"Miss Americana" Is a Mystery

It’s hard to put the elements of Taylor Swift’s life and personality together

Posted Feb 02, 2020

Taylor Swift’s new Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, focuses on her desire to be “a good girl” and to gain approval. Swift claims this is her lifelong motivating principle — the thing that makes her happy.

It strikes me that this theme leaves out the most prominent aspects of her life, things that I find stunning, that the film only offers the slightest hints about.

"Lover" lyric: “I’m the only one of me.”

Ambition

Since she was a child, Swift has been writing songs and performing, presenting herself and her work to others. Putting oneself on the line like that is hard, for anyone, at any age. Yet Swift has never hesitated, going with her parents from Reading, Pennsylvania (can we call that “nowhere”) at the age of 11 to Nashville to leave her recordings with major recording studios.

Even though she was rejected, Swift was undeterred: “I can understand. They were afraid to put out a 13-year-old. They were afraid to put out a 14-year-old. Then they were afraid to put out a 15-year-old. Then they were nervous about putting out a 16-year-old.”

Sony/ATV Music publishing nonetheless signed her when she was 14; at 15 she signed her first record deal. She made her first album, Taylor Swift, when she was 16 — it became the longest-charting album of the 2000s. The single on it, "Our Song,” made her the youngest singer-songwriter to top the Billboard Hot Country Songs list.

How did she develop that urge, that strength, that gumption — at 11? How did she withstand the early rejection? Early in the film, she is shown, now age 30, receiving the news that her album Reputation wasn’t nominated for a Grammy. Her reaction? “I’ll have to make a better record.” Taylor Swift is achievement motivation personified — never resting on her success, always seeking, striving, working to achieve more — but living, reveling in the success of what she has accomplished to date.

Miss Americana doesn’t tell us how this came about. Wanting to be a good girl doesn’t explain it. Were her parents especially driven on her behalf? The image one gets is of a self-motivated machine-like kid whose extremely supportive parents accepted her ambition and did everything to facilitate it. (Who drives an 11-year-old from Reading to Nashville to promote her career?) 

Organization

Swift is a multimillion-dollar business and she runs it. She performs before vast crowds at mega stadiums with highly orchestrated performances involving hundreds of personnel; she creates music with a variety of musician partners; she sits at the head of a conference table with a dozen (presumably older) people who cover various aspects of her professional life.

Taylor Swift is chairman of the board! How did she develop these management skills? How did she become so functional and well-organized as to be able to conduct her tours, run her business, and — in the meantime — turn out so much product? (Lover is her seventh album.)

Self-revelation

Swift’s work is, as she says, like her diary. At some point early on, that became about her love life. The film shows Swift writing the song “Lover,” including turning to the person in the middle of the night. Swift calls it "a love letter to love itself,” about the ups and downs of love.

But this has really been the theme of all of her post-teen recordings, beginning with her famous relationship with fellow teen star Joe Jonas, and proceeding with all of her intimate relationships since. Being a good girl from Scranton doesn’t usually mean discussing your love life — or perhaps even having one.  In fact, Swift stands for not being self-conscious about acknowledging and discussing this side of herself. (Good for her!) 

Aloneness

Miss Americana is about Taylor Swift being alone, dealing with her business. Her music has always been about being or wanting to be, in a couple. Even on her first album, made as a 16-year-old, “Mary’s Song” is an appreciation of a neighborhood girl who was destined to marry her childhood sweetheart.

Swift’s relationships, based on her music, seem to last from a few months to perhaps a year. But Lover has been rumored to be about her marrying her British lover, Joe Alwyn.  This seems to be a more enduring relationship: “I've loved you three summers honey / And I want them all,” “Church-bells ring / Carry me home / Rice on the ground / Looks like snow / Call my bluff / Call you babe.”

But Alwyn is a phantom figure in Miss Americana. The most biting line in the film, filled with the professionals she works with, adoring crowds, and annoying stalkers, is “Shouldn’t I have someone to call right now?” The primary image is of Swift in her pajamas on her sofa or alone in the backseat of a limo reveling in her performance before tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Indeed, one sees only images of Alwyn, never the person, and we certainly never see Swift actually interacting with her reputed lover.

Activism

Country music, where Swift began her career, is notoriously conservative. But Swift has moved far beyond her country roots. She now has a home in New York as well as in Nashville, her albums aren’t marketed as country music, and she associates with people in the entertainment field, who are notoriously progressive.

Swift’s music is about herself, not political causes — or causes of any kind. Only lately has Swift come out as a pro-gay supporter, made explicit in the video for her song “You Need to Calm Down,” filled with gay icons.

People are who they hang with. Politics is social. So Swift is split between two worlds — like her residences in Nashville and New York. And she seems paralyzed by this dichotomy. She frets about not taking a stand in the 2016 presidential election when perhaps she could have gotten her millions of fans to reject  Donald Trump. Swift’s voting domicile seems to be Nashville, where she disliked the hard-right candidacy of Marsha Blackburn, who won a Senate seat in the state. Her management team doesn’t want her to alienate her Republican base by announcing her views, but do politically motivated people really tote up the number of fans they might alienate? (Actually, they probably do.)

Uncertainty

Swift’s vacillating, her uncertainty about who she is, her seeming desire for intimacy and marriage and belonging combined with her apparent aloneness, her expressions of insecurity and, at times self-dislike — watching a video of herself, she declares, “I have a really slappable face” and she says she didn’t like looking at herself and developed an eating disorder — are hard to put together with her confidence, her competence, her motivation, and her power.

No, I wouldn’t say I know Taylor Swift after watching 85 minutes about her innermost life.

But it’s possible that neither does she.