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‘Miss Americana’ reveals the price of Swift’s fame


Once in a while, a documentary comes along that surprises you. The Netflix film "Miss Americana," which features songstress Taylor Swift, did just that for me. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Midway through watching the Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” Lana Wilson’s study of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, I began thinking of the 1957 Ken Nordine album titled “Word Jazz.”

Nordine’s eight spoken-word compositions explore themes as diverse as the power of thought and the essence of truth. One, though, stands out in particular: It’s titled, simply enough, “Flibberty Jib.”

“Flibberty Jib” tells the story of a tall, dark stranger who comes to town, who gets everyone together in the huge auditorium, who takes the stage and begins to chant, “The flibberty jib on the bipperty bop.”

No one knows what it means. But everyone, little by little, is taken into the world of the stranger’s magic. And, says Nordine, “the magic was in us. And he was on the stage saying yes … yes … yes.”

Such is the nature of stage magic, though, that the effect can’t last. And so the stranger, struck by remarks made by those jealous of his powers, gradually loses faith in himself, becomes smaller and smaller, and ultimately leaves town, saying “No … no … no.”

Soon another stranger comes to town, the same thing happens, and the townsfolk are put back on the narrow path. As Nordine explains, “This is the way things have been in our town for as long as anyone cares to remember. By the way. How are things in your town?”

Taylor Swift could tell us. The documentary in which she is featured, “Miss Americana,” starts out as your typical musical profile, punctuated by performance footage, backstage looks and archival coverage of her life and career – the latter that began at age 16 with the now-30-year-old Swift’s multi-platinum, self-titled country album.

But soon it becomes clear that director Wilson, if not Swift herself, is after something more serious. Because as anyone knows who is assaulted by grocery-store tabloids, who regularly watched such TV gossip shows as TMZ or who simply breathes the air of pretty much any social-media site, when it comes to Swift most people are interested in one thing: who she is dating.

Some of this, of course, is only natural: Much of Swift’s work, the quality of which has made her one of the world’s best-selling music artists, concerns her own life. Her songs cover every personal feeling from the loss of innocence to fractured friendships and love affairs to the perils of fame.

But it’s clear, too, that performers who hits the heights of success are like Ken Nordine’s strangers. Many of those around them, whether they be other artists – in Swift’s case, Kanye West comes to mind – or fickle fans, ultimately turn on them.

Very few of us can imagine what it feels like to stand on a stage, in front of thousands of screaming fans, all of whom are expecting you to do something – whether it be singing or dancing, playing an instrument or telling jokes – that they’ve paid, in some cases, hundreds of dollars to experience.

Taylor Swift can. And in the surprisingly thoughtful documentary “Miss Americana,” she has far more to say about it than just “Flibberty Jib.”

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