The morning the Grammy nominations were announced in 2018, Taylor Swift, who had already won the coveted Album of the Year twice ( 1989 , Fearless ), was lounging on her couch. The singer, then 29, was waiting for her manager to call and inform her about the nominations her latest album had earned.
The call brought bad news: Reputation — the deliciously meta response to the popstar’s badgered public reputation, disguised in the form of a record — had been snubbed. “In the big categories... you are not nominated,” her manager said. Swift, whose reaction to the news was instinctive, interpreted the setback as a dismissal of her artistry. “I need to make a better record,” was her response.
The implication that her music was lacking is erroneous and unreasonable: Reputation sold two million copies in its first week and boasted the most vivid and experimental songwriting and music arrangement in the Swift oeuvre. But, at that moment, none of this mattered. Swift, a lifelong addict of public validation, craved a more tangible, unanimous acceptance. The Grammy snub denied her this very dopamine hit.
This brief, unassuming sequence comes early on in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana , the 85-minute Netflix documentary now streaming in India. Named after a song from Swift’s latest album Lover (2019), the film catches its subject at a transformative period of her pop stardom. It is both instructive and revealing of how the singer’s perception of herself pivoted on how the world responded to her at any given time. She believed that the approval had to be earned through a continuous display of near-inhuman levels of perfection. The state of faultlessness for Swift — who broke out as a country singer at the age of 15 — was a journey, never the destination. Her quest for it was endless, excruciating, and occasionally draining.
The very next scene, for instance, has Swift already preparing for a stab at relevance at the future award season: She is bent over at her piano, humming partial lyrics of what would go on to be Me! , the first single from her next album, Lover . The lines between being ‘good’ and being ‘good enough’ have always been blurring for Swift. At one point in the documentary, she admits that her whole belief system was built around getting people to “clap for her”.
Miss Americana incisively details the aftermath of that same belief system warranting complete deconstruction. What would Swift do when the world stops being her cheerleader? When Wilson started filming, Swift — arguably this generation’s most divisive female pop star — was coming out of a self-imposed year-long exile, triggered in part by the fallout of her unending feud with Kanye West and a public opinion that had unerringly turned against her. “When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to change their mind,” says Swift, looking back at her disappearance with a self-awareness that is often mistaken as self-pity. It’s this very narrative that the world, consisting both of Swift fanatics and cynics, detest — that of a 30-year-old, with the kind of artistic privilege that insulates her career from any real threat, staging herself as the victim.
But Wilson’s keen, thoughtful gaze reframes this very narrative as an indispensable burden that accompanies the cachet of a female creative force. Male misbehaviour, such as West interrupting the speech of a 19-year-old singer at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, rarely causes a dent in their artistic reputation. Somehow, the distinction between the artiste and the person is easily made when the offender is a man. On the other hand, Wilson argues, Swift’s reputation works for her and against her: It permeates her ambition to the extent that it threatens to overpower her genius.
Wilson employs tour footage, home movies, press clips, award speeches, news tapes, studio recordings and the traditional interview format to eke out the extent of Swift’s artistic calibre, which has been under the shadow of her reputation. In the hands of a lesser director, it could easily come across as image management. But Miss Americana gains from Wilson’s vérité approach.
For the last 15 years of her career, Swift has been a one-woman army. Wilson’s camera observes her writing verses within seconds, being in a constant state of composition, and conceptualising music videos out of thin air. The chunks of the recording room footage are, perhaps, Miss Americana ’s most thrilling parts. There’s an ingenious sequence of Swift and Jack Antonoff (who produced both Reputation and Lover ) coming up with the chorus for Gateway Car in a frenzied rush of epiphany, cutting to her singing it in front of an audience, that underscores Swift’s dedication to her artistry.
Toward the end of the documentary, an excited, almost delirious Swift asks Brendon Urie, lead vocalist of Panic! At the Disco, “If you were to split open my imagination, what were to come out of it?”, while discussing her idea for the music video of Me! . Miss Americana offers that answer.
Poulomi Das is a film critic with Arré, an entertainment content platform. She writes at the intersection of films, gender, and social commentary
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