Turns out there was a simple reason I didn’t enjoy Taylor Swift’s Reputation much: I hadn’t been listening to the songs in a football stadium.
A minor oversight, but one I remedied this past weekend, twice, when Swift became the first performer to play back to back shows at U.S. Bank Stadium and, for several reasons, I decided to attend both. Partly it was that I’d never watched the same stadium performance two nights in a row, partly it was an inkling that an event this excessive deserved an excessive level of commitment, and partly, well, it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
A fan and general well-wisher, I wanted to see if Swift, who has ascended to those stratospheric upper tiers of fame where bad decisions quickly become the norm, could pull this off—whatever “this” might turn out to be in such a context. If 1989 was Swift’s Thriller—the soundtrack of a beloved star’s leap to superstardom—Reputation was her Bad, the unavoidably disappointing follow-up that racks up bonkers sales yet yields less cultural significance, and an undercurrent of petulance and paranoia tainted its expensive hooks. In concert, I wondered, how adeptly could Swift balance her new persona as self-obsessed pop star and her old role as her fans’ trusted intimate companion? (Cynics, I understand, might consider that a marketing problem rather than an artistic one, but one of those important lessons pop teaches us about capitalism is that those two concerns are forever intermingled.)
The lead-in music to Swift’s show—Joan Jett’s brazen-as-ever “Bad Reputation,” which inspired frenetic Gen Z pogoing as it blasted through the Bank—felt a tinge disingenuous, since probably no one in pop gives such a damn ’bout her bad reputation as Swift. She just wrote a whole dang album about it even. The introductory collage—video clips of the star with voice overs from gossipy busybodies—embroiled us immediately within the machinations of mega-celebrity, leaving open the question of whether the show would remain mired there, or whether Swift could (forgive me) shake it off.
But once the screens parted, opening like the gates of a giant city or the grate that lets lions into a coliseum, much of the paraphernalia of beleaguered fame was stripped away and what remained was state-of-the-art spectacle and high wattage beats and indelible tunes and the presence of a woman who is exceptionally skilled at being a famous person and making you like her. Swift emerged in the uniform of a modern pop star—dark, glittering bodysuit and thigh accentuating boots—for “...Ready For It?” and that three-note bass drop flattened stereocilia throughout the room, rendering the ever-iffy sonic design of our cavernous monument to corporate welfare a non-issue for the evening.
“Let the games begin!” Swift chants on that opener, and while she’s often typecast as a heart-on-sleeve romantic, she’s always been a cool-eyed craftswoman aware of the rules of art and romance and how to play them. Big rooms require big moods, and with the right eye roll, hair flip, or demonstration of amusement at her own self-presentation, Swift could sell all but the duffest track. “I Did Something Bad,” punctuated by exploding smoke pots up front and a fireworks display that would exhaust many municipal budgets, ended with Swift glancing desperately around to spy the witch-burning patrols she sang about.
If her performance was often stagey as hell, that was sort of the point—by the time she batted her eyes through “Gorgeous” (which as Lindsay Zoladz has pointed out , is infinitely more fun if you imagine it’s about Karlie Kloss than Swift beau Joe Alwyn) it was clear this was a studied performance of how to perform as a pop star, and she nailed it. Though still not a natural dancer, Swift also realizes she’s too old to get by on the loose-limbed, free-form, white-girl silliness she once charmingly indulged in. She’s overcome her limitations and established control over her body not by mimicking pop’s great dancers (though she’s got the simple unison choreography down) but by striding with the rhythmic deliberateness of a runway model. (Come to think of it, plenty of her facial expressions would also have drawn accolades from ANTM judges back in the day.)
Swift’s oldies were mostly pasted together as medleys, with songs seemingly matched because of musical similarity rather than because their conjoining made emotional or conceptual sense. Still, it was exciting to hear blasts of “Should’ve Said No” within “Bad Blood,” and, when Swift sat alone at the piano late in the show, the rousing “Long Live” did blend seamlessly into “New Year’s Day,” the most emotionally resonant song on Reputation. “Style” into “Love Story” into “You Belong With Me”? That’s just showing off, really, but none of those fan favorites were rushed through.
The set was dominated by Reputation tracks—she played 14 of its 15 songs each night—and not all were welcome. “End Game” may be improved by subtracting Ed Sheeran’s vocals (what isn’t?) but it still sounds like a song that once featured Ed Sheeran’s vocals. Still, even the lackluster “King of My Heart” was enlivened by shirtless, buff minions slamming huge drums, seemingly in service to some gigantic, stage-devouring emblem that intertwined a golden Medusa crown and mysterious clockwork gears.
Not that every decision satisfied every fan. “We do not like the snakes,” the woman next to me—a Taylor fan who was attending concert #4 and had tickets for both nights—leaned over to share, confidentially yet firmly, her friend nodding assent beside her, after “Look What You Made Me Do.” It must have been a long night for her, because there sure were a lot of snakes. So many snakes. Hating them would be like attending a Pink Floyd show and realizing you just weren’t that into inflatable pigs, discovering an unexpected aversion to sax solos at a Springsteen concert, seeing Beyoncé live and shrugging at the sight of her ass.
The snakes, I’m sure, were meant to symbolize the slithery, venomous pit of critics and foes who’d hissed so scurrilously about Taylor’s reputation in recent years. In practice, though, they were big, cool, exactly the right amount of corny, sometimes even a little cute. They debuted during “Look What You Made Me Do,” massive vipers appearing on screen on either side of the stage, each snapping its jaws at Swift and her company. Then, a giant cobra puppet rose up ominously behind the performers, its eyes glowing golden. And the snakes stuck around. Though an illuminated basket appeared during “Delicate” to bear Swift across the field to a second stage and, presumably, safety, another serpent inflated thereabouts, bobbing with cartoonish menace as Swift brought openers Charli XCX and Camila Cabello out to bounce through “Shake It Off.”
A production of this scale is so tautly arranged that the differences between the two concerts were minimal, though they weren’t totally negligible. Each night’s solo acoustic set, with just Swift on a green guitar, featured different songs. Swift alternated Reputation numbers “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” and “So It Goes,” the stripped-down setting improving each. On Friday she also performed “Begin Again,” a carefully observed tale of a promising first date; Saturday gave us the early album cut “Tied Together With a Smile”—not quite as sturdy a classic but, since she hasn’t performed it live since 2007, a special moment for longtime fans.
More significantly, there was a shift in the tone of Swift’s between-song speeches. She’s as gabby a star as Springsteen or Stevie Wonder; when I’d last seen her, on the Red tour, her monologues seemed exceptionally fine-tuned to the sensibilities of her young audience. Friday night, though, she struggled a bit little more to bridge the gap between her personal experience and a broader audience of all ages. The more she placed the focus on her fans, the more distant she sounded from them. Saturday though, Swift spoke a little more explicitly about the genesis of her new material, even if only in the most general terms. Her disquisition on the idea of “reputation” may have fallen somewhere between TED talk, empowerment seminar, Oprah interview, and B minus freshman comp assignment, but it was nonetheless an earnest attempt to place her music in the context of our own lives.
After a winning strut through “Blank Space,” which offered me the slightly unsettling experience of hearing a roomful of women of all ages chanting “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” and the mildly risqué even by adult Swiftian standards “Dress,” the singer returned to the main stage, borne aloft by (what else?) a cage in the form of a snake. The set by now had opened up to become some sort of steel futuristic beehive of a city, with performers tumbling from ledges on bungee cords because why wouldn’t they? Throughout the show, the dancers who swarmed around her wore inexplicably dystopian garb. Were those some form of interplanetary bug police? Are those Lego mecha-samurai? I have no answers for you.
Since Taylor Swift 2018 has sacrificed some of the intimacy and depth of her past, the best moments here were the most luridly over the top. The grand melodrama of “Don’t Blame Me” expanded exponentially live, with Swift, in wicked Disney queen robes, crawling, arm outstretched, an anti-heroine in some elaborate Broadway production she hadn’t shared the plot of, as the music crossbred diverse strains of pomp from Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “November Rain” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin.”
A different strain of theatricality ran through the closing medley of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Both songs accentuate Swift’s catty side, her pop side, without going sour. As Swift and her dance crew cavorted around a working fountain, a mansion was systematically obliterated behind them. The sight was both elaborate and amateurish, decadent and playful, an escape from superstar significance into sheer pop buoyancy, Swift’s own way of saying “A girl can do what she wants to do, and that’s what she’s gonna do.”
Check out our full photo gallery from Friday night here.
...Ready for It?
I Did Something Bad
Style/Love Story/You Belong With Me
Look What You Made Me Do
King of My Heart
Shake It Off
Dancing With Our Hands Tied [Friday show]
So It Goes [Saturday show]
Begin Again [Friday show]
Tied Together With a Smile [Saturday show]
Bad Blood/Should’ve Said No
Don’t Blame Me
Long Live/New Year’s Day
Call It What You Want
We Are Never Getting Back Together/This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Random notebook dumps: Earlier this year, I said this about Reputation: “Here in the global panopticon where each of us acts as watchdog for the other, the fact that an electronic reputation precedes all of us is the one thing celebrities still have in common with their fans.” But of course, as this show reminded me, one reason pop stars and teens understand each other so well is that they share similar lives—each group believes that they are the most important people in the world and that there’s no greater tragedy than the badmouthing of newsy frenemies.
Oh, and I should mention that we were gifted white wrist bands at the entrance that lit up in different colors at different intervals throughout the show, automating our crowd response and making us part of the spectacle. Mine is still intermittently flashing a distressing red on my kitchen table right now, no doubt sponging up demographic information that will later be used to hit me up with targeted advertising.
About the openers: Unlike a lot of shows this size, the warm-up performances were fleshed out and thought through, not just an excuse to pad out an expensive evening. Brilliant British pop oddball Charli XCX, encased in what appeared to be a transparent hazmat suit, bounded through her hits and collaborations. Hearing her all but eliminate Iggy Azalea’s voice from the high-rolling “Fancy” was like seeing one of those old photos of Stalin where he cropped out his disfavored underlings.
Camila Cabella performed a truncated but well-paced version of the show she put on at the State Theatre earlier this year. She flattered the crowd with a cute Vikings jersey and a bit of “Kiss”—the only acknowledgment of Prince during these concerts. (Not that I’m complaining.) She’s a great performer with a great set of songs, a real reason to be hopeful about pop these days.
The crowd: Imaginatively, if sometimes inexplicably costumed—why were young women dressed as pigs and reindeer? On night two I found myself between the Goofus and Gallant of Swiftie boyfriends. The Good Boyfriend was, like his girlfriend, wearing sandwich boards shaped like the numbers one in front and three behind (13 is Swift’s lucky number) with Reputation lyrics penned within the numerals. The Bad Boyfriend scowled, arms crossed, as his girlfriend, in an emerald flapper dress, sang her heart out.
Before the first night, a dad shared his unsolicited thoughts on the upsides of chaperoning at a Taylor Swift concert: “No beer line, no line for the men’s room, and plenty of hot MILFs.” I was about to explain to him that the last term is kinda inaccurate when you’re perving after women your own damn age, but he was already gone, off to not stand in line for a port-a-potty.
Overheard in the crowd: “Taylor’s gonna have freakin’ snakes!”—a teen
Critic’s bias: Red > Speak Now > 1989 > Fearless > Reputation > Taylor Swift