At the Sundance Film Festival, you get used to traveling among stars—Steve Buscemi trudging through the snow to catch a shuttle bus, or the cast of Hamilton gabbing on a street corner. But the energy that crackled through Park City in the hours before the debut of the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana was something else entirely. Grizzled festival veterans queued up 90 minutes in advance for fear they might not get a seat, and in the 20-degree weather outside, fans kept up a steady singalong of songs from Swift’s back catalog.
A documentary about one of the most mediated, image-conscious people on the planet sounds like an oxymoron, and though director Lana Wilson is no hagiographer, Miss Americana is hardly warts-and-all. (Even in the numerous shots of Swift’s makeup-free face, her skin appears unblemished.) Although Swift credits much of her recent evolution to her long-term relationship with Joe Alwyn, he makes only a fleeting, wordless appearance, and there’s not a blessed word about Cats. It’s not a movie about getting behind Swift’s public image but about her decision to alter it.
In particular, it’s framed as Swift’s journey toward relinquishing, or at least reining in, her obsessive desire to be liked. For most of her life, she explains in the opening minutes, her moral philosophy was driven by “a need to be thought of as good.” Flicking back and forth between on-the-fly footage of the last few years and archival shots spanning the length of Swift’s career, the movie crafts Swift’s journey toward, as she puts it, “deprogram[ming] the misogyny in my own brain” and embracing the idea that there are worse things than being disliked.
Swift credits the turn to a number of factors, including the public backlash to her feud with Kanye West, her victory in a sexual assault lawsuit against a radio DJ, and the year she spent out of the public eye with Alwyn, which taught her the difference between being happy and performing happiness (among the movie’s more delicious sequences is a montage of Swift’s goggle-eyed awards face).
But the pivotal on-camera moment is the meeting in which she tells her management team, including both of her parents, that she’s going to endorse the Democratic candidate for a Tennessee Senate seat. The men in the room are rattled, especially her father, who points out they’ve already had to add armored cars to her motorcade in response to death threats. Swift, who grew up idolizing the Dixie Chicks and watched a single comment about the Iraq war derail their career, has always steered clear of politics, and she prospered in part because of it. (In response to the proposed endorsement, her dad asks her, if there was a way for you to cut your audience in half, would you take it?) But the sexual assault case, in which she was groped by a DJ who then sued her after he lost his job, seems to have opened Swift’s eyes to the urgency of the current political climate, in which even a rich white pop star has to hire a high-priced lawyer to make herself believed.
The objection to Miss Americana, which will be released Jan. 31 on Netflix, will be that this is just Swift’s latest, and perhaps canniest, calculation: She saw the political winds shifting before the midterms and knew that the price of not taking a side was simply too steep. But whether or not we’re seeing the real, genuine Swift, the choices she makes about how to present herself are significant and consequential. It’s naïve to think she’s ever unaware that she’s being filmed, but it’s still a kick to watch her publicist warn her that if she endorses a Democrat, Trump might come after her, and see Swift respond, “Fuck that. I don’t care.”
As prefigured by its title, Miss Americana both shows and is part of Swift’s decision to wade deeper into election-year politics. The footage of Swift writing songs in the studio during the sessions for Lover includes a scene of her working on a paean to youth activism called “Only the Young.” (The finished version plays over the closing credits and is scheduled for official release in the near future.) The “Swift lift” wasn’t enough to give Tennessee a Democratic senator, and Swift takes the defeat personally, both because it shows the limitations of her star power and because it means her home state will be represented by a woman who opposes same-sex marriage and voted against the Violence Against Women Act. (“She says she represents Tennessee Christian values,” Swift says during the endorsement meeting. “I’m a Tennessean. I’m a Christian. Those aren’t my values.”) But Swift emerges more determined, and the members of her management team who once trembled at the thought of her talking politics inform her after the loss that “We’ve got two years to build on that.”*
Onstage after the film’s premiere, Swift was subdued, almost shy, reflexively deferring to Wilson and endorsing her answers rather than striking out on her own. But Miss Americana leaves you with the impression that’s merely the calm before the storm. As Swift proclaims in the film, “It’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth.”
Correction, Jan. 24, 2020: This piece originally misquoted a line from the movie regarding Taylor Swift’s political plans. The management team member said they have “two years” to build on their plans, not one.