Miss Americana: When Taylor Swift found her ‘voice’

Ishita Sengupta
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Miss Americana is streaming on Netflix. (Source: Netflix)

A little more than an hour into the documentary on Taylor Swift, there occurs a definitive shift. The singer’s poise, which fits her like a sculpted mould, begins to show cracks. Flanked by her publicist, Tree Paine and mother, Andrea Swift on both sides, she sits precariously clutching her phone like a pen. Swift unironically dons a tangerine tee that says SWEAT and resembling a jumpy student about to enter an examination hall, gives herself a pep talk. The analogy plays out more effectively in the following moments. She runs her eyes hastily over the ‘text’ like revising at the last minute and her mother, sitting next to her and reflecting her anxiety, tries to comfort. It is time. On a countdown of three, she presses a button on the screen and simultaneously all three women — overcome by the enormity of the act — cover their faces. Throwing her hands in palpable apprehension, Swift keeps sitting but is hardly still. Her eyes are closed, her face contorted. The expression could be mistaken for a grimace if not for the smile on her lips. It is precisely at this point when the story earns the genre it has chosen for itself. Her trepidation on doing something bigger than herself, gauging not the range but reach of her voice, using it to take sides and the consequent nervous pride she felt on doing so had to be documented. It is here that Miss Americana becomes pointedly specific and empathetically universal.

Directed by Emmy-winning Lana Wilson, it opens with a confession: “My entire moral code as a kid and now is a need to be thought of as good.” The peril of such a belief is cheekily highlighted in the next scene when her cat freely lounges on the piano and the singer gingerly picks it up with a word of caution, “That’s dangerous for you.” This self-reflexivity informs the narrative arc of Miss Americana as Swift looks back at her journey with an objective subjectiveness, dissecting her past actions, introspecting on her life and reflecting on her insecurities. This also accounts for the more rewarding bits of the documentary: her admission of suffering from and hiding an eating disorder — “You don’t ever say to yourself, ‘I have an eating disorder,’ but you know you’re making a list of everything that you put in your mouth that day”, her acute need to be liked by others which, she discloses, stems from not liking herself too much, her recognition of the impossibility to fulfill normative beauty standards, and acceptance that she had hitherto built an entire belief system on others’ opinion of her. 

Taylor Swift confided that her moral code as a kid was to be thought of as good. (Source: Netflix)

But the arc bends the sharpest at the aforementioned scene when Swift decided to take a political stand for the first time on October 8, 2018 during Tennessee's mid-term election. Ending years of ambivalence, Swift shared she did not subscribe to Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn's policies nor agreed to the latter's decision of voting against equal pay for women and the act which aimed at protecting women from stalking, domestic violence, and date rape. Notwithstanding the backlash she received for it — President Trump (in)famously said he liked her music 25 per cent less — it was the effort she had to undertake to convince her team and partly herself which are most telling. In an affecting moment, her father attempts dissuading by citing examples of men artists who never spoke up — “Does Bob Hope do it? Did Bing Crosby do it?” — as Swift, tottering on an emotional breakdown, reasons it is important for her. In his argument, he not just overlooks that men are seldom compelled to take sides in the face of power for always already being on the beneficial end but inadvertently voices an accepted norm: women, irrespective of their privilege, are not expected or supposed to have an opinion.

Swift for long conformed to this narrative and Wilson hints at this by including a short clip of an old interview. At 22, when the singer was asked about her political allegiance, she had promptly retorted “I don’t think people want to hear my political views. I think they kind of just want to hear me sing songs about breakups and feelings” much to the approval of the (male) interviewer. Now close to 30, Swift identifies her opinions as borrowed, behaviour as obedience. Her unlearning had begun some time back, evident in her refusal to look at her own photos — which she confided would lead her spiralling down to a vicious cycle of self-loathing — but it culminates most strikingly in moments prior to making her opinions known. The scene —  pulsating with rage, self-doubt, personal shame and hope — pushes her identity of a cultural icon to the fringes, leaving bare her identify of a woman at the fore.

Watching her speak truth to power, I was instinctively reminded of Deepika Padukone standing with students at JNU on January 7 after the attack. Swift's brief negotiation with herself after convincing the world provides a fitting backdrop to what the actor must have gone through before entering the campus, the many voices she had to ignore and a moment of hesitance she had to overcome. Posited in a society which conditions women to put others’ interest before her own, standing up for herself first involves standing against her (own) self which is trained to comply.

Wilson borrows the name of the documentary from one of Swift's songs, Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince (Source: Netflix)

Shot after her 2017 album Reputation released and during the time she was composing her latest Lover — the phase when Swift was ‘notoriously hiding’ — the documentary presents the singer after she testified against a former radio DJ for groping her and won the case, after she is conscious of her voice, the difference it can make, and after she is intensely familiar with an unfairness deeply embedded in the society: even though women face certain incidents because of their gender, they are expected to retaliate like a man, like it had not happened to them. Swift knows it cannot be the way out, it never is. For women, most struggles are shared if not same and when one raises her voice it reverberates with the silence of those unable to speak up.

Wilson borrows the name of the documentary from one of Swift's songs, Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince. But it is impossible to not notice its nod to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s blistering 2013 novel, Americanah. In the book, the protagonist, Ifemelu goes to America from Nigeria and for the first time, her identity as a black woman dawns on her with full force. She recognises the presence of racism, confronts the fright of being othered. Americanah encapsulates a moment of awakening, of Ifemelu’s reckoning with who and how she is. Swift epitomises it in and as Miss Americana. One can read it as an extension of her oft-criticised reputation of crafting her public persona. But she made it into a song and that is an artist's word for you.