In new docs, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber triumph over adversities even greater than fame
There’s a scene near the beginning of Netflix’s new Taylor Swift documentary, “Miss Americana,” in which the pop superstar learns that her polarizing “Reputation” album hasn’t been nominated for the top-tier Grammy Awards she once collected like coins. Swift is on the phone with her publicist, who’s breaking the news gently but with the understanding that something has changed for her client; a camera on Swift’s side of the call captures the action from a low angle that allows us to see the tears welling up in her eyes as she shares the realization.
“This is fine,” the singer decides after a few seconds, eager to move from disaster to response. “I need to make a better record.”
That her plan didn’t succeed — Swift’s 2019 “Lover” was similarly snubbed at the Grammys — is beside the point (and not just because the legitimacy of the Recording Academy’s nominating process has since been called into question). The Grammy problem provides an obstacle, which is the fuel that “Miss Americana” runs on as it depicts a process of overcoming that has quickly become the default narrative in a growing field of pop-star documentaries.
It’s the same tale at work in “Justin Bieber: Seasons,” a 10-part reality series currently rolling out on YouTube in which the former teen idol attempts to chart a path out of the spiritual exhaustion that led him to call off his most recent world tour in 2017. And you can bet that we’ll witness struggles of some kind in movies due soon from Rihanna (who’s said to have sold her story to Amazon for $25 million) and Billie Eilish (who was reportedly paid the same amount by Apple).
Musicians have been allowing cameras behind the curtain for decades, of course. And any film needs conflict — even if it’s just deciding which subsidiary of Warner Music Group to release an album through, as in 2002’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.” But in more and more of these new pop docs, the animating tension — the thing to survive — is the experience of celebrity in the unforgiving age of social media, when famous people, having effectively cut out the middlemen in the media and taken their message straight to their audience, suddenly receive way more scrutiny than they bargained for. Life in the fishbowl inevitably breeds other troubles — the eating disorder Swift describes, for example, or the anxiety Bieber’s ex Selena Gomez sings about on her latest album — that then transform into fresh fodder for the amateur commentariat.
It’s a self-reinforcing system in more than one sense: Flush with cash, streaming platforms are competing fiercely to strike deals with musicians likely to attract young subscribers who might not care enough about “Marriage Story” or “The Morning Show” to pay $9.99 a month; that demand has created a seller’s market for ostensibly confessional material that promises to go beyond whatever the seller discloses routinely on Instagram.
The result of this arms race is that we’re beginning to narrow the way we think about the reflection music offers of a creator’s existence; only rarely now do we seem to frame superstars’ work as anything other than a referendum on superstardom.
And let’s be clear: As much as they’re advertising an inside view — establishing at least the illusion of relatability in an era when cheerleading fan armies prioritize the journey over the destination — these projects are meant above all to promote that work. “Miss Americana,” which was directed by Lana Wilson (of the Emmy-winning abortion documentary “After Tiller”) with ample cooperation from Swift and her management, drops in on the singer in the studio as she’s recording “Lover”; its premiere Friday on Netflix comes shortly before Swift heads out on tour behind the album. “Seasons,” meanwhile, credits Bieber’s managers as executive producers and is part of an elaborate multimedia run-up to the Feb. 14 release of “Changes,” his first solo LP in five years.
In both cases, the various dramas depicted onscreen serve to raise the emotional stakes for each artist, which in turn boosts the perceived value of what they’re creating. “I can never remake this album,” Bieber says at one point in the studio, echoing Swift as he declares that it has to be perfect to meet the importance of its moment. What true Belieber, after seeing how hard he’s (still!) working to live up to his fans’ devotion, could hear anything less than a masterpiece?
For all the storytelling limitations of the triumph-over-x format — and despite its encouragement of an increasingly cloistered notion of what pop is about — real moments of insight are there to be had in “Miss Americana” and “Seasons.” Both docs spend a lot of time demonstrating their subjects’ musical bona fides, as when we see Bieber doing countless vocal takes for his song “Yummy” or we see Swift and her producer Jack Antonoff chipping away at a new tune until the right series of rhymes come tumbling out. All pop stars whine about not being taken seriously as musicians, but here we’re shown, rather than told, why that impression is unfair.
It’s also fascinating to see how Swift and Bieber lean in different ways on the people around them for support. Bieber’s wife, Hailey Baldwin, is a steady presence in “Seasons,” curled on a studio couch, looking up from her phone to nod reassuringly as the singer figures out what he wants to say in his new songs; Swift, on the other hand, refers only vaguely to her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, who’s hardly shown at all.
The singers’ managers take similarly contrasting roles. Scooter Braun strikes a paternal (if somewhat infantilizing) tone when he talks about helping a vulnerable Bieber, who this month revealed he was diagnosed with Lyme disease, ease back into public life. Yet Wilson and Swift make a centerpiece in “Miss Americana” of a scene in which the singer pushes back against her handlers, including her father, as they try to persuade her not to wade into politics with her endorsement of two Democratic candidates in Tennessee’s 2018 congressional race. (Swift’s small-world battle with Braun over the rights he recently acquired to her old songs isn’t covered in the movie.)
Late in the Swift documentary we watch as she discovers that her efforts to sway the election weren’t enough to defeat a Republican whose conservative views she says disgust her. Taking in the news, her face darkens briefly as she appears to weigh the considerable investment of her star power against a disappointing return. Then she snaps back to attention, looking almost relieved by defeat.
Phew: Another battle for another day.
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