Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, September 7, 2013
I'll admit, I wasn't prepared for all the red. Yes, I knew Taylor Swift's most recent album was called Red and that this was "The Red Tour" but it hadn't occurred to me that those titles would dictate her fans' dress code quite so literally and, even if it had, I wouldn't have anticipated how overwhelming the results would be until I entered what looked like a particularly excitable Valentine's Day dance at an all-girls K-12 school.
I was even less prepared for the Springsteen-length monologue with which, just two songs in, Swift stopped the show to introduce that album's title cut. She'd already opened with "State of Grace," silhouetted behind a red scrim that fell to reveal the star, stylish in a broad-brimmed hat and those high-waisted shorts about which so, so many people on the internet have so, so many opinions. She'd followed with "Holy Ground," a genuinely openhearted expression of gratitude toward a former lover from a woman better known for her roman à clef kiss-offs.
Then she started talking. After the usual cheer-inducing recitation of place names (reaching as far out as "Wisconsin and places like that") her introduction ("I'm Taylor. It's very nice to meet you") was aware enough of its forced casualness to come off as charming as intended. Subsequently the entire arena must have transformed into Terry Gross though, because Swift launched into a discussion of her songwriting process, with a slightly self-deprecating admission that she deals in "feelings and emotions" and an explanation of the role of "analogies and metaphors."
Only gradually did it become evident that Swift was offering her younger fans some touchingly responsible guidance into the emotionally unfamiliar world of her newer, more "grown-up" songs. (And when you see a five-year-old singing "Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met" you think maybe some guidance is advisable.) This would be a night of pop as pedagogy, in the service of the clear-eyed romantic worldview of a young woman who presents herself as happily in control of her work life without being uptight about it and her sex life without being gross about it: Love is an exhilarating and terrifying feeling that does not last. The pain it causes is unimaginable but will not ruin your life. It's worth it.
Superstar as concerned, successful older sister -- you could do a lot worse. Granted, this was also a lifelong showbiz careerist's studied performance of decency and earnestness. It maybe struck skeptics as cloying when Swift preceded "Mean," a rejoinder to loudmouth bullies of every persuasion, with a story of how she'd once thought that sort of nastiness ended with high school but soon learned that "meanness is a part of the human condition." But she seemed respectful of the intimacy her fans craved. Her short acoustic-guitar-with-backup set, featuring the boy-baffled "Tell Me Why" and the hopeful blind date "Begin Again," was as human-scaled as superstar performances come.
Then again, nothing makes Swift seem more human than her dancing. After no doubt countless hours of exasperating choreographers, Swift persists in a modified form of hairbrush-as-mic bedroom prancing, marked by moves every wannabe starlet knows: the sudden, sassy hip-jut; the dramatic head snap-back; and, uh, whatever the hell you want to call that thing she does with her left arm. For "You Belong With Me," recast as a girl group number and sounding oddly like the Pointer Sisters' version of "Fire," Swift donned shoulder-length gloves and performed Supremes-styled routines with her female backing singer/dancers. A born star like Beyoncé would have nailed it so precisely as to have inspired awe and dread. Swift's comparative competence was reassuring in its fallibility.
Granted, the eye-popping spectacle that a show this size demands occasionally resulted in empty staginess, as on the superstar's lament "The Lucky One," in which fedora'd paparazzi hounded Swift, as glamorous Hollywood movie queen, with their old-timey cameras. But to pop-dubstep masochism-lite of "I Knew You Were Trouble" played well as a decadent European masque, culminating with Swift's ball gown ripped away to reveal a tight black outfit. And the year-by-year home-movie intro leading up to the jubilant celebration of unattached flirtation "22" generated its intended anticipation and was pretty damn adorable to boot.
Still, the real showstopper was "All Too Well," with Swift at the piano. Written with frequent collaborator Liz Rose, the slow-burn heartbreaker strings together concrete details as the singer strains under the weight of accumulated memory. In one killer verse about visiting a boyfriend's family (yes, I know who it's supposed to be and maybe you do too, but that's not important right now), his mom shows Taylor his old T-ball pictures, leading to the kicker "You tell me about your past/ Thinking your future was me." That's how the pros write 'em.
And then, the stage was flooded with wind-up ballerinas emerging from a box for "Love Story," in which Swift gives Romeo and Juliet a happy ending just like Prokofiev had tried to and exclaims "Just say yes" just like Lee Renaldo did on "Hey Joni." But it's telling that this fairy-tale wedding is no longer Swift's show closer, as on past tours. Instead, Swift went out in a spangly ringmaster's outfit, surrounded by falling confetti. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is such a triumphantly bratty jam you can forget it's actually about deciding to do the mature thing and pull the plug on-and-off-again relationship. Apparently a good break up can be even more fun than living happily ever after.
Personal Bias: Swift first won me over with "Tim McGraw" in 2006, when crossover stardom this huge was unforeseeable. But she and I really bonded last winter, when I subjected myself to a more intense immersion in Red than was perhaps wise or age-appropriate after the evaporation of a seven-and-a-half year relationship. (Full disclosure: I only cried twice at the show.)
The Crowd: Mostly young women, though seemingly more teens than tweens, a scattering of date-night couples, and more dads than you'll see chaperoning at boy-band shows.
Overheard In The Crowd: "No line for the men's room tonight." Seriously, I head three variations on this witticism within the space of a single whizz. Dudes: Enough.
Random Notebook Dump: In other cities, celebrity guests like Jennifer Lopez and Carly Simon have joined Swift onstage. St. Paul just got a second visit from dopey Ed Sheeran, whose opening set I'd successfully avoided. (You can do better, Ellie Goulding! Or not! Maybe? What the hell do I know?) That said, "Everything Has Changed" remains a miraculously unterrible song considering what a knob of a duet partner Swift chose.
State of Grace
You Belong With Me
The Lucky One
Tell Me Why
Everything Has Changed
I Knew You Were Trouble
All Too Well
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together