Early in the documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift is seen sifting through a pile of diaries — some of them literally written with a quill pen — and reflecting that “my entire moral code, as a kid and now, is to be thought of as good.”
How to navigate that “code” — and the cultural forces that influence women in particular to adopt variations of it — is a central theme of Lana Wilson’s documentary, which chronicles the past few years of the pop superstar’s life and premiered at Sundance Thursday night. The singer opens up repeatedly about her lifelong anxiety to be a good girl, her terror of getting in trouble, and her desperate need for “pats on the head.”
Swift’s self-professed need for approval is at the root of the film’s darkest moments. She admits to having struggled with an eating disorder, and that seeing unflattering photos of herself or reading cruel comments that she looked pregnant “would trigger me to just starve.” Years of agonizing over her weight, however, taught her that “it’s all just f—ing impossible,” when it comes to maintaining — or obtaining — a “perfect” body. She had to decide for herself that “we’re changing the channel in our brain and we’re not doing that anymore.”
The film’s climax comes with the 2018 midterm elections, where Swift publicly endorsed a candidate for the first time — after, as we learn, an enormous struggle with her advisory team and her own obsession with being liked. Having learned from the Dixie Chicks that country singers shouldn’t dip their toe in politics, Swift always avoided it; “a nice girl doesn’t force her opinions on people,” she observes in the film. But when Marsha Blackburn — a.k.a. “Trump in a wig,” as Swift angrily calls her — ran for Senate in Tennessee in 2018, Swift needed to say something.
“These aren’t Tennessee Christian values,” Swift argues through tears. “I live in Tennessee. I’m Christian. These are not my values.” The Sundance audience expressed its hearty approval.
Blackburn won the election, but “I feel really good about not being muzzled anymore,” Swift says, and her fury and her newfound voice bring about the new song “Only the Young,” which was inspired by the young people who were disappointed by Blackburn’s victory but who have the power to effect change in the future. “Only the young can run,” she sings on the track. “You can run from fascism,” she says in the studio as she’s discovering the song.
Her difficult public life is intercut with joyous scenes like that of her fruitful creative life, bringing viewers into her recording studio for the first time. She puts on her “party shoes” — a.k.a. light-up sneakers — to record vocals with Jack Antonoff; she pitches the candy-colored “ME!” music video to Brendon Urie as “if you were to split open my imagination, what would come out;” and watching her work through “If I Was a Man,” the audience giggled as she struggled to find lyrics that Swifties already have memorized.
Her fans showed up to Park City’s Eccles theater in full force — ahead of the premiere, the enormous waitlist line could be heard belting “22” and other songs; the theater gave her a standing ovation as she took the stage with Wilson for a brief Q&A following the screening.
“Having someone in the studio when I’m writing is something I’ve never done before because I didn’t want to know if it would stop me from feeling like I could come up with ideas and feeling like I could throw things out,” Swift explained in the Q&A. “There’s so much ridiculous-sounding ad-libbing that you do when you’re writing songs! So much of it sounds ridiculous until it sounds alright.”
She was able to bring Wilson into her studio, though, and into her life, because of the filmmaker’s empathy. “I think one of the things about you is that, for so much of my life in the public eye, when I get sad or upset or humiliated or angry or go through a really horrible time, I feel people lean in with this hunger — and you never did that to me,” Swift said to the director. “I really want to thank you for that.”
Miss Americana will hit Netflix on Jan. 31. For the latest from Park City, follow EW’s coverage of Sundance here.
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