Miss Americana starts with a 13-year-old Taylor Swift’s first diary, which has the words “my life … my career … my dream … my reality” inscribed along the edges of its cover. Like the pages of a journal, director Lana Wilson’s documentary flashes through Swift’s life from the age she began writing songs to the release of her seventh album, Lover, last year. It quickly becomes clear that the four quadrants of Swift’s childhood diary are all on the same map: Miss Americana is a portrait of the girl who grew up to achieve her dream so spectacularly that she’s only beginning to distinguish the other parts of life as she turns 30. The film is an entirely personal document, even as it eventually explores topics like Swift’s much-publicized 2018 political awakening.
At its core is something we know to be true of Taylor Swift already: that she’s worked extremely hard to be popular. From her perspective, we learn, this means she failed to secure validation elsewhere and that, when the winds of pop culture temporarily stopped blowing her way around the release of her contentious 2017 album Reputation, part of her crumbled in response. Some celebrities get “frozen at the age they get famous—and that’s kinda what happened to me,” notes Swift toward the documentary’s end. At 16, her debut single made her a country-music darling overnight, and this film makes her ensuing petty dramas feel almost inevitable.
With many scenes in the recording studio and lots of cozy shots of Swift speaking to the camera, Miss Americana sometimes feels like a feature-length extension of the behind-the-scenes songwriting clips she’s released in the past. Still, it doesn’t shy from certain events Swift probably wasn’t thrilled to include: Kanye West’s onstage mic-snatch at the 2009 VMAs, one of this century’s most infamous pop culture moments; Kim Kardashian’s 2016 Snapchat video that reignited the feud by seeming to reveal Swift as a two-faced phony; and the groping photo Swift’s lawyers attempted to keep out of public view during her sexual assault case against a radio DJ, where she stands with a pinned smile as the man reaches his hand behind her.
That photo was taken in 2013, but in the timeline of the documentary it appears in 2017, when the case went to trial. The film portrays this as a pivotal moment for Swift, and the eventual catalyst for her decision to break a long-held political silence and support two Tennessee Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. To the public, her endorsement came as a surprise. Watching the events from within, it feels sadly predictable: First, an emotional discussion with her parents and professional team, in which Swift says she wants to be “on the right side of history” and regrets that she did not publicly oppose Donald Trump in 2016. Then, a long, impromptu scene shot on a cellphone camera from knee height, in which Swift, overcome by giddy terror, posts her message to Instagram.
The stakes are real: The message she received as a young country singer, Swift says, was that politics would cost you your career. “‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks,’” she recalls being told. “And I loved the Dixie Chicks.” Her publicist cautions her that the president will likely react to her statement—which he does, telling a TV camera that he likes Swift’s music “about 25 percent less now.”
But within Swift’s highly mediated bubble, the political threats don’t feel real. In the film, as seemingly in Swift’s own life, Trump’s rise to power occurs vaguely in the background of her own experiences of being trolled online. And if she has faced any negative repercussions for speaking out, she doesn’t share them here. The biggest relief is in seeing her graduate to a bigger and more worthwhile opponent; if she must have a nemesis, better Trump than Kanye. “Donald Trump likes my music 25 percent less!” she exclaims in one candid moment, with the eagerness of someone who’s only just realized that they need not crave the approval of their enemies.
And it’s true—that our most stressful decisions are often the longest overdue, that what scares us most usually turns out to be the product of our own anxieties. These are the kinds of therapeutic lessons Miss Americana imparts. Real problems, and the state of the society that finally moved Swift to speak her mind, are beyond the scope of this—and perhaps any—pop star documentary. So she deals with the outside world in the way she knows best: with a song, writing an uplifting protest anthem titled “Only the Young” that appears in the film’s credits. “The game was rigged, the ref got tricked,” she sings, falling back on a familiar varsity football metaphor. As a song, it seems unlikely to light the world on fire, certainly not now, so long after the initial cries of “resist” have faded. But, we are made to understand, something’s changed for her.
For all its gestures at moral authority, Miss Americana offers a view into the life of someone who’ll never have to work a traditional job, and who paid for that privilege by forgoing some of the wisdom ordinary folks earn in their teens and 20s. When you employ people to plan your schedule years in advance, autonomy becomes a more complex kind of challenge. The documentary wisely doesn’t linger on the woe-is-me issues, but their effect permeates every scene. Perhaps the saddest moment comes at the end, when Swift contemplates the idea that, as she reaches 30, her time in the spotlight is limited—that she is on her way to an “elephant graveyard” of no-longer-young women stars. Right now, she imagines, may be her final opportunity to reinvent her persona and redefine her work. It feels like another message begging to be unlearned.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork