The aim of the documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana is about as subtle as a knee to the groin. The pop star, the film would have us think, was once constrained by her innocent and rather folksy image, but has seized control of her own destiny and become a far more political, outspoken and independent artist. As she has been doing so, of course, the viewer is meant to realize, America itself has been forced to abandon its pretensions to innocence and embrace a more radically progressive future. ‘Americana’ is less about charming rural quirks and more about self-expression and activism.
Since abandoning her image as a purer than pure country warbler, Ms Swift has dabbled with styles. The video for her hit 2016 single ‘Shake it Off’ saw her dressing up as everything from a ballet dancer to a rock star: winking to the camera and smirking at the viewer as she slipped between the costumes. No, her transformation was not as radical as that of her contemporary Miley Cyrus – who went from the garish kiddie pop of alter-ego ‘Hannah Montana’ to buck-naked balladeering in ‘Wrecking Ball’ — but it was still meant to be obvious that this was not your childhood’s Taylor Swift.
‘I go on too many dates,’ Swift yelped in ‘Shake It Off’, ‘But I can’t make them stay. That’s what people say. That’s what people say.’ This preoccupation with other people’s judgments was charmingly dismissed in that 2014 single’s buoyant chorus but reared up again in 2017 unsubtly titled album Reputation, where Swift returned again and again to her rivals and her critics.
Miss Americana is obsessively focused on Swift’s anxious attitude towards her reputation. Sometimes this is effective. When she talks about her body dysmorphia and food restrictions, for example, she is funny and insightful when she says:
‘If you’re thin enough you don’t have that ass everybody wants, but if you have enough weight to have an ass then your stomach isn’t flat enough.’
You don’t have to agree with the fatphilic extremes of the ‘body positivity’ movement to agree that young women — or men — starving themselves just to achieve the maximum degree of slenderness, or forcing themselves through austere regimes to achieve new extremes of curvature in their behind, is unhealthy and unpleasant.
Where Miss Americana is disingenuous, though, is when it comes to politics. ‘My entire moral code is a need to be thought of as good,’ says Swift early in the film. We are led to believe that when she ‘came out’ as a progressive with her opposition to the Republican senator Marsha Blackburn, she was throwing off her concerns about the judgments of her critics and standing up for what she thought was right. I am sure Swift was sincere. The film shows her speaking with emotion about Blackburn’s opposition to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Blackburn supported a different form of the act but whether or not Swift’s anger was justified, it seems to have been genuine.
Where Miss Americana becomes rather comically disingenuous is in its portrayal of the context of Swift’s politicization. Swift claims that country singers have it ‘grilled’ into them that nobody wants to hear their political opinions, and references the example of the Dixie Chicks, who received hostility for opposing American foreign policy. (Christopher Hitchens, displaying neither grace or self-awareness, called them ‘fucking fat slags’.)
But in 2003, less than two years after 9/11, criticizing US wars entailed at least some risk. In 2018, supporting progressive causes entailed none. Indeed, the opposite was true. Swift is shown to have been under at least some pressure to avoid being ‘political’, including from her own father, but the media she appears to be so vulnerable towards was criticizing and deriding her for not being political enough. Her reputation, which is so important to her, was suffering in the late 2010s because her silence on the Trump administration was held to represent ‘white privilege’ if not outright racism.
There was article after article about her ‘blinding white privilege’ and her ‘indifference to the struggles of people of color’. For Quartz, Swift represented ‘a dangerous form of white women’. For The Root she was ‘one of the most dangerous types of White woman’ (my emphasis). A Daily Beast writer said Swift was ‘the living embodiment of white privilege’.
This was the greatest pressure that Swift’s reputation faced and it is hard not to suspect that her politicization did not have something to do with answering such criticism. There is no point in complaining about celebrities being progressive. You might as well complain about the winter being cold or the tides coming in. But it is preposterous to imply a celebrity’s progressivism takes courage and iconoclasm. It is expected if not demanded of them, and Swift and her friends clinking wine glasses as they toast ‘the Resistance’ is one of the most bourgeois images of our times.
Swift embracing her ability to use her platform for political purposes also raises questions about her dislike of media gossip and criticism. I don’t think we should be too precious about singers and actors giving their political opinions — it’s easy to complain about their being unqualified but, then, it is not as if I or you have doctorates in political commentary. Still, embracing the ability to evangelize to her audience while shrinking from gossip columnists and talking heads makes it seem as if Swift wants all the advantages of being a public figure and none of the drawbacks. Being rich and famous does not mean that any level of criticism and intrusiveness is justified, of course, but it does mean that some is to be expected.
Fans of the stars of today want their heroes and heroines to be victimized. It gives them someone to defend and to identify with, and it makes their success seem all the more triumphant. The creators of Miss Americana wanted to portray Swift as triumphantly transcending societal expectations. In fact, they shows her very much inhabiting a popular narrative.