“There is no there there.” – Gertrude Stein
Miss Americana, Netflix’s newest documentary, examines the life of pop star Taylor Swift. It’s a complicated, contradictory examination at best, blatant damage control pop-aganda from someone well aware of her career’s decline. Considering her career trajectory, Miss Americana has the perfect plot: small town tween has a big dream of being a country musician, and winds up becoming one of the biggest musical names of the 21stCentury.
Yet forty-five minutes in–where one moment she’s proclaiming her desire for little kids to sing her lyrics and then instantly the conversation turns derisive of fans ruining everything—we turned Miss Americana off. One can only bear so much poor little rich girl pontification, while watching someone hope for adoration and then complain about how the same fans obsess over them makes our eyes roll. Perhaps it’s to our credit we made it as far as we did.
Miss Americana starts off promising enough—Swift examining her first diary—helping to establish what Miss Americana’s narrative seems to be: she’s just an all-American girl with big dreams. Those dreams aren’t for material gain, though; she just wants to make the world happy. She wants the teenage girls of the world to know that what they’re going through is universal. The videos of her early, preteen years—where she’s actually working to make her dream come true—are quite poignant and touching. Her excitement at seeing her single at the bottom of the charts is palpable. You can’t help but feel the excitement with her.
It doesn’t last, of course. She transforms from pretty, homely girl next door to a pop-chart dominating Stepford Wife—all cold, calculated, emotionless. Yearning for happiness for happiness’s sake is a very empty and self-centered pursuit, and once achieved leaves the seeker unfulfilled. Thus, we see Swift moping around her mansion in sweatpants and shirts, playing on her piano, relaying both her gratefulness for her success and the emptiness of it all. It feels sincere and revelatory, but yet still feels hollow. It’s as if these scenes of her without makeup and looking frumpy are meant to say, “Hey, she’s just like you!”
But that’s the thing: she’s not like you, and you will never be like her.
Swift at times seems detached from reality. When she receives news that she had not received a major Grammy nomination, her reaction is, “Well, we’ll just make a better album, then.” That said album had been both a critical and commercial success doesn’t seem to matter; the meaningless awardis all that counts. When she discusses the fuss made over her private life, she makes a point about wanting to have privacy and a normalcy with someone out of the limelight—and then proceeds to start talking up her new relationship. Her interactions with fans seem both sincere and staged. Though she feigns surprise and delight when a fan proposes to his girlfriend at a backstage meet-and-greet, she’s clearly uncomfortable and annoyed.
One scene in Miss Americana does expose the real Taylor Swift, if only for a few moments. The moment of Kanye West’s infamous award speech interruption exposes a real hurt; though the film footage the public saw was edited, we’re given a longer exposure to her, post-incident. Swift looks confused, shocked, and hurt; this was a great moment in her life, ruined. She assumes that the boos were for her, and looking at her countenance, one can feel the pain. At seventeen, she didn’t have the emotional intelligence to recognize that they weren’t booing her; she assumes that they hate her, when all she wanted to do was to make the world love her. One can’t help but feel sorry for her, as she lives through a scene that must have felt like Carrie.
Thee life and career of Taylor Swift could offer a fascinating case study. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. We’re left convinced that Swift really is an empty vessel, that there really is no there there. With her record sales down and fading likability, Miss Americana simply feels like poorly-executed damage control.
Watch Taylor Swift: Miss Americana: Netflix