In one of the most reflective moments of Miss Americana, her new documentary on Netflix, Taylor Swift talks about the unspoken demands the public makes of women pop stars. “The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists,” she explains. There is constant pressure to look for “new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny. ‘Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way and only the way we want.’”
The documentary is itself explaining a “shiny” new facet of Swift’s image, in tracing her political coming-out around the 2018 midterm elections. And she has clearly felt that pressure — to be young and relatable and relevant — throughout her career, but it’s certainly not unique to her experience. A similar frustration also permeated Jessica Simpson’s music career, according to her new memoir, Open Book, out today.
They are very different stars in many ways. Swift is a pop A-lister now in the second decade of a record-breaking career of No. 1 hits and Grammys and arena tours. Simpson barely climbed her way into pop’s B-list in the late ’90s and early aughts before turning to reality television with Newlyweds, about her life with ex-husband Nick Lachey, and then pivoting to building a successful mass fashion brand. Swift is famous for her confessional songwriting, while Simpson was famous for confusing tuna with chicken.
They are also part of two very different generations of stardom — Simpson rose to fame in the MTV-led, turn-of-the-millennium teen pop boom, while Swift’s career has been mostly built since the advent of digital streaming. Open Book is a much more candid chronicle than Miss Americana, but the portraits they offer of young women finding themselves and their voices in the industry echo each other in interesting ways. And their different approaches — and differing levels of frankness — are also revealing of the gendered demands made of women stars.
Simpson’s memoir has already made headlines for its revelations about childhood sexual abuse, her struggles with addiction and diet pills, and, on the lighter side, a kiss with Justin Timberlake. Though she was never in the Mickey Mouse Club like Timberlake — as she tells it in the book, she froze during her final audition — Simpson is the first pop star from that pre-social media teen pop era to give us an extended peek behind the curtain.
Simpson started out as a gospel singer and was signed to Columbia Records at 17, thanks to her big voice. It wasn’t an easy moment to be a young woman in the public eye. For so many millennials, the complicated, slut-shaming, body-shaming gender politics of that era shaped our understanding of what bodies were culturally prized, and Simpson’s memoir chronicles her struggles to meet those standards.
“There was so much pressure, and much of the focus was on how I looked,” she writes. “It was so strange for me, because I was still so shy about my body, so used to being covered up at church.” Simpson, a financially struggling preacher’s daughter, never felt empowered by her parents to talk back to the company’s directives. “I think you’re going to have to lose fifteen pounds. Maybe ten,” she describes Tommy Mottola saying to her in one of their first meetings. “Because that’s the image you want to have. That’s what it will take to be Jessica Simpson.”
Open Book chronicles the work and toll that “being Jessica Simpson” took. She was always playing catch-up to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, which forced her to play up the contradictory, sexy-but-virginal persona that record companies seemed to think teens wanted at the time. Simpson’s first hit, the memorable 1999 ballad “I Wanna Love You Forever,” required big vocal belts, and in order to hit the notes, her vocal coach told her to stick her stomach out — but that disrupted the company’s directives to show more skin in belly-baring tops. Unsurprisingly, she started taking diet pills, which she would continue to take for 20 years.
After her first album flopped — compared to the other teen pop queens — Mottola tried to remake Simpson into a mix of Spears and his former protégé Mariah Carey, and she had to “contort” herself into a dancer. “Let’s show more skin, Jessica, let’s get comfortable with this,” she remembers being told. “I had been able to pull off sexy virgin,” she writes of her first album, “but acting like a woman who loved sex but had never actually done it was a math problem I could not quite figure out.” The second album also underperformed.
In the memoir, Simpson describes how little agency she had as all these men — including her father and manager, Joe Simpson — made decisions about her career. Her father felt the record company’s sexpot image had rendered her unrelatable. Her marriage to Nick Lachey, as she points out, also made it harder to appeal to the male demographic who might’ve wanted to imagine her as their girlfriend. Her father’s solution was a reality show to get her music on MTV.
Newlyweds premiered in 2003 and, paradoxically, it was through playing up her ditzy side on television that Simpson was able to make herself more “relatable.” The producers engineered stunts that would be opportunities for the airhead one-liners the audience seemed to love, like going camping. “Like with Yogi Bear? Are there bears there?” she asked. “Oh, that’s good,” said one producer. “We can use that.”
Simpson doesn’t dwell too much on sadness over the fact that the two public roles she was offered to play were sexpot virgin and dumb blonde wife. She felt empowered, she says, that she was in on the joke. “I was fine being me and finally finding out who exactly that ‘me’ was in a very public way,” she writes. And in fact, the show did work to make her more relatable and helped her find her voice; the 2003 song “With You,” with lyrics she wrote about being herself and letting her hair down in a happy relationship, became the biggest hit of her career.
But Simpson’s marriage to Lachey fell apart as she became more successful — getting asked to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone by herself in 2003, for instance. Unlike Swift, Simpson was not able to use social media — nor was she comfortable using her lyrics — to frame her own story.
Simpson doesn’t dwell too much on sadness over the fact that the two public roles she was offered to play were sexpot virgin and dumb blonde wife.
After she divorced Lachey in 2006, Simpson’s follow-up album A Public Affair flopped — partly, she claims in the book, because of fallout from the divorce. She writes that her mother warned her fans would be disappointed with her, another reminder of how the demands to be “relatable” affect women pop stars in particular. (Lachey, in contrast, exploited the divorce angle to promote his album What’s Left of Me, which became his biggest success.)
By 2005, Simpson had started the Jessica Simpson Collection, which meant she no longer had to earn her living through her music and could start making creative decisions on her own terms. She went on to release a successful country album, Do You Know, which included a duet with Dolly Parton, in 2008. Still, she is mostly known today for her fashion brand and as a pop curiosity of the aughts. The trajectory of her mainstream pop music career reads almost like a cautionary tale of being unable to live up to the public demand for constant reinvention that Swift — in contrast — has so far managed to navigate.
Simpson is now 39, far removed from the pressures of the conventional pop star economy and not afraid to call out powerful industry figures, other celebrities, and even her parents in the memoir. Swift, on the other hand, is still mid-career and has, unsurprisingly, turned to the trendy format of the pop star documentary to give fans a glimpse behind the scenes into her life as a young woman in the music industry. That inevitably limits what she can say if she wants to avoid burning still-valuable bridges.
The predominant style of recent pop documentaries, like Lady Gaga’s Five Foot Two and Beyoncé’s Life Is But a Dream, essentially functions as a humanizing infomercial — a filmed Instagram feed — meant to convince us that deep down, stars are just normal people, too. The glimpses these films provide of the stars in everyday life or at the recording studio are fun to watch for fans, but have little to offer those outside their stan bases.
Miss Americana has a more explicit narrative than most, telling the story of Swift learning to assert her own voice. It premiered at Sundance and was directed by Lana Wilson, who codirected the reproductive rights documentary After Tiller, all of which gives it a patina of seriousness.
The film opens with Swift reading from her journals and with footage of her as a confident young teen performing in her less famous days, in the Nashville country scene. “My entire moral code is a need to be thought of as good,” she says early on; her main goal in life was to be “a good girl.”
The documentary is structured around Swift learning to grapple with that question of likability and public approval. Kanye West’s interruption of her 2009 VMA acceptance speech is presented as a disruptive trauma — she thought people were booing her when they were booing West — and she started to realize she put too much stock in what other people thought of her. “I became the person who everyone wanted me to be,” she says of her early success.
Swift talks about her struggles with body image and her disordered relationship to food, reminding us that in many ways, standards of beauty haven’t changed much since the peak Simpson teen pop era. Unlike Simpson, who hasn’t overtly used the language of feminism to describe her experiences, Swift has famously called out sexist double standards throughout the latter half of her career and referenced them in her songs and music videos.
The public’s fascination with Swift’s love life was a defining — and clearly frustrating — part of her early career, which she savvily made part of the show. Yet there is no exploration in Miss Americana of what it’s been like for Swift to face tabloid backlash for writing about her relationships with famous men from her own perspective. (Simpson, in contrast, is now using Open Book to talk back about the way the media framed her relationships with men like Lachey and John Mayer, who once took over an entire album publicity cycle by calling her “sexual napalm.”)
We do get clear insight into Swift’s decision to publicly support political candidates for the first time during the 2018 midterms, a decision informed by her countersuit against a radio DJ who groped her. There is even footage of a heated discussion with her team about the choice. “Does Bob Hope do it? Did Bing Crosby do it? Does Mick Jagger do it?” her dad asks her, annoyed. “These aren’t your dad’s celebrities, and these aren’t your dad’s Republicans,” she retorts, and eventually tears up with frustration. That moment is the clearest glimpse we get into how Swift makes career decisions in general — and there aren’t many others included in the film.
When she talks about the industry’s demands, Swift imagines the public saying, “Reinvent yourself, but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting, but also a challenge for you.” It’s hard not to think about the way that Miss Americana itself fits into that formula. The very fact that the documentary has been released after Swift’s polarizing Reputation era was superseded by the palate-cleansing press cycle around Lover — at a moment when the public is ready for a newly “humanized” Swift — is a reminder that she still has to play by industry rules.
“I feel really good about not feeling muzzled anymore,” Swift says at one point, “and it was my own doing. I needed to learn a lot before I spoke to 200 million people, but I’ve educated myself now and it’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth, like forever.” The documentary ends neatly with her composing a new political anthem.
The very fact that the documentary has been released at a moment when the public is ready for a newly “humanized” Swift is a reminder that she still has to play by industry rules.
But in general, because Miss Americana is focused on the latter half of Swift’s career — not the carefully stage-managed early one, which her savvy parents famously helped her build — there is a lack of dramatic tension. Part of Simpson’s struggle was being a preacher’s daughter with no industry or financial literacy to help her navigate the pop machine. There is no new insight here into Swift’s relationship with powerful music industry figures like Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, whom she has spoken out against in her fight to retain control over her early work — another way in which she’s recently refused to be “the good girl.”
The way Swift frames the Kanye West controversy — a fascinating pop culture moment in which race and gender collided in complicated ways — as solely a narrative about her coming into her voice is another difficult conversation the documentary sidesteps. It’s also telling about how much the industry hasn’t changed. In 2019, it’s not gender but class and race — especially whiteness — that is the third rail of pop music. Reading Simpson’s memoir is also a reminder of how white the teen pop boom of the aughts was, even as its most famous creations were all singing reinterpretations of soul and new jack swing.
That both of these women got so much promotional push and investment from their record companies is itself remarkable. Still, Simpson was not able to afford the privacy and insulation that allowed the more successful Swift to dip in and out of music and pop culture in some ways on her own terms. Simpson’s reality show made her relevant, but also seemed to freeze her ditzy image in time, which is why her memoir — written with the considerable hindsight that even 10 years out of the pop music spotlight can bring — feels so revealing. In contrast, the Instagram-savvy Swift has been able to stay both relevant and mysterious until now.
“This is probably one of my last opportunities as an artist to grasp onto that kind of success,” Swift says of her record-breaking career in one scene in Miss Americana, as she works on Lover. “As I’m reaching 30, I want to work really hard, while society is still tolerating me being successful.” It’s one of the saddest — and truest lines — in the documentary: another reminder that for young women in music, as much as things have changed, they also stay the same. ●