‘Miss Americana’ Review: Taylor Swift, Scathingly Alone

“Miss Americana” is 85 minutes of translucence with Taylor Swift. There’s more in it — and more to it — than you usually get with these pop superstar portraits. I, at least, don’t recall loneliness being such a predominant condition for Swift’s peers as it is, here, for her. Not long after the movie doles out a deluxe rise-to-the-top montage, we hear Swift ask no one in particular, “Shouldn’t I have someone to call right now?” This from a woman who’s famous — notorious, actually — for her squad of besties. Otherwise, it’s lonely up there. Even the man she says she’s seeing is a figment in this movie, cropped from images, a hand-holding blur, a ghost.

On Grammy nomination day in the winter of 2018, a camera watches from a low angle as Swift sits in sweats alone on a sofa and hears from her publicist that her perturbed sixth album, “Reputation,” has been omitted from three of the big categories. She’s stoic. She’s almost palpably hurt. But Swift’s songwriting treats hurt as an elastic instrument, and she resolves in that moment of snubbing, “I just need to make a better record.” And the movie watches as she writes and records “Lover,” another album eventually rejected by the string-pullers at the Grammys.

Along the way, Swift does a lot of ruminating and recounting, a lot of arguing and apologizing on her own behalf. She’s rueful about sitting out the 2016 presidential election and failing to mobilize her millions of fans and followers against Donald Trump’s candidacy. So “Miss Americana” is also about an apolitical star waking up to herself as a woman and a citizen. She wants to spend her “good girl” credit to decry the scorched-earth-conservative Senate campaign that Marsha Blackburn was running in Tennessee, Swift’s adopted home. Her management team deems this unwise. The team, at that symbolic point, is two slouchy, old white men who counter their client’s raging passion with financial and prehistoric umbrage. Bob Hope and Bing wouldn’t let their politics dent ticket sales 50 percent. It’s part of strong stretch of the movie that argues that Swift’s own experience with a handsy (and consequently litigious) radio personality helped push her off the fence — a passage that culminates with the most stressful sending of an Instagram post you’re likely to see from a star.

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Swift’s success rate as an activist is nominal; Blackburn is currently sitting through impeachment arguments with 99 other senators. But what’s bracing about this film, which Lana Wilson directed, is the way it weds Swift’s loneliness and her arrival at empowerment. That’s at least how I’m receiving her support last summer of pro-gay legislation that culminated in the video for her hit “You Need to Calm Down.” It teemed with famous queer people, and watching its partial making in this movie made me understand that she was campaigning not just for gay rights, but possibly for new friends.

Swift is revealed as being surrounded by men of different generations. Some co-create her music. Some oversee her career. Only with the producer Jack Antonoff do we catch a spark of collaborative lightning. The few meaningful connections with women involve her mother and a visiting childhood friend (Abigail, the wronged protagonist of the Swift classic “Fifteen”) — and Wilson.

Her movie proceeds in a kind of vérité approach. It opens with an adult Swift awash in the declarations of her girlhood diaries and rarely departs from seeing the world as Swift does, and I left it with a new sympathy for a woman who polarizes people. The urge that notoriously overcame Kanye West, in 2009, to hijack her acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards stands in for a national vexation. And all she did that night was win. It’s the winning, of course, that vexes. But the movie conjures up that moment and her response to the press immediately after, and you feel like you’re watching a foundational trauma. Swift was 19.

At the other extreme is a different trauma, normal only for the famous: Folks who camp outside of Swift’s Manhattan apartment building and shriek as she exits; who, upon seeing her backstage, tearfully come apart; who so adore her that they need her as an unwitting accessory to their surprise marriage proposal. We’re supposed to call these people fans. But the ones who turn up here tend toward the most disturbing adulation. She tells the singer Brendon Urie that a man broke into her apartment and slept in her bed.

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How Taylor Swift Writes a Love Song

Using exclusive voice memos, video and interviews, Diary of a Song reconstructs how Taylor Swift turned a late-night idea into “Lover,” her fourth track to be nominated for the songwriting award at the Grammys, and her first without a co-writer.

“Hello.” “O.K., it’s happened. We’re in business.” “How’s this?” “I like it, Alex.” “Do you always keep instruments near your bed in case inspiration strikes?” “Well, I have a piano near me all the time, and I always have a good — yeah, the answer is yes.” Singing: “Take me out and take me home. You’re my, my, my, my lover.” “I’ve never really been able to fully explain songwriting other than it’s like this little glittery cloud floats in front of your face, and you grab it at the right time. And then you revert back to what you know about the structure of a song in order to fill in the gaps.” “Where were you the moment inspiration struck?” “It was, I was in bed. I was in Nashville. I got out of bed. I think it was really late at night, and stumbled over to the piano.” Voice memo: “O.K., so I had this idea that’s like — obviously I don’t know the verse, whatever yet, but I have a pretty cool, really simple, beautiful chorus idea called ‘Lover.’” “I’ve been thinking for years, God, it would just be so great to have a song that people who are in love would want to dance to, like slow dance to. In my head, I had just the last two people on a dance floor at 3 a.m., swaying.” “What did you have in your mind? Was it the title? Was it a lyric? Was it a melody?” “It was not — it was, can I go where you go? Can we always be this close?” Singing: “Can I go where you go? Can we always be this close forever and ever?” “I wanted the chorus to be these really simple existential questions that we ask ourselves when we’re in love. ‘Can I go where you go’ is such a heavy thing to ask somebody. ‘Can we always be this close’ has so much fear in it, but so does love.” “When did you hit upon the word ‘lover’?” “Oh, I’ve always liked that word, but I’ve never used it in everyday life. When people are like, that’s my lover over there or calling each other lover, I’ve never done that, but I’ve always loved it in the context of poetry or songs.” “It’s a polarizing word. Some people are like, ‘Ugh, that word gives me the creeps.’” “Well, anything I do is polarizing. So, you know, I’m used to that.” “Fair enough. So how much of the song did you get done that night at the piano in Nashville?” “The whole thing.” “She sent me that voice note. Whether it’s a whole song or just a little thing from her, I sort of get this big jolt, and I listen and I block out the whole world for a minute. Every lyric and melody was right there. And I was like …” [ding] “… get on a plane. She came in the next day. She sat right there. She played it.” “It’s basically, I don’t see it as piano. I think it’s that kind of dreamy, guitary, throwback, but not like camp throwback.” “I know what you mean.” “So —” [piano] “I thought it was the perfect song, which is really interesting because it’s almost like even more of a duty to do it right.” Singing: “You’re my, my, my, my lover.” “That seems so much better.” “Yeah, I love the walk down.” “That really fixes that part.” “I love the walk down.” “That was the only thing that —” “I was trying to figure out, what the hell is going to happen there? So the —” “That makes it so much better.” Singing: “My, my, my, my.” “When I’m working with Jack and Taylor, I’m working with two extremely creative people who are bouncing ideas back and forth so fast. So my job is to basically not slow them down in any way.” “Laura’s been by my side for every record I’ve made pretty much since people started listening to any of my records. We’re all — three of us are in that process together.” “We’re just like ugh, like it’s just fun. We’re fully, fully acting on impulse. And we’re acting on intuition, and we’re acting on excitement and oat-milk lattes.” “I remember the first thing I did was I went into the live room, which is right there. And at that time I had listened to a lot of Violent Femmes recently, and I was excited about how much feeling you could get out of a snare drum if it was a brush.” [drums] “And I just remember going in and going ‘psh,’ one brush. I wasn’t even really playing drums. I just kind of had one brush. I just —” “We were using real reverbs and real tape echoes. It gives a really special character to it where it does feel nostalgic.” “The bass, which is a very, very, very special bass, belongs to the studio.” “He was calling that the ‘Paul bass.’ Is that Paul McCartney?” “Yeah.” “My old Hofner bass, my little baby. Come on, baby.” “We were just referencing like what would Paul do — W.W.P.D.? Humming: Brum, brum, brum, brum, brum, brum, brum. The bass line is actually the hook.” “It’s not a true ‘Paul bass’ though.” “It’s not a true ‘Paul bass’ at all, but it’s better at that ‘Paul thump’ than I’ve ever gotten out of the violin bass.” Humming: “Brum, brum, brum, brum, brum, brum, brum, brum, brum.” “The bass and the drum is sort of like — if you just hear those two tracks, like the entire space is so, I think, beautifully filled.” “In the studio, I’m obsessively going over every lyric and making sure that’s what I want the final lyric to be. So I’ll be over, in my notes, just sharpen that, hone in on that.” “Were there lines that changed in that process?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had toyed with the idea of being like, we could leave the Christmas lights up till April.” Singing: “We could leave the Christmas lights up till January.” “Doesn’t everyone leave their Christmas lights up till January?” “But it’s not about that being a crazy thing. It’s about how mundane it is. It’s about we could put a rug over there. We could do wallpaper, or we could do paint.” Singing: “This is our place. We made the rules.” “When young adults go from living in their family to then combining their life with someone else, that’s actually like the most profound thing.” “To be just telling this story — I don’t know. It almost feels like an old story I’ve heard many times. I mean, I guess it is, people falling in love.” “Tell me about the importance of the bridge to you. I feel like you love a bridge. This is a special bridge. Talk to me about it.” “I love a bridge. I love a bridge so much. I love trying to take the song to a higher level with the bridge.” “There’s these, sort of, hand-plucking strings and these kind of flutes that are popping out.” “I wanted it to be the first time we introduced the idea of vows.” “Make it feel like a little wedding.” Singing: “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand?” “I love to take a common phrase and twist it. So the bridge, I took all these common phrases that we say about weddings …” Singing: “With every guitar-string scar on my hand.” “I like to add something that changes the phrase.” Singing: “I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover.” “Without a bridge, a song can sort of feel almost like a jingle. You know when you’re driving through beautiful scenery, and you’re like mountains, trees. Oh my God, right? And all of a sudden you go through a tunnel and you’re like, what the [expletive]? And then it’s back. Mountains and trees, so beautiful. It’s like you need that third element to take you away from where you’ve been so you’re so excited to get it back. Specifically in ‘Lover’ when you come out of the bridge and you go back into the chorus, you’re just ‘phew.’” Singing: “Can I go where you go? Can we always be this close, forever and ever?” “And it was all done in that one day.” “Oh yeah.” “I mean, I think we were all really excited when we left the studio that day.” “Even if anybody had been like, I don’t think this one is great, I would have been like, ‘Well, I reject your feedback because I love this one.’” “It’s the perfect song, and tells that story perfectly and pulls me right into where she wants me, as the listener, to be. You’re my, you’re my, you’re my, you’re my, you’re my what? And then —” [thump] Singing: “Lover.” “Do you have guitar-string scars on your hands?” “Well, I mean, I have extreme calluses. You can’t see them, probably, but they’re all — and I have some from just changing strings and not being very good at it. Do you know what I mean? Like some where you’re like tuning, tuning, tuning. Pop. Ow.”

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Using exclusive voice memos, video and interviews, Diary of a Song reconstructs how Taylor Swift turned a late-night idea into “Lover,” her fourth track to be nominated for the songwriting award at the Grammys, and her first without a co-writer.

So a movie about Swift — a movie worth watching, anyway — that’s seeking to provide a little intimacy should proceed aware that not everybody wants to be close. Swift has incorporated rejection and disdain into her way of being. “Miss Americana” suggests a tenuous connection between Swift’s wading into her politics and the Dixie Chicks’ being drowned because of theirs, although Wilson’s movie doesn’t have the force or clarifying intent (or material) of “Shut Up and Sing,” Barbara Koppel’s very good documentary about what befell the Dixies.

Yet, the most absorbing parts of “Miss Americana” involve Swift’s reckoning with the disillusionment of dislike — not simply other people’s but her own. When she’s watching footage of herself on a video set and says “I have a really slappable face,” it’s a throwaway self-deprecation. But it’s also a shocking symptom of the toll of her strange public life.

Her departure that day from her fan-barnacled building leads her to ruminate, minutes later, about the toll that level of attention has taken on her psyche. Swift confesses that, for some while, she couldn’t stand to see pictures of herself because she’d scrutinize rather than simply look; the scrutiny spurred an eating disorder. Here’s Swift personalizing the diseased nature of fame, a condition she’s considered with envy and rue in her songwriting, namely on “The Lucky One” from “Red,” a masterpiece album from 2012 that navigates stadium, dance floor and diary. (Swift philosophizes, at some late point, that stars are stuck at the age they became famous.)

A handful of scenes capture Swift rigorously refining songs for “Lover.” Occasionally, she senses she’s hit the jackpot, even when the result is a piece of pyrite like the album’s first single, “Me!,” a duet with Urie. Her elation over that song left me sad to have missed the moment she perfected gems like “You Belong With Me,” “22,” “Blank Space” and “Delicate.” We don’t see her working on the “Lover” track that gives the movie its title, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a midtempo number about romantic and national disillusionment.

Now, the title stands alongside her, like a guileless declaration. But it’s one capacious enough to appreciate the meaning of her music’s sometimes gnarled migration from straight country to the structural and sonic priorities of R&B to “Lover,” which is, mostly, a stable, serious, pleasurable synthesis of all of these sounds, proof that the synthesis contains traces of American music histories. Basically, Americana.

This documentary isn’t as coherent as “Truth or Dare,” the Olympic standard for pop-star portraiture. But Madonna had found a coherent persona by the time of that movie. Swift is still eking hers out. Along with her music, she’s evolving.

That’s a part of the documentary’s assertion — her creative and personal maturity come with a cost, obviously. But its most exhilarating disclosure is that Swift finds herself determined to pay it. Some of the new music means to amplify her politics — “The Man” achieves that with hooky, witty, pleasingly obvious pique. You can see a woman who, despite having once recorded an album called “Speak Now,” never felt it was her place to say anything. Wilson has captured Swift at a convincing turning point, ready, perhaps, to say a lot more.

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes.

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