Newsflash: Taylor Swift has a problem with haters.
I hate the term, but I can relate. I get it, as a constant writer, a frequent critic, a passionate talker, an irreverent joke-cracker, an occasional musician, and any number of other professional and personal concerns irrelevant to share here. Spending two hours Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center with Taylor, her number one superfan, aka my adorable rock 'n' roll 7-year-old daughter “Chuck," and 15,000 other rabid Swifties, it was impossible to not think about, because it was a constant theme of the show.
Anyone who who puts something out into the world that they've invested time and energy in is going to draw the ire of those who think they know better. And in today's postmodern world, everyone thinks they know better, and they have easy access to platforms where they get to say so.
It's a world of people with itchy trigger fingers, as Taylor told us in one of her speeches last night, ready to jump in without thinking, hitting comment buttons and shouting out, “you suck” or “you're stupid because you think about something differently." Or, my favorite as a woefully underpaid reviewer, “Why couldn't someone who really likes the music just talk about how good the concert was?”
So sorry, angry internet commentariat, but this isn't that sort of review. I don't love Taylor Swift. I appreciate her, I like some of her songs, but I can never love her the way Chuck and and my 4-year-old Lil' Tigger do. And that's fine. If you want a song-by-song play by play of Taylor's set, complete with notes on the multiple costume changes, giant video screen, and 60-foot rotating elevated catwalk, you can read Jay Boller's excellent review of Night One of Tay-Tay's three-night stint. Because outside of one or two changes to the set list, things weren't all that different than Friday's show (and probably won't be much different for the last show of her three-night engagement tonight.)
How could they be? A Taylor Swift show is not just songs, it's lights. It's choreography. It's costume changes. It's videos. It's spectacle. It's too huge to leave much room for improvisation. Making her live show a success requires the contribution of literally hundreds of people, people you'll never think about who are all part of the great Taylor Swift performance machine. As much as Taylor Swift the artist represents an independent individual firmly at the epicenter of her creative process, her 1989 World Tour live shows (and yes, her records) are less the individual achievement of a novel and more the huge collaborative effort of a film with a mile-long credits list you'll never see.
In live music, there has to be a balance between the spectacle and the heartfelt authenticity that music, from the rawest garage rock to the most exceptionally crafted, layered pop music should demand. It's possibly the most difficult criteria for a truly excellent live show to hit, especially in a huge arena playing the sort of huge, meticulously crafted pop songs Taylor writes. And the dominant question on my mind throughout the show was: Can Taylor Swift pull it off?
Taylor's smart enough to recognize the problem, and sometimes she actually solved it, in moments you'd least expect. After opening with 1989 mainstays “Welcome To New York” and “New Romantics” that sounded so close to the album versions that a more cynical critic would have assumed they were pre-recorded, Taylor and her crack team of backing musicians and live producers ended “Blank Space” with a vocal breakdown where she sang a line that repeated on a sampled loop, followed by another line, and another, layering her voice together. Upon conclusion, the loop stunt seemed to say, “Look at the cool shit we can do!,” while also on some level acknowledging that a live Taylor Swift show isn't as simple as a band playing her songs while she sings. Same for her acoustic rendition of “Mean” from atop the rotating catwalk, or the almost pop-punk leather-clad rocker version of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” or (best of all) the moments where she'd break from the way she sang songs as recorded to do something a little different (although clearly rehearsed to perfection).
Still, spectacle reigns supreme in arena shows, and throughout, the production returned endlessly to the theme of us vs. “them” (those damn haters again). I've written extensively trying to unpack and understand Ms. Swift, and I've deliberately declined to examine this aspect of her, but it was front and center and utterly unavoidable. Shoutouts to all the people filling the room each of the three nights. Speeches about happiness, about achievement, about love and success, all while people try to drag you down. Talking about how nobody liked her when she was a kid and she succeeded anyway.
Three big screen videos of testimonials from “great friends” like Selena Gomez and Lena Dunham all talking about how awesome Taylor is, how great it is to hang out with her, her cats, and how she doesn't let negative people or lousy ex-boyfriends define her. (Methinks lady doth protest too much, a bit).
Frankly, these moments, especially the videos, quickly turned into a total drag. Sure, these moments were intended to bring some of that authenticity that I was looking for and occasionally found. More importantly, she needed time to change costumes. But there's a fine line between the sincere and the self-serving, and the talks and the videos seemed to balance trepidatiously between the positive outlook of a young woman who's just like all of us and a bigger-than-life pop star whose life has been full of advantages which she deliberately ignores.
But that's the trick of Taylor Swift. She can be, and is, everything to all people. She's got elements of the dedicated artist, the savvy climber, the underdog, the good kid, the sweetheart, the rebel, and even a touch of the mean girl. Even the most popular kid in high school thinks life is hard, after all. I just wish it wasn't something that so thematically dominated every aspect of the show when she could have packed in at least three more songs.
I'm not saying that because I'm a “hater.” I'm saying it because we should all be driven to find the truly amazing and the truly real in rock 'n' roll. Something to overcome the pre-packaged, the focus group driven, the impeccably marketed. Beyond all that there's humans crafting something, and it's those humans, and the people who love what they do, I'm most interested in. I've strived to understand Taylor Swift and I think I do, the good and the bad, warts and all. While some of the key elements of the show served to distract, the night was still full of moments that struck home.
The thrill in the air as the catwalk rotated to bring Taylor close to virtually everyone in the room. The candy-like confection of well-crafted pop songs. The perfection of the production from the music to the lights to the choreography to the confetti falling from the ceiling. The smiles on the faces around me. The totally obvious but still tons-of-fun encore of an extended version of “Shake It Off.” The awed look on my 7-year-old's face when I surprised her at the gate with tickets to her first concert, her trying to figure out when to clap and when to wave her arms (complete with tour-issued light-up bracelet), and me leaning over to say, “It's okay to scream at the top of your lungs.”
I don't know that I'll ever be an unconditional Taylor Swift proponent. Her style of big arena pop will always feel like there's some distance there, no matter how hard she works to make us believe she's just like us. But I get her. I love her hooks. I had a total blast at the show, because I was mostly entertained and got to make a little girl very happy. Most importantly, while I hope Chuck grows to love something I personally find more authentic, I love that the feelings she has for Taylor Swift are so authentic. That's fucking rock 'n' roll.
Critic's bias: After three big essays, I would happily never write about Ms. Swift again, but I would still kill to take my kids to see Taylor in an intimate, stripped-down setting. Let's try a surprise set at the Turf Club next time, OK Tay-Tay?
Notes on the opener: Chuck and I arrived just in time to listen to the conclusion of Vance Joy's set as we engaged in a heated negotiation of how much I was obligated to spend at the merch table. It sounded like overproduced pop-rock by a guy whose stage name dangerously evokes the replacement characters from the worst season of Dukes of Hazard.
Random notebook dump: You can identify every post-show Taylor Swift fan in downtown Saint Paul by the damn light-up wristbands, which are going to get old pretty quick.
The crowd: Twenty-something to forty-something ladies in short skirts and party dresses, straight guys in blazers, dancing gay men, and exhausted kids. Wait, that was just on the light rail heading home.
Overheard in the crowd: The drunken “woos” of the woman behind us who hit me and the nice couple next to us in the head with her oversized light stick about 300 times before my neighbor grabbed it from her and said, “This is mine now.” Hope that falling down a lot for two hours was fun for you.