Maybe I’ve been biased by the fact that Taylor Swift’s live show includes a number where she cavorts with sexy dancers costumed as a press corps, but having seen her perform, I’m now inclined to cut her a break with respect to her long parade of pouty breakup songs. The culmination of that parade, I now understand, is that hundreds of thousands of teenage girls have been able to witness the spectacle of confetti guns firing upwards while paper hearts drop downwards and a circus menagerie jumps around an arena as a mobile arm lifts Swift into the center of it all and she bawls, “WE! ARE NEVER! EVER! EVER! GETTING BACK TOGETHER!” If those young fans can channel even a tiny fraction of that chutzpah to aid in their inevitable future breakups, Swift will deserve a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She’d take it, of course. One reason a Taylor Swift arena show chugs along so smoothly is that the 23-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t waste any time questioning whether she’s a worthy object of her fans’ fervent adoration. Making her appearance at the head of a wide staircase, Swift steps forth and stops, smiling coyly at the crowd as they scream their hearts out. Of course they’re screaming. She’s Taylor fucking Swift.
Swift’s “Red Tour,” which is now on its final legs and stopped for two performances at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center on September 7 and 8 (I saw the second of those shows), showcases her 2012 album Red, her fourth full-length and the album that introduced the cleanly post-genre Swift. She emerged as a precocious teenage country singer, but the trappings of country have receded with each album since her 2006 debut, and Red is purely a pop album. It would be nice if more contemporary country artists moved in that direction, since there aren’t many country songs that wouldn’t benefit from shedding the baggage of ersatz Americana.
Of course, you’ve got to fill an arena stage with something, and if it’s not going to be American flags, it might just have to be some other kind of flag. For “Red,” her second number, Swift summoned a company of red-flag-twirling dancers seemingly recruited from a production of Otverzhennye. Several later songs rotated through a parade of settings seemingly inspired by IKEA wall art. There was the music-of-the-night masquerade ball, there was the snow-in-Paris scenario, there was the beachy romp, and there was a hounded-Hollywood-starlet tableau that featured the aforementioned journalist choreography. Even after all that, though, I didn’t see the steampunk coming.
Swift’s stage banter was warm but felt a little pro forma, featuring multiple generically flattering mentions of “St. Paul, Minnesota” (always stated exactly that way), a helpful recommendation to write songs like you’d write letters, and repeated acknowledgement of the fact that she writes a lot of songs about falling in love and breaking up. Perseverance in the face of adversity was a theme, climaxing in a discussion of bullying that, as my girlfriend pointed out, was “exactly the opposite of the It Gets Better campaign.” Being mean, Swift informed us, “isn’t something that people grow out of.” Maybe it’s that essentially bleak outlook on human nature that keeps Swift in ample supply of lyrical vituperation despite being talented, beautiful, and world-famous.
Last month, Swift was joined on stage by Tegan and Sara for a performance of their song “Closer”; a video of the event shows the singing sisters looking obviously out of their element, despite the fact that they’re seasoned vets of live performance. The incongruity derives in part from Tegan and Sara, adult women who perform songs about adult relationships for largely adult audiences, finding themselves incorporated into what’s essentially a children’s show. Swift’s live audience skews very young, and the Red Tour was clearly designed to give 12-year-olds exactly what they want—including an opening set and a guest appearance by shambling cutie Ed Sheeran.
There’s no question that Swift gives her fans a lot of bang for their buck, at ticket prices that clearly aren’t as high as they could be. The show has its share of de rigueur pyrotechnics, but Swift and her team know that what people want more than anything is proximity to the Lady in Red herself, and her stage is built to extend her reach throughout the arena via a mobile catwalk, a flying pod, and—an especially nice touch—a stage out by the soundboard, one that rises and rotates no less.
Swift is carried to that outland stage by her dancers, not in a litter a la Madonna (Swift would never risk such campiness) but held aloft in their bare hands. She passed just a few feet from me, and up close she looks exactly the same as she does from far away, or in her videos, or on the runway: smooth, serene, and sparkly. She’s Taylor fucking Swift.
Read Taylor Swift turns the Xcel Energy Center into a teengirl fantasy land (Sarah Heuer, 2011)
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