miss americana

18 Things We Learn About Taylor Swift in Her Documentary Miss Americana

The superstar’s new doc, directed by Lana Wilson, reveals a lot: a previously unmentioned eating disorder, the story behind her political awakening, and a cat backpack. Photo: YouTube

This piece originally ran after the Sundance premiere of Miss Americana in Park City, Utah. We are republishing it now that the documentary is streaming on Netflix.

Before seeing the documentary Miss Americana, which had its second Sundance Film Festival screening on Friday night in Salt Lake City, you’d be forgiven for thinking Taylor Swift and filmmaker Lana Wilson unlikely bedfellows. Wilson is best known for After Tiller, a probing, no-holds-barred doc centering on the only doctors in America willing to perform third-trimester abortions. Swift has been, until quite recently, the sort of global superstar who manages her image painstakingly and expertly dodges questions about her own political leanings. Heading into the screening, I wondered how vulnerable Swift would allow herself to be on camera and how much we’d actually learn about the notoriously private artist.

As it turns out, Miss Americana is a relatively revealing and compelling portrait of Swift. She’s at turns self-critical and self-confident as she opens up about things like a previously unmentioned eating disorder, the psychological work she’s done and continues to do, her decision to publicly lean left, and her attempts to wipe her brain and body of inherited misogyny. When she’s not thoughtfully deconstructing her career and mind, we get to see her in her element, making music so prolifically and with such ease that it’s a little mind-blowing. Wilson and Swift leave plenty out, a lot of it quite noticeably — for example, we never see the actual face of Swift’s long-term boyfriend Joe Alwyn, and Scooter Braun is removed from the narrative — but they pull a sort of magic trick with what they leave in, resulting in a moving (if a little hagiographical) portrait of a thoughtful, smart, funny woman in the process of becoming herself while also wearing a see-through cat backpack. The movie hits Netflix on January 31, but if you can’t wait until then, here’s a rundown of the most interesting things we learn about Swift in Miss Americana.

No. 14: She lets her cats eat at her dinner table. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

For most of her life, Swift has been obsessed with the idea of being a “good girl.”

“I had a need to be thought of as good,” she admits early on in the documentary, as she flips through old, neurotically moralizing diary entries, explaining that as a child and a young adult, “pats on the head were all I lived for … It was the complete and total belief system I subscribed to as a kid.” Her career, she explains, was initially an extension of this need — she collected and survived off of the approval and admiration of others. “I became the person who everyone wanted me to be,” she says, adding that many artists go into entertainment because they’re similarly “intrinsically insecure.” This is the ideological center of the documentary: Swift opens up about her fragile sense of self, and we watch as she becomes more and more emboldened.

One way this played out was via an eating disorder that lasted several years.

Swift admits that for most of her career, she was a double zero and “wasn’t eating.” When she did eat, she tracked every single thing she put in her mouth and exercised obsessively. She tells Wilson that she wouldn’t have characterized it as an eating disorder at the time — she would tell anybody who asked that she just “exercised a lot.” In truth, though, one bad paparazzi photo would throw her into a tailspin, and she’d begin “starving” to meet an “impossible standard of beauty.” Now a size six, Swift says she began realizing how unwell she was when her mother Andrea was diagnosed with cancer, which threw all of her own issues, including this one, into sharp relief. “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if your mom is sick from chemo?” she says. Now, she doesn’t look at paparazzi photos of her body anymore, and when she begins to spiral, she tells herself, “Nope. We don’t do that anymore. We do not do that anymore. It’s better to think you look fat than to look sick.”

She reacted very calmly to the news that Reputation wasn’t nominated for any of the “big” Grammy categories.

Early in the film, Swift gets a phone call from her publicist, the infamous Tree Paine, who breaks the news that her album isn’t nominated in any of the major categories. Swift takes the news in impressive stride, appearing briefly crestfallen but then decisive. “This is good, this is fine,” she says. “I need to make a better record. I’m making a better record.”

Her socks match her pajamas exactly in this scene.

This is just something I wanted to note.

“Me!” sounds better in development than it does in its final form.

We get to see Swift in various stages of creating several times throughout the doc. She writes lyrics and melodies rapidly, seemingly without effort, while her collaborators strive to keep up with her pace. (At one point, she comes up with the concept for the “Me!” video seemingly on the fly, describing it ecstatically and second-by-second to collaborator Brendon Urie.) When she comes up with the melody and initial lyrics for “Me!”, and plays a stripped-down version of it on the piano, the song sounds … not bad! Is it time for an acoustic rerelease of “Me!”?

Despite her natural affinity for songwriting, she feels an immense internal and external pressure to get better with every record.

“If I don’t beat everything I’ve done, it’s seen as a colossal failure,” she says during a meeting with her team in the midst of conceiving Lover. 

She drinks white wine with ice.

This is her drink of choice at several pivotal moments in the film.

When she hit her professional peak, winning Album of the Year twice in a row, Swift says she realized she’d gotten “everything [she] ever wanted” — but that she had nobody to share it with.

“Oh my god, that was all you wanted,” she remembers thinking as she walked onto the Grammys stage to accept the award for 1989. “What now? I don’t have a partner who I climbed this mountain with who I can high-five. Shouldn’t I have someone I can call?” This, along with her mother’s illness, prompted a major reevaluation of her priorities.

The Kanye West incident — and its resulting fallout — messed her up more than she let on.

In the context of the film, it makes sense that Swift disappeared from the public eye shortly after West and Kim Kardashian leaked a private phone call she’d had with West and called her a “snake.” The public’s reaction — “#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty  was the No. 1 global trending topic on twitter — shook her already unstable foundation so deeply that she questioned almost everything about herself. “When people decided I was wicked and evil and conniving and not a good person, that was the one that I couldn’t really bounce back from, because my whole life was centered around it,” she says.

And so did her sexual assault trial.

Swift took Colorado DJ David Mueller to court after he groped her butt during a photo opp — an assault witnessed by seven people and captured in said photograph — then he sued her when he lost his job over the incident. Swift won the $1 in damages she sued him for, but says in the doc that the victory was relatively hollow because it made her consider all of the other women out there who’ve been assaulted and raped and “nobody believes them.” Andrea Swift is also shown sobbing into Taylor’s arms after the trial, relieved but also devastated for Taylor. Taylor herself says she was “unspeakably and unchangeably different” after the trial.

The assault trial was the catalyst for Swift’s political outspokenness.

Growing up in the shadow of the Dixie Chicks’ haunting excision from country music after lead singer Natalie Maines made a joke about George Bush, Swift was terrified to speak up about her own politics and risk isolating half of her fanbase. But after her assault trial, Swift says, she wondered why she hadn’t spoken up earlier about Donald Trump and his cohorts, and became determined to “remove the masking tape from my mouth.” In the doc, we see Swift, flanked by Andrea, arguing with a series of advisers (all white men, including her father) about whether or not it’s worth it to publicly rail against far-right conservative senate candidate Marsha Blackburn. Her father is scared for her safety, among other things, and at one point reminds her that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope always kept their politics to themselves. Andrea scoffs at this, and so does Taylor. “These are your dad’s celebrities but not your dad’s republicans,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. “I need to be on the right side of history.” Ultimately, Swift says she’s going to do it no matter what her dad thinks, and asks for his preemptive forgiveness. Later, we watch as Taylor, Paine, and Andrea swig iced white wine and post the now-infamous Instagram. Paine warns Taylor that Trump might come out swinging for her. “I don’t fucking care,” says Taylor.

She didn’t try a burrito until she was 26 years old.

But we watch her joyfully eat one during a recording session.

Joe Alwyn helped Swift figure out how to live a happy life detached from public approval and scrutiny.

Though we only see Alwyn once, hugging Swift sweetly after a show, we do see his hand as Swift kisses it in a car and his shadow as they stroll merrily through a field (as one does). Swift never mentions him by name — she says they both want to keep the relationship private — but credits him with helping her find a more “normal, balanced” life, one that didn’t rely on others’ input. At one point, Alwyn appears to film Swift singing “Call It What You Want,” a song about their fledgling relationship; mid-verse, she stops singing to sweetly mouth, “I love you.”

She lets her cats eat at her dinner table.

Swift’s longtime best friend Abigail comes over for a spaghetti dinner and Swift pours cat food directly onto the table so that one of her cats can join them. This is another event at which she drinks iced white wine.

She puts her cats in a backpack with a window in it when she travels.

She puts … her cats … in a backpack … with a window in it … when she travels.

She’s not ready to start a family, despite feeling, in many ways, “57 years old.”

During the dinner with Abigail, Swift recounts a recent visit she paid to a friend with kids, who complained about the monotony of motherhood: “Feed. Change. Sleep.” Swift replied, “So it’s like a Tamagotchi?” Though Abigail tells Swift she’d be a great mother, Swift says in another segment that the “grown-up stuff” feels a little out of reach for her; her life is planned out two years in advance, which makes it hard to think about major life shifts.

She does professional-grade manicures on herself and her friends.

In one scene, she gives her friend Todrick Hall a manicure backstage at the AMAs. “How’d you learn to do this?” he asks, impressed. “I really like having cute nails and I really can’t go out in public,” she says.

Despite overcoming some of her psychological insecurities, she still thinks she only has a few years left where the public will “allow [me] to be successful.”

Near the end of the doc, Swift intelligently sums up her growth as a person. She was frozen at the age she became famous, she says, and had a “lot of growing up to do to catch up to 29.” But this isn’t a pat conclusion; all isn’t solved. Now that she’s caught up, she explains, she’s got to reckon with the music industry’s inherent misogyny, and the need for female artists to constantly reinvent themselves so that they stay interesting and relevant, like a “new toy.” “This is probably my last opportunity to have that sort of success,” she says, explaining that after 30 she’s not sure she’ll have as much interest and bandwidth from the public. The doc ends after Swift makes this point — a relatively downbeat note considering everything we’ve just seen — but she does add one last hopeful thought: “I want to continue to have a sharp pen, a thin skin, and an open mind.”

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18 Things We Learn About Taylor Swift in Miss Americana