Taylor Swift’s Adulthood Blues

The Netflix documentary Miss Americana portrays a pop star facing a daunting challenge: redefining success.

Taylor Swift in 'Miss Americana.'
The doc spins a fable about Swift loosening up from singing marionette to burrito-scarfing Real Girl. (Netflix)

What fans will hunger to know, after watching the new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, is whether Taylor Swift prefers carnitas or carne asada. “Do you eat burritos?” Swift asks her producer, Joel Little, at one point in the movie. Little giggles and asks who on Earth doesn’t eat burritos. Swift answers that she didn’t until two years prior—“I just had never tried one.” Cut to her inserting a chip into a thermos-size mass of tortilla as she discusses her anxieties about soon turning 29.

That Swift lived for two and a half decades without experiencing a Chipotle coma is one of the more concrete revelations of Miss Americana, a stirring work of image correction. The director Lana Wilson, notable for her cinematic journalism about abortion and suicide, applies a vérité filter to Swift Inc. at a moment of transition for the now 30-year-old pop star. Wilson recaps Swift’s songwriting and scandals elegantly, with an emphasis on the star’s growing political consciousness. But mostly, the doc spins a fable about Swift loosening up from singing marionette to burrito-scarfing Real Girl. It’s a story packaged as triumphant, but it arrives at an awkward moment in Swift’s career and hints at an ambivalent truth: Adulthood can land like a minor chord, and self-actualization does not organize life so much as open new, messier possibilities.

The movie opens by conjuring the sense of intimacy familiar to fans who follow Swift on social media. Clad in overalls and a light-pink sweater, the star noodles on a piano as her kitten, Benjamin Button, creeps across the keys, or she sits next to a windowsill and pages through her teenage diaries. The images projected are cozy, cutesy, creative—but Swift’s out to question one of the fundamental ideas underlying Pinterest-ready perfection. “My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” she says. “It was all I wrote about. It was all I wanted.”

What does good mean here? Miss Americana goes on to unpack the term as not an authentic reference to morality, but rather a container for the dictates of supposedly meritocratic capitalist patriarchy (did I just write Swift’s next album title?!). On one hand, achievement fervor—the need for praise, awards, and material success—motivated her songwriting. On the other, rules of femininity shaped how she behaved in public. Eventually, her smile-and-wave, gown-clad, teenage-prodigy self turned into caricature, seen most clearly when she arrived at the 2009 VMAs in Cinderella’s horse-drawn carriage.

The film does a nice job of revisiting one of the most overdiscussed events in recent pop history: Kanye West grabbing the mic from Swift and saying Beyoncé deserved the Moonman instead of her. Wilson makes clear how the ambush presented an existential challenge to Swift’s polite and demure (one newscaster called her “angelic”) persona. But the filmmaker, intriguingly, underlines that the media backlash fell on West rather than on Swift. There’s also a hint that Swift’s trauma from the event was due, in some part, to a misunderstanding. Because the venue was so “echoey,” Swift says she thought the crowd was heckling her for winning the award rather than jeering West for trying to take it away. But perception is reality: “For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you,” Swift tells the camera in the present day, “the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”

Here is the engine of Swift’s narrative: Swift’s desire to be liked colliding with people not liking her. It’s the ultimate celebrity problem, but the doc is smart about injecting it with social meaning by making the case that it stems from gender. Swift has been trained to be a people pleaser in a way that men rarely are, and she has been judged by standards that only women are held to. The story she’s telling now is about recently “deprogramming” destructive scripts that, among other things, pushed her into an eating disorder (the revelation of which darkly recontextualizes the no-burritos-till-2017 chitchat).

Swift’s awakening, she says, was a painful one. Tensions with West boiled over with the infamous 2016 episode in which Kim Kardashian accused Swift of lying about not granting West permission to rap about her. The escapade linked up with other growing sources of public tension: the ubiquity of her cheerful 2014 album, 1989, a few intra-feminist tiffs, and Swift’s silence about the bruising 2016 presidential campaign. Snake emojis rained down; Swift was definitively, to many in the public, no longer good. In response, she disappeared from the spotlight for a year. Miss Americana’s cameras began rolling as she returned from that hibernation, and Swift likely set out to portray herself as bouncing back on more rebellious terms than before.

Redemption was not a clear-cut affair, though. Swift’s winkingly villainous 2017 album, Reputation, sold well yet received mixed reviews, and an early scene in the documentary shows Swift learning that the Grammys had mostly snubbed it. She appears shaken, but simply says, in clipped tones, that she’ll have to make a better album. That next album, last year’s Lover, fared only slightly better at the Grammys. Though the scenes of her recording both albums are fabulous—Swift gives an infectious look of wonder whenever she works out a lyric—it’s hard to forget the mishmash end products. Lover’s lead single, “ME!,” grated with its pep-rally sound, which certainly didn’t feel like the work of someone no longer ruled by the desire for approval. Her LGBTQ-allyship anthem, “You Need to Calm Down,” sparked resentment alongside awareness.

Yet the priorities for latter-day Swift have shifted, we are to believe. That’s why the final section of the film documents her decision to jump into politics with an endorsement of Phil Bredesen, the Tennessee Democrat running for Senate in the 2018 midterm elections. A riveting scene—almost too dramatic to believe that it wasn’t staged—shows Swift and her mother arguing bitterly with her father and two male associates, who are trying to persuade her against coming out as a liberal. “Imagine if we came to you and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea that we could halve the number of people that come to your next tour,’” one of the men says. Swift—forceful, articulate, on the verge of tears—insists that the issues of the election are too important to not speak up about.

The documentary works hard to establish that Swift did take a risk in speaking out. It also coherently links her newfound activist spirit with her 2017 legal victory over a radio DJ who groped her. It does not, however, acknowledge that making political statements is part of the standard pop-star playbook these days and that Swift’s reputation, in fact, may have suffered more than it benefited from her staying mum for so long about Donald Trump. In scene after scene, the pop star lists reasons she’s horrified by the the regressive social agenda of the Tennessee Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn, and Swift’s sincerity is convincing. Still, who can confidently say that her speaking out now was not, on some level, as much a bid for approval as anything else in her career has been?

The truth is that Miss Americana does not depict a drastic change but rather a tough, somewhat deflating process of self-recognition. Swift’s recent phase has earned her continuing fame and sales, a stable and private romantic relationship, and a claim to making a social impact. But it has also involved wildly uneven music and stark disappointments (Blackburn, despite the “Swift Lift” for her opponent Bredesen, won the race.) Toward the end of the movie, Swift lays out a clear-eyed but bleak vision of a “society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35” and says that the present moment “is probably one of my last opportunities as an artist to grasp onto that kind of success.” She sees the system underlying the need to please—but transcending it, much less tearing that system down, is a dream she has yet to make reality.