Miss Americana: pop, politics, and Parton

Film poster for Taylor Swift documentary ‘Miss Americana’
Film poster for Taylor Swift documentary ‘Miss Americana’

I watched the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana on Netflix over the weekend. And as a former documentary student and big Taylor Swift fan I had a lot of thoughts. So, as a writer, I wrote them down.

I’d originally written things like ‘a lovely snapshot with no real depth’ and ‘interest comes in objectivity and the one woman Taylor empire can never be objective in this capacity’ and ‘pop music is nice’.

But then I woke up today and realised my takes were so very wrong, and here’s why:

Dolly Parton.

Listening to the excellent podcast Dolly Parton’s America this week, I was struck by how Dolly had managed to build her own path through country music to world wide acclaim, whilst releasing pro-union songs, standing her own ground against sexism, and appealing to people across the globe with universal nostalgia.

Now of course some of the renaissance of Dolly in recent years has been fuelled by the prevalence of the Yee-Haw Agenda: the reclamation of American settler stereotypes by those who have traditionally been excluded from them; namely black, brown, and queer people. Or maybe Dolly fuelled the Agenda. Either way, the space that Dolly and Lil Nas X currently both occupy in youth pop culture is intertwined and the semantics aren’t important right now. All that matters for this take is that they co-exist.

Dolly Parton has made a career out of being herself, unashamedly, in a world that refused to take her seriously. Always giving as good as it got, the Southern stereotype of dumb booby blonde followed Dolly from hit to hit. When in reality Dolly is nothing like that. She stands up for her gay fans and women’s rights, she is considered and intelligent and most of all kind.

In the Netflix documentary Miss Americana, we follow Taylor Swift as she writes and records her latest album Lover. We see vintage clips of a teenage Taylor singing songs and accepting awards. She is candid about her struggles with celebrity and eating disorders, though consciously avoids discussing her personal relationships (both romantic and platonic) in any substantial way. There is little to no mention about the transition from country to pop and back, or how the world of pop has grown more inclusive of other genres including country.

Moments that defined her career, such as being interrupted on stage by Kayne West at the VMAs are given a small amount of space. But the moment that feels the longest throughout the film is a scene where Taylor tearfully explains to her dad why she now, after years of silence, is going to speak out about politics.

On the internet the backlash surrounding the film seemed to mostly centre on this scene. Not necessarily chastising Taylor, but finding disgust in the luxury of her privilege to be able to sit quietly for so long — a move that appears to be a (white, male) manager ordered PR play.

The United States is a young and divided country but the margins are drawing closer to the middle. To have the charts dominated by hip hop, pop, dance, and country is a relatively new phenomenon. And whilst conversations still need to be had about appropriation of black and brown culture by mainstream white artists, and sexism, classism, and ableism remain “acceptable” across the board, it’s interesting to see how artists like Taylor have chosen to use their relative privilege.

Being apolitical anywhere is a luxury, but especially in a country that consistently votes to roll back the rights of marginalised people. To take away women’s rights to health care, or migrants rights to safety, or poor people’s rights to nutrition. And, as Taylor says, most of these laws are passed under the pretence of Christian values.

Which brings us back to Dolly. Undoubtedly a Christian but undeniably an activist, Dolly Parton wants to create a better world for everybody, and she fought hard to have the ability to do so. But Dolly Parton is, unfortunately, the only person who can ever be Dolly Parton. Taylor has to find her own voice.

Which is why when we refocus Miss Americana through the lens of Dolly’s legacy, the film takes on a different weight.

Brushing over the big controversies like ‘an objectively bad album that fails to win awards’ no longer feels like a failure of storytelling but a deliberate choice in structure.

It would have been so easy to lean into the narrative that Taylor felt objectified by the press’ obsession with her romantic life. But by not doing so, director Lana Wilson is able to build a much bigger stage for the core story.

And whilst I’m not sure Wilson pulls this off as smoothly as she hoped (the film remains chunky in places, with the risk never jepordising the reward), this is ultimately a film about political awakening and Taylor Swift’s attempt to rewrite the rulebook.

We see Taylor write a political anthem for teenagers disheartened by their voices being lost. Taylor is filmed with the cast of Queer Eye offering her celebrity for any good causes they might be involved in. Taylor winning a lawsuit that involved a man sexually assaulting her. Taylor not apologising. Taylor making decisions. Taylor using her voice.

And once we have our political awakening specs on, the in between scenes start to look different too. The fact that Taylor writes all her own songs isn’t a sales point or a quirky fact, it’s a proof point. Taylor means what she says. Taylor believes in these causes. Taylor is a political force.

And that’s why my previous review was wrong. Sure, the storytelling is hit and miss, and a lot of the depth of subject that comes with objectivity has been lost. Taylor Swift and Lana Wilson weren’t trying to make a biography. They were trying to make a part one. A prologue.

And yes, of course, this is all very good PR for Taylor Swift. But I don’t think that’s a point anybody would make about MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., or Shut Up and Play the Hits. Which is really what Taylor has been trying to say all along:

You (the world) don’t take nice blonde women who sing pop songs seriously. But she’s planning to take up the space she earnt, now. Just like Dolly did. Just like The Dixie Chicks did. And just like the artists she inspires will.

British lass in Canada, writing about politics, pop culture, feminism, class, being a millennial, telly, and myself. Tweet me @blerhgh

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