Taylor Swift's 'Miss Americana' a peek behind the curtain of modern celebrity

Documentary, now streaming on Netflix, shows the pop megastar finding her voice

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

There's a moment in Taylor Swift's new Netflix documentary, "Miss Americana," where a young Taylor unwraps her first guitar for Christmas. 

Wide-eyed, she blurts, "I... am... happy!" But even in that moment, there's a sense that she's saying what she thinks she's supposed to be saying. True happiness isn't as calculated or articulated so clearly. 

Taylor Swift in "Miss Americana."

Taylor Swift has always been premeditated and precise; all she ever wanted to do was to please people and make them happy. What's revealing about "Miss Americana" is it shows how she had to change her course when the world threw some obstacles in her way, and how she used those obstacles to find her true voice. 

"Miss Americana" is a part of Swift's self-controlled narrative, a narrative which has been evolving since she debuted on the country music scene as a 16-year-old singing her swooning love song "Tim McGraw." 

Back then she could play nice and be the smiling starlet she always wanted to be. But several incidents — Kanye West bumrushing her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, her 2017 sexual assault trial — awakened another side of her, and "Miss Americana" documents her enlightening path to self-discovery. 

It's not a warts-and-all portrait of the megastar; she's letting viewers see what she wants them to see, and there are several omissions — notably, her still-evolving feud with music biz power player Scooter Braun over the rights to her back catalog — that go unmentioned. (And don't expect to see any behind-the-scenes footage of her filming "Cats," the furball of a movie is never brought up.)  

But as a snapshot of modern celebrity, it's very telling. In another era, Swift would have been able to hang back, play her songs and keep the world at an arm's length. That's the world her advisers are pining for in a scene where they're attempting to counter her decision to reveal her politics by asking if Bing Crosby or Bob Hope ever went that route. (It's a small exchange, but it shows the dated, old-world mentality that still prevails in certain sects of the music industry.)  

But that's not the world we live in, so her road map needed to be recalculated, and she wound up coming out better for it. 

"Miss Americana," which is directed by Lana Wilson, mentions but doesn't dwell on Swift's past history with eating disorders, which she chalks up to the pressures of being thin in a 24/7 paparazzi world. She's seen being dealt what for her was the crushing blow of not being nominated in the top categories of the 2018 Grammys. ("I just needed to make a better record," she reasons, choking back tears.) And we see her internalize the backlash from her squabble with Kanye West, which results in her slipping out of the public eye for a year. ("That's what I thought people wanted," she says.)

In those moments, Swift shows the human toll of being a megastar in the internet age. But she uses the lessons learned from those incidents and decides to throw her hat in the political arena, backing a Democratic candidate in the 2018 midterm elections and choosing to be outspoken, going against the "don't ruffle any feathers" mindset that had been instilled in her since childhood.

The candidate she supported wound up not winning the election. But the fact that she stood up, used her voice to speak her mind and plant her flag in the ground marked a clear evolution for the star, who turned 30 in December. And now when she says she's happy, you can tell she truly means it.