swift’s insecurities also extend to her appearance. At one point in the film she confesses a tendency “to get triggered by something whether it’s a picture of me where I feel like my tummy was too big or like someone said I looked pregnant or something, and will just trigger me to starve a little bit. Just stop eating.” Fans can see that even at the height of her success she, like them, struggles. Even outside of her songs, her vulnerability has a relatable, universal quality that fans can latch on to. One wrote on Twitter, “Can’t stop thinking about how the 1989 Era was such a difficult one for Taylor, both physically and mentally, yet she went out there and performed her heart out and reminded every single one of us every night that we survived a bunch of rainstorms and kept walking.”
A behind-the-scenes look at Swift’s decision to become more vocal about her political beliefs also makes for one of the film’s most powerful elements. In particular, “Miss Americana” highlights the impact of the sexual assault trial in which a radio DJ who groped Swift was fired and then sued her for defamation. Swift’s victory in that lawsuit perhaps contributed to the shaky confidence she displays when attempting to explain to several men from her management team her need to speak out against Marsha Blackburn, a candidate for the Tennessee senate who voted against measures designed to protect women from domestic violence and prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. Near tears as the men try to speak over her, she explains that she regrets not speaking out in 2016 and is determined to “speak now.”
This film is exactly what it should be. To the credit of director Lana Wilson, Swift’s bravery and strength are apparent throughout the film. They are a declaration to the world — if they’re going to judge her, they should get to know her first. Know that there is a person behind the album covers and the Instagram posts. And no amount of money or awards or Instagram followers makes her any less human. “#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was the number one trend on Twitter worldwide,” Swift explains, matter-of-factly. “Know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen?”
But in the end, as it always seems to be for Swift, the most powerful testament to her work comes from her legions of fans. Swift describes feeling like she has grown up with them. And her fans expressed immediate love for “Miss Americana.” One fan wrote after watching the film, “i love how taylor says she isn’t ready for kids as if she hasn’t been raising me for the last 13 years.” That’s it. For anyone who has wondered what made Swift the global phenomenon she is today, it is this: with a hell of a lot of hard work, grit, and talent, she built fundamental human connections with millions of people around the globe. This unique bond can be seen in some of the earliest clips of concert footage included in the documentary. In one grainy shot, Swift, all platinum curls, with a guitar twice her size slung across her body, pauses to speak directly to the audience. With a thick twang she tells them about her first single, imploring, “There’s this radio station called KZLA. I want each and every one of you to call ‘em up and tell ‘em you want to hear a song called ‘Tim McGraw’ by this girl named Taylor Swift… please.” They listened then. And they never stopped.
—Staff Writer Kathryn B. Klein can be reached at email@example.com.
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