In the minutes before Taylor Swift took the stage on Wednesday night for the second of two sold-out shows at the Xcel Center, the giant LCD screens on either side of the stage displayed messages from Taylor (see: “messages from Taylor”). “Make some noise, Saint Paul!” “I see all your signs!” The excited and impatient crowd reacted with piercing screams and sent in messages of their own as though they were having a private conversation with their BFF TayTay. “You changed my life!!!” “U r a beautiful inspiration.”
Shortly thereafter Miss Swift emerged, standing tall at the front of the stage in a gold, fringed flapper dress and the kind of black boots I wore when I was a freshman in high school because I thought they made me look like a sexy grownup. She jumped right into opener “Sparks Fly” and skipped (actually skipped) around the perimeter of the stage, stopping to pose in various places that were conveniently outfitted with wind machines. Imagine the diva swagger of Beyoncé if she was missing those bootylicous curves. And dance ability. And sex appeal.
Yes, one thing is for certain—Taylor Swift is not sexy. Oh no. Not remotely sexy, in any sense of the word. A friend who’d seen her live before said that she was “coltish” and I can’t think of a better way to describe her. She pranced around the stage arrhythmically like a newborn filly just finding her legs, mane blowing in the machine-generated-wind. Taylor Swift is like a stuffed-crust pizza—its existence may thrill you, but it’s not going to get you off.
That said, whomever planned Swift’s tour is an absolute genius, because they managed to capitalize on her awkward naïveté rather than trying to downplay it. Instead of putting her in hot pants, giving her some dumbed-down vulgar choreography, and flanking her with harlots, it felt much more like musical theater put on by some sort of youth production company. Everything had that kind of kitschy charm (see: “charm”) that was elaborate but not fussy. Unlike the last arena show I saw, there wasn’t an avant-garde element or an ounce of pretension.
Every set piece and costume change functioned as a way to enact the lyrics to her songs in about the most literal way possible. We had neon-clad high schoolers in high tops and tennis shoes during “Mean” (a song about, well, mean high schoolers), prairie outfits and bare feet during “Our Song” (vintage T. Swift from back when she was still on the country artist trajectory), a wedding party including a marriage scene backed by “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” during “Speak Now” (which is apparently taken from the colloquial “speak now or forever hold your peace”), fireworks that were engaged during the lyric “I’m shining like fireworks” in “Dear John,” witch outfits during “Haunted,” and period costumes during “Love Song” (you know, the whole Romeo and Juliet thing) to name a few. We also had confetti, glowing plastic trees equipped with twinkle lights, giant bells, tap dancers, a stuffed cow, ballerinas, and acrobats.
As much as I’m desperate to make fun of it, this kind of cheese was exactly what the audience wanted. In addition to all the glitter and cheer, Swift cooed lovingly at the crowd throughout the show. During song transitions when she wasn’t smiling wordlessly at the crowd or changing into one of a half-dozen outfits, she acknowledged the crowd, telling them how much she appreciated their signs and glowsticks. She thanked people for buying tickets—including those “up at the top”—and even sang a few songs from the floor in the back of the venue, high-fiving hysterical fans.
Though at times it felt as though Swift was reading off a script (I wondered to myself whether people who had attended the night before as well—as was the case with several people I spoke to—recognized her spiel), it was no matter as they totally ate it up. At one point my friend Katie turned to me and said, “You better give her a good review! This is a well-put together show!” and later, “Oh, she’s just so niiiiiiice!”—causing me to remark that I’m pretty sure Katie had Stockholm Syndrome.
Should I talk about the music now? Though Swift doesn’t necessarily have the kind of voice you’d expect from the lead in a musical, her voice is worlds better live than I had anticipated after having seen her performances on various awards shows. Also notable was that she sang her recognizable singles with a bit more of a country twang in her pronunciation than on the mainstream radio.
At this point I should probably say something like “it’s so great that she plays her own instruments,” and, well, it is. She played several guitars (not all decorated with glitter) and even played the piano and the banjo at one point. But it was the backing instruments—combined with Swift’s unbelievable stage presence—that really made the show. Most notably on “Speak Now” and “You Belong To Me,” the music swelled elegantly and filled the arena with a power that nearly gave me chills (see: nearly).
While watching her perform a two-song encore including the believably mournful “Fifteen”—backed by video projects of Polaroids of high school boys—I turned to look at the people seated behind me. A row of early teenage girls, dressed in their finest little sundresses, were clinging to each other and singing along, clearly having one of the most important moments of their young lives thus far. I looked back to the stage at Taylor Swift, her lucky number 13 scrawled on her hand in pearlescent green Sharpie, and it all seemed pretty perfectly appropriate. All in all, you don’t have to be a teenage girl to enjoy a Taylor Swift concert, but you should be prepared to enter teengirl fantasy land. Who knows—you might even get Stockholm Syndrome too.