A photo of Taylor Swift playing the piano in the Miss Americana documentary. (Image via Google Images)

What Does ‘Miss Americana’ Tell Us About Passion and Life?

The 2020 Taylor Swift documentary expertly highlights the impact that stardom has had on the singer, while also showing the value of the little moments.
March 4, 2021
6 mins read

The recent intellectual property lawsuit against Evermore Park makes Taylor Swift the headline once again. It seems she has been the constant epicenter of controversy since her success, as reflected in her documentary film “Miss Americana,” released in 2020. The film generously discloses a holistic version of Taylor Swift to the audience, ranging from her life-long passion for music to her deep insecurities about others’ opinions. “Miss Americana” not only unveils the life story of one of the most successful singers in the music industry, but it also reveals what really matters in life.

The film begins with scenes from Taylor Swift’s early career, transitioning from a teenage girl singing and writing songs at home to a diva shining on a huge stage. Suddenly, it turns to a scene where Swift is notified that her new record wasn’t nominated for a Grammy. Contrasting with the previous joy, enthusiasm and optimism exploding in her earlier career, Swift quietly and calmly replies to the concerned glances of her staff members with, “This is fine.”

“Miss Americana” begins to guide viewers to the world where Swift explores the meaning behind her musical passion. The tension between her intrinsic love for music and her fear of losing others’ applause keeps boiling up. The promising scenes from her childhood where Swift is indulgently playing music unstoppably intersect with embarrassing moments, too — including the classic one where Kayne West diminishes her accomplishment by amplifying Beyonce’s on stage.

Flashbacks to Swift’s childhood symbolize her enthusiasm for her music. Without much concern about external opinions, it seems as though this young version of Swift could always be unrestrictedly engaged.

As her popularity accumulates, Swift becomes more and more “addicted” to public approval. She expresses in the film that her previous belief system is built upon approval from others. As public opinions flood her life, she starts to feel insecure, overwhelmed and even suffocated. At one point in “Miss Americana,” Swift even claims that she would just once like to “disappear.”

The film highlights the significance of “intrinsic motivation” in fueling Swift’s passion and career progression. As found in psychology research, it is much easier for people to sustain the momentum in pursuing their goals when they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated. People may easily lose their motivation when they are only exposed to external incentives, such as monetary rewards and approval from others. This important finding is substantially illustrated by the shift in Taylor’s attitude toward her musical career.

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Besides the negative impact on motivation, the addiction to external incentives seems to gradually deteriorate Swift’s mentality. She begins to obsessively care about others’ perceptions of her body shape and tries whatever it takes to make herself as perfect as everyone expects her to be. Understandably, people tend to be fascinated by the approval from others. For the sake of survival, human beings have been constantly forced to collaborate with others in their community. Therefore, due to centuries of alliances and teamwork, feelings of attention and recognition may subconsciously feed people’s sense of security.

However, as viewers can see in Swift’s case, given that the basic physiological needs for survival have already been fulfilled, the craving for others’ approval gradually becomes more of a heavy burden than a motivator. It severely dilutes Swift’s intrinsic passion for music and overloads her with excessive worries about maintaining a positive public image.

As “Miss Americana” progresses, Swift gradually finds an outlet for her aggravating sense of insecurity. When she is creating another new song, instead of considering any possible reaction from others, she focuses on affirming herself: “Without me writing my own song, I wouldn’t be here.”

She starts to become loyal to her heart again and even steps into the political ring by openly endorsing her preferred candidate at the risk of being bullied and losing fans. Swift starts to deconstruct the belief system that has been built for a long time, and instead, bravely embraces “what is right.”

“Miss Americana” further strengthens the bond between Swift and her admirers by not only increasing her fans’ familiarity with her by exposing her thoughts and lives to them, but also by connecting her with them by sharing her complicated emotions at different stages of her life. As she says in the film, her fans are growing up with her.

It is reasonable for viewers to believe that many of her concerns —  including the ones about body image and external perception — may have also irresistibly flooded into her fans’ lives. Even though Swift is physically remote from most of them, she becomes more emotionally relatable to and close with her admirers by disclosing the common and complicated sentiments they may share with each other.

“Miss Americana” also seems to remind people of the essence of “happiness” in many little moments. For example, when Swift makes another stride in her career, she enthusiastically desires to share this news with someone, but fails to find anyone to do so with. These feelings reflect a theory in human psychology called “savoring” — having someone to securely share good news with is a form of happiness because it expands our capacity to notice, appreciate and intensify the positive feelings in our lives.

Benjamin Chen, Columbia University

Writer Profile

Xiaobin (Benjamin) Chen

Columbia University
Economics and Psychology

Benjamin Chen is an economics and psychology student at Columbia University. He is always motivated to innovate and change the world for the better. He is driven and guided by values, principles and love.

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