With 'Miss Americana,' Taylor Swift Brings Her Raw Star Power to Sundance

Her journey from a teen star taught to be "the good girl" into a pop powerhouse who owns her political voice and platform, is mapped out in Lana Wilson's Netflix documentary.

Taylor Swift isn't seeking approval — anymore. 

The multihyphenate musician brought her star power to the opening day of Sundance for the premiere of Netflix documentary Miss Americana, a snapshot of the singer's past decade and the milestones that led her to become a powerful voice in her industry and beyond. 

Directed by Lana Wilson, Miss Americana documents formative moments in Swift's life, going back to her early teens as she broke into the Nashville country music scene, where the singer talks about the pressure to be "the good girl." 

"We started the process not really knowing if we were going to end up with a documentary," Swift said in a post-screening Q&A. "This was completely in [Wilson's] hands, and I really appreciate all the hours we talked, those interviews, there were a lot of hours that she had to hear about me talk about my feelings."

And then in 2009 at the MTV Video Music Awards where, after arriving in a shimmering dress in a horse-drawn carriage, Swift's win for best female video was derailed by Kanye West interrupting her onstage with the now-infamous declaration: "Imma let you finish, but Beyonce has one of the best videos of all time."

That VMA moment, one embedded into pop culture history, led Swift — who was already an ambitious, hungry 19-year-old artist — to seek the top-most validation from her peers in music. She embarked on the journey to win the top album of the year Grammy, an accolade she has won twice, and in her own words, continuously seek approval from her fans and her peers, but in that process, she came to understand how damaging that was to her psyche. 

"I think one thing that was so surprising to me is that there are so many things that anyone can relate to. We’re all on social media now, we’re all living publicly, in some ways we all want people to like us and we’re all more conscious more than ever whether they do or not, and you’ve been living this supercharged version of that," Wilson said. 

Along with the usual Sundance audience of independent filmmakers and indie film lovers, there were many young women in attendance, hoping to catch a glimpse of Swift. During the screening, Swift fans would often cheer loudly or applaud when the star made tough decisions, such as going against the wishes of her team to endorse the Democratic candidate against Republican Marsha Blackburn in the 2018 U.S. senate elections, the first time Swift chose to take a political stand.

When Swift took the stage with Wilson after the screening, she was welcomed with a standing ovation. She and the filmmaker talked about finding an easy rapport with each other — the singer credited Netflix's Lisa Nishimura for showing her Wilson's 2013 documentary After Tiller, which she said led her to become a fan of the director's work — and wanting to make a documentary "that wasn’t like a lot of pop-star documentaries, that felt really raw and intimate and real and you really wanted to give me space as a director to bring perspective to the project," Wilson said. 

One part of that for Swift was allowing cameras into the recording studio as she worked on her Reputation and Lover albums, something she said she had never permitted before. 

"I just always refused to have any cameras at the studios when I’m writing because I just feel like, what if I can’t do it and then I’ve wasted a day and I’ve wasted another creator’s time, I’ve wasted a producer’s time, I’ve wasted a co-writer’s time and I can’t write if somebody’s there," Swift said. "But I think one of the things about you [Wilson] is that for so much of my life in the public eye, when I get sad or upset or humiliated or angry or go through a really horrible time, I feel people lean in with this hunger and you never did that to me, and that was what made me feel OK about feeling sadness, anger, humiliation around you because I felt like when I got sad, you did too, and so it made all of that all right. It didn’t make me feel like ‘oh, she feels like she’s got a good part for her movie now,’ and I really want to thank you for that." 

Miss Americana is one of five documentaries that Netflix is premiering at Sundance this year, and the streamer was in the coveted position of having two of its docs debut — Crip Camp was shown earlier in the evening on Thursday — on the opening day of the festival, a prestigious spot on the slate. The streaming platform also has five narrative feature films debuting at the festival, leading the studios showcasing projects at Sundance this year. 

Netflix will debut Miss Americana on its streaming platform on Jan. 31. The film also features a new song, "Only The Young," an upbeat, catchy anthem to instill hope in young voters, which Swift is seen writing and composing in the film, and which plays over the film's end credits.