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Miss Americana misses the deeper meaning of goodness

The documentary on Taylor Swift 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.

(Image: Netflix)

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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About Nick Olszyk 135 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

3 Comments

  1. No doubt reading this is less agonizing than witnessing the production itself. “The Story of a Soul” kept coming to my mind. A searing comparison no less painful than contrasting our Bergoglian epoch with a more faithful period of not so long ago. We endure a toxic narcissism across the board.

  2. 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.’”

    The root of narcissism, left uncorrected.

  3. I agree with the author, Nick Olszyck’s conclusions and the impression of the nightmarish world which we glimpse in the documentary. There is also an aspect which I found disturbing: there is a scene in which Swift is discussing whether or not to take a social/political stance. She appears, to me, to be engaged in the discussion either with her manager or her father (I am unfamiliar with their identity, although my teenage daughter would tell you their names, roles and PIN numbers). She is sternly warned by the male authority figure (manager or father), that she will be criticised for taking a political stance. Her reply is one whereby she takes an empowered role, one by which she articulates her political principles, even knowing and having been warned, that she will be criticised for doing so (I am woman hear me roar). Only thing – the social/political stand under discussion is in complete accord with the LGBT agenda – her ‘defiant’ stance, for which she is warned (on camera) that she will be ‘criticised ‘ and attacked, is a stance of publicly ‘defending’ the rights of LGBT people.
    While she is quite entitled to her political views, to present a meeting with her minders as presaging that she will be personally attacked for saying something supportive of the prevailing world-view, for presenting that agenda as though it was a minority agenda which would entail some form of persecution (and therefore bravery in articulating it), is disingenuous in the continuance of the propaganda of the gay rights movement as along the lines of the civil rights movement and in accordance with the fairy tale that it is not imposed from the top but is a small movement from the grass roots up of a persecuted minority. The hypocrisy of the scene is clear when one considers the opposite political viewpoint; what would have happened to Taylor Swift if she had declared her politics as against same sex marriage? Then, she would have suffered in her career and would have been targeted in her shows and cyber bullied. That would have been a stance which would have attracted criticism and would have required string conviction if she were to state her views. But she was stating the non-controversial view, and, at the same time, it was presented as the controversial stand.

    The scene itself gave rise to a cynical reaction on my part, where the purported ‘spontaneous ‘ reaction of her minders, that she was going to attract criticism for ridding herself of her conservative image and embracing the fashionable world-view actually gave me the creeps. The overall impression left by a documentary which appears to have been made for the purpose to move her image away from an unfashionable conservative one and into a conforming woke image is that the world in which she inhabits is empty, her drive to succeed and to be the best is all-consuming. As my daughter is a fan, and as I have attended her concert (once), I am amazed at her talent professionalism and obvious work ethic. However, the documentary left me with a sadness at the empty world in which she lives, where virtue is vocalised, like St Paul pointed out, without the charity of the love of God. Where a young, talented singer feels compelled to conform her thinking to the prevailing cultural current because she believes that is what makes a ‘good person ‘ and where she is prepared to go through a rehearsed, fake scene by which a pastiche of moral courage is enacted, together with members of her family, in order to conform herself to the new, acceptable image. It was desolate and empty and, yes, I agree, in a world with no genuine engagement, a type of empty nightmare.

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