MPAA Rating: TV-MA
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Miss Americana, a documentary released recently on Netflix and in select theaters, opens with a scene of now thirty-something superstar Taylor Swift going through her tween journals, decorated with pink feathers and faux locks on the fore edge. Around the margins, she has written: “My thoughts, my dreams, my goals, my reality.” As the memories flood back, she smiles and muses, “from the time I was very little I have always had a desire to be thought of as ‘good,’ to be a ‘good girl.’” It’s amazing how a single scene can perfectly capture a person’s identity and how she defines her moral existence as the world.
Miss Americana is a well-executed revelation of both an artist and the culture she inhabits. Unfortunately, what is revealed may be more of a nightmare than a dream come true.
The documentary begins as a standard autobiography. Swift narrates the entire film herself, which provides an intimacy rarely felt on such projects, although it also makes her an unreliable narrator. Swift’s career began when she was in her early teens and skyrocketed overnight, as she breached the top 40 by the age of sixteen and had a number one hit two years later. There’s no denying she is talented—or popular, rivaling Michael Jackson in sales and the Beatles in popularity. She has written or co-written all of her hit songs.
Swift’s “thoughts, dreams, and goals” became “reality.” Her crisis—as she would describe it—began in 2009 when Kayne West interrupted her VMA speech to voice his opinion that Beyoncé should have won. For those unfamiliar with the esteemed MTV Video Music Awards, this is about as controversial as the Real Housewives arguing about who brought better wine to the baby shower. Gradually, she shifted her philosophical center from external to internal, leading to a flowering of new music and the courage to express her identity.
As a budding artist in the mid-2000s, Swift found confirmation of her “goodness”—both morally and artistically—in the approval of her peers. The applause from fans and various awards validated her worth as an individual. Yet such fame is almost always fleeting. With the rise of social media came trolling and cyberbullying. In addition, she became the center of sexual assault lawsuit against a music executive who had groped her in front of dozens of people. Rather than rolling with the punches, Swift took them. Hard. She had been trained to “smile and wave.” Thus, she had no way to cope with hecklers. Social acceptability has never been a strong moral standard. If it were, martyrdom would probably not be possible.
After taking a year break from the spotlight, Swift burst back into the music scene with a completely different attitude. She traded her cowboy hat and country twang for disco sparkles and a pop persona. 2014’s album 1989 was a smash hit and dealt directly with her negative experiences. None demonstrated this better than the album’s most successful song “Shake It Off”:
I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music
In my mind
Saying, “It’s gonna be alright.
Prior to 2014, Swift was also firmly apolitical, allowing many fans to consider her a crypto-conservative. But then she began to talk openly about equal pay, homosexuality, racism, the #metoo movement, and a host of other liberal causes. She endorsed political candidates and insisted she “would not be silent.” This clearly had a positive affect on her psyche. Finding one’s conscience and speaking out on one’s beliefs are certainly significant. However, the Church has always cautioned that it is possible to have a poorly formed conscience that endorses evil while thinking one is upholding what is good and true. While claiming to buck the system, Swift bought into another philosophical niche hook, line, and sinker.
Miss Americana has a typical “happy ending.” Taylor Swift, the nice girl who always did right, matures into a confident young woman who speaks her mind, all while winning Grammys, helping liberal politicians, and making millions. Yet, the victory is hollow because the journey is not done. One possible advantage of conforming to society is that it teaches the individual to think and outside his own ego. The disadvantage is that humans are fallible, especially in large numbers. The moral advantage of conforming to inner discernment is that it sees past social pressure. The disadvantage is that it is easily swayed by one’s own passions. The answer is to conform to the law of Christ, given to mankind through the Church’s deposit of faith. This is the only way an individual can experience the joy of youthful exuberance, coupled with the certainty of a divine mandate.
Miss Americana is aptly named, as this country has long been synonymous with pursuing one’s dreams and enjoying one’s freedoms. Yet, freedom is not a license to redefine reality. The film frames the argument, but the Church has the best answer.
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