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There’s a moment early on in Taylor Swift Era’s Tour concert film before she launches into her nearly dozen studio albums, but after she points to parts of the crowd to see how loud they’ll scream, when she looks into the audience. “This is getting dangerous, it’s about to start going to my head,” she says, absorbing the energy around her. “It makes me feel so powerful.”
This was the Taylor Swift I was here to observe in a Midtown AMC on a Saturday morning. Working for Rolling Stone for 13 years, it’s been impossible to ignore her, but the coverage I’ve helped run as the Culture Editor has had more to do with her as a sort of cult figure — object of obsession, hider of “easter eggs,” inadvertent architect of “stan” culture — than it does with her actual songs. But the people around me, the writers I’ve edited, the critics I’ve admired, have almost unequivocally adored her, and I was eager to find out why. Who is this blonde girl-next-door type who commands 70,000 people by pointing a rainbow-painted fingernail in their general direction? Was she more than the living, breathing id of a basic-girl meme? I settle into my reclining seat, vibrating from the Dolby sound around me, and try to put myself in the mindset of the crowd that the cameras keep cutting to. I had been grateful to arrive at the theater and find they’d installed a full bar. Swift announces she has 17 years of music to get through. I sip my frozen margarita and wish I’d ordered a double.
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Taylor Swift’s Era’s Tour broke more than the internet this summer — it broke records, and looking at the screaming crowd on the screen, more than a few brains. So it wasn’t surprising that she filmed her final run of U.S. shows at LA’s SOFI Stadium for wide release. Though I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of her music, her business acumen and ability to translate talent into once-in-a-generation stardom has been impressive. The theater wasn’t full, but those there were palpably excited to see the show.
She starts with Lover, and from the jump, I think I get it. Pop hooks, catchy lyrics, over-the-top spectacle — what’s not to like? This year, I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, twice. I appreciate a carefully crafted stadium show and try to turn my brain off as much as I can. I let the goosebumps take my arms and the tears well up, giving myself into the experience.
But soon enough, there are moments pulling me out. As she launches into “The Man,” I’m struck by the bluntness of the premise. Dressed in a sequined suit jacket and platform boots, she walks through a multi-story office of dancers typing away at late-century desks, singing about how she’d act if she could get away with all the things men can, like anger, sleeping around, and unapologetically taking what they want. I recognize the satire (and later, when I watched the video, the Leo-worshipping finance-bro type it was sending up), but in the moment, it feels reductive, almost discounting the fact that she is a powerful young woman ending a billion-dollar run of shows. But I dig a sequined suit, so I watch on.
Next, she starts into her set from Fearless, an album released when she was just 17. Now 33, she still owns these songs, tapping into the ambivalence of adolescence, the fear of being genuine while grappling with the first strings of adult desire. People in the theater are opening up, singing along, dancing in their seats, and filming on their phones as if they are at an actual live show. (What will they do with this strange footage?). The nerve this is hitting with the crowd does not seem to exist within me. I look at my watch. More than two hours to go.
With Evermore, I keep slipping. In a long dress and a blood-red cape against the backdrop of haunted woods, she looks more like a cheerleader in ren-faire cosplay than a woman in an authentic goth phase, but I try to give her the benefit of the doubt. I hope to myself that someone slipped her a Zola Jesus album during the pandemic, and that’s where she cribbed this getup. As she launches into “Willow,” though, it’s the same pop sensibilities, and I wonder about what it means to act out a coven for a song about a boy.
It’s shortly after that when I begin to understand Taylor Swift, the overdramatic storyteller. A long table appears, with two plates and a half-drank bottle of wine. A man takes the stage, sits down, and she starts to sing “Tolerate It.” Creeping along the table, she slowly comes to terms with the fact that she’s overperforming for a distant partner. “If it’s all in my head, tell me now” is too real. I feel grateful for my margarita.
It’s around this time I start to think about a beat-up VHS copy of Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park, a 1991 concert film that I watched so many times at my parent’s friend’s house that he finally just told me to take it home. I loved the songs, Simon’s showmanship, and the way he paraded his band around the stage, but I always wanted there to be more of a theatrical quality to it. And here was Taylor, making that dream come true.
Then, finally, it’s Reputation. She glides onstage in boots and a one-legged black catsuit wrapped with those serpents that just a few years ago felt entirely inescapable. This set brings back more memories — namely, when the tough-but-cute carpenter from the local bar drove me around Brooklyn blasting her music, confessing that yes, even he liked the new T-Swift. At the time, I could appreciate her slide into a sexualized punk aesthetic — Miley had been there for a while, and as frustrating as it was to watch these pop queens experiment with studded leather (the gatekeeper in me was not thrilled), the themes of owning mistakes and embracing the more taboo parts of one’s personality felt comfortable. Joan Jett had been my guiding star, as she seemed to be here. I reminisce about those summer nights of my late twenties and find my feet bouncing on the recliner stretched out in front of me.
But then it’s back to that ultra-girly fantasy premise. For Speak Now, she comes out in a full-on Disney princess gown (sequined, of course), and for Red, she dons black sequined hot pants and a top hat. “Feeling 22,” she sings. I have never felt older. Her spell is wearing off, so I distract myself by exchanging some flirty texts with a long-distance crush. “Is this it?” I wonder. “Do I give up and leave?”
And truly, I almost did. I found myself coming to terms with the idea that maybe it was OK if I didn’t get Taylor Swift. But something about her ten-minute acoustic rendition of “All Too Well” keeps me in my seat. Suddenly, that Honda zooming around Williamsburg seems like a million years ago. She’s standing in the middle of the stadium, in little more than a sequined minidress and platform boots, playing guitar, overthinking flashbacks of a relationship. A few minutes ago, she was singing about how she didn’t give a fuck about what anyone thought — the public, her exes — and here she is airing her heartbreak. It’s probably a metaphor, I realize, but lines like “you call me up again, just to break me like a promise / so casually cruel in the name of being honest” strips back the veneer a little. If the Man is allowed to be angry, Taylor is out here making it OK to be losing your shit a little.
As she goes into Folklore, her theater-kid sensibility is once again on full display. She speaks to the crowd about where she was when she wrote it, in the depths of the pandemic, and how she created this fantasy of being a Victorian woman in the woods to escape being a “lonely millennial woman covered in cat hair,” watching hours upon hours of television a day. She’s back in a fairytale forest fit, singing songs about teenage love triangles. It’s disjointed but appealing. I look around the theater, the (mostly) young crowd still singing along without missing a beat. High school must still be a vivid memory for them. And here is the most popular girl, singing about their heartache.
By 1989, I’m exhausted. Finally, the bangers, I know, but after nearly two and a half hours in this seat, I just want her to get through them. I think about writing to her PR and asking for an abridged edit. Surely that must be in the works? “Shake It Off” comes on, and I feel relief. The crowds (stadium, theater) go wild. I tap my feet. This feels like it has to be the end, and even though I actually know and like many of the songs on this album, I find myself relieved that it’s over.
Surprise — it’s not. There’s a suprise song set to get through and Midnights, of course. By now, the sweat is making her bangs stick to her forehead, making her cool girl vibe even vibier. “Lavender Haze” — an easter egg that wasn’t — segues into “Anti-Hero,” and I find myself singing along under my breath. “It’s me / Hi / I’m the problem / It’s me.”
She closes out the show, and as the theater lights come back on, I’m proud of myself for making it through until the very end, even if I’m still not sure I needed two hours and 45 minutes of Taylor Swift in my weekend. Over the credits, there are clips of gaffes from her concert run — getting a microphone stuck on a gown, getting drenched during her set in Massachusetts — that further strip away the sheen. I look around the theater, and most people are staying put, watching till the bitter end. That’s the thing about Taylor Swift: her fans don’t want to miss a thing, and with that, she’s created one of the most loyal followings in pop history.
On my way out, I think about the other pop stars who command devoted fandoms — Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga. Swift is not the first to give women permission to be unapologetically themselves or to let her suggestive sexuality dominate album cycles. But as I watched her go through her many eras — not exactly in order, but expertly paced — I respect how she’s able to seamlessly weave between fantasy and reality, between the personas she puts on as a front and the ones that allow her to feel seen. It looks, to me, authentically like being a woman — coming of age, going through phases, pushing boundaries in life and relationships, having to toggle between facades to survive. Maybe her music’s not for me, and maybe it’s not meant to be. But I appreciate a mini skirt and platform boots, so I venture out into Midtown in search of some of my own.
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