Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana is the latest in the streaming service’s attempt to show us a multifaceted view of otherwise two-dimensional stars.
The latest Netflix release often leads to the creation of different factions within social media, where the trend becomes having watched a certain show, or film of the moment. From Orange is the New Black to Bird Box, Netflix releases series like a movie premiere night, and the faster you binge it, the faster you can join in on the conversations happening all around you on social media. Streaming platforms have taken advantage of the power of the documentary, and the genre is arguably more popularly consumed now than ever before.
In Miss Americana, documenting several years in the life of Taylor Swift, director Lana Wilson chose to compile interviews, flashbacks, home footage, phone videos, concert recordings, and shots from inside the singer’s studio, resulting in a mixed bag of some intimate moments of the star’s life. The film touches on several of Swift’s more challenging moments, including battling an eating disorder, going through a sexual assault case, and struggling with her self-esteem.
For Swift, this film comes across as an open invitation to her millions of fans to visualize her backstage, offstage, at home, and not in the glossy moments of the limelight. It is impossible to debate Swift’s significance in a modern musical world, no matter what personal opinions or taste preferences a person has.
Her level of success is unprecedented, and for that reason merits a dialogue about the stress that puts on the psyche of a young person, especially a woman, “redefining success” in a “meritocratic capitalist patriarchy,” Spencer Kornhaber wrote in The Atlantic.
Though talented and undoubtedly successful, Swift has at many moments appeared to be overwhelmingly disliked by the media. Miss Americana presented Swift with the opportunity to communicate what she wanted in her way, especially because she has often been quiet when asked to make public statements regarding politics or her personal life.
She has the opportunity to reconsider one of the more infamous moments of her career, when Kanye West took the mic to say Beyoncé had a better music video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Swift says that she misunderstood the situation, thinking that the audience’s jeers towards Kanye for stealing her shine were actually boos of agreement, turning this awkward encounter into something that genuinely traumatized the young artist.
Her extreme desire to be liked and accepted by the public complicated the way she saw herself, coming to a head in 2016 when Kanye and wife Kim Kardashian claimed Swift lied when she said she never gave the rapper permission to sing about her in ‘Famous’.
Her public perception was significantly changed, with people formerly ambivalent towards Swift commenting under her posts to fuel the drama unfolding via social media. She chooses towards the end of the documentary to vocalize her support for Tennessee Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen, breaking from her tendency to stay quiet about her leanings, especially because her parents encouraged her not to come out “as a liberal.”
Netflix’s history of PR-motivated documentaries is not new, yet perhaps the material and subjects covered are simply timelier now than they were. The streaming-producing powerhouse has released documentaries about Keith Richards, Amanda Knox, Jim Carey, Rachel Dolezal, Lady Gaga, Joan Didion, Beyoncé, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Bob Dylan, and Travis Scott. And while not each of these artists are embroiled individually in scandal or controversy, every documentary produces a generally positive impact.
Even if the viewer’s reaction is still negative, the fact that they individually chose to spend at least two hours listening to what the subject had to say is a victory alone – this proves the power of Netflix. Social media is definitely powerful to celebrities, but streaming seems priceless in a society that moves too quickly to really remember a tweet, a post, an interview.
Spending hours, sometimes days watching a docuseries gives both Netflix and the subject the opportunity to make a well-thought-out, contextualized, and seemingly “intimate” statement with the viewer face-to-face – a statement that cannot be replied to by the viewer.
The celebrity PR documentary is a commodity very unique to Netflix. Hulu and other streaming platforms have comparable options – The Life of Kylie, Jane, He Named Me Malala, and RBG. But the Netflix original documentary productions made in conjunction with the subject’s teams produce a comprehensive and oftentimes reactionary answer to whatever questions the public has for them.
Another example is actor and comedian Kevin Hart, who attempted his public rebranding over six episodes on Netflix called Don’t Fuck This Up. Hart has been much more embattled than Swift, given the recent uncovering of homophobic and transphobic comments he made in 2011 — and stood by when confronted about them in 2019.
Hart refused to apologize and ultimately stepped down from his gig hosting the Oscars. Don’t Fuck This Up shows how Hart actually went against his PR team by deciding to say via Instagram that he felt there was no need to apologize because “people evolve.”
Fellow comedian Ellen DeGeneres stood by Hart, promoting his reinstatement as host of the Academy Awards, and she gave him the opportunity to address the situation on her talk show. In an interview with USA Today in April 2019, Hart said that in his mind, his apology was his changed behaviour.
“The apology was never doing it again. So I didn’t understand why that wasn’t good (enough). Why isn’t the 10-year change of a guy never talking like this, never doing it again through stand-up or jokes, being noticed? I thought the best way to say sorry is by changing, whereas some people still wanted to just hear me say it again. And that’s where I think the miscommunication or the disconnect came from.”
But, in the documentary, the scandal focused on is Hart’s infidelity towards his then-pregnant wife Eniko Parrish, opting to show Hart as a flawed human who simply seems to mess things up for himself. At the end of the series, a few minutes are spent on the tweet scandal, and in the end, Hart insists that he is not homophobic.
Hart’s and Swift’s documentaries offer the promise of nuance. Netflix sees the opportunity in both: when the public has questions for artists, it is difficult for the person to find a way to appropriately answer. These documentaries are that opportunity to say something with the right amount of context, patience, and perspective. Whether that message comes across to the audience depends on the image that the directors choose to portray, but also the authenticity of the subject’s performance in the documentary.
Though streaming culture promotes the 24/7 saturation of the market, the reality is that what sticks with viewers more than anything is that authenticity, reliability, and honesty not so accessible in posts on social media. With millions of other viewers, we watch in an attempt to catch that personal connection with whatever subject, seeking to find something deeper or more relatable than the perfect images we’re force-fed.
In any case, these documentaries provide a more multifaceted image of oftentimes two-dimensional characters, and if nothing else, are fruitful explorations of the deeper parts of figures we already feel that we know through our own interpretations.