Taylor Swift (See the complete slideshow here.)
Jobing.com Arena, Glendale
May 28, 2013
First, you'll notice the makeup -- you'll notice, more generally, the feeling of being underdressed in the company of 9-year-olds. All around Westgate, which feels itself like a mock downtown, a big occasion to play-act at sophistication, you'll notice 9- to 13-year-old girls standing up straight (even though they're taller than their older brothers), and making small talk and eye contact, and buying concessions with borrowed credit cards. Being polite, but adult-polite, totally composed, charming, weirdly.
Then you'll notice the signs. They're covered in marker and LED lights; they mention every single and a couple of deep cuts. And when her set actually starts, they're waved from every part of Jobing.com Arena by very patient (and secretly very happy) moms.
Then there's the screaming and the glitter. "There might be glitter on your seat," the nearest mom told me, when I sat down. Fair enough: There was glitter everywhere. It was a Taylor Swift show.
Glitter aside, I've never been to a more expensive-looking concert -- this has more in common with a big Andrew Lloyd Webber blowout than any other super-superstar's live show.
Each song had its own costumes (for Swift and a team of impossibly clean-cut dancers), its own big, practical effect (a music box filled with dancers dressed as wind-up toys, a flying saucer that carried her from one stage to the other, a runway that lifted off the ground so that her dancers could file underneath it), and its own perfectly coordinated lightshow, coordinated between multiple jumbotrons and an inexhaustible supply of fireworks and confetti.
There were floating drummers and slow-motion dubstep fight scenes and a couple of big, demure costumes that could transform, when the chorus hit, into tiny take-no-prisoners costumes. At the center of all of it there was Taylor Swift, hitting all her marks and pointing and singing right at the camera.
Her command of the stage is the last thing you'll notice -- and once you catch it, you'll realize all her fans in red lipstick and child-sized cowboy boots understood it intuitively way before you did. She's totally in control, and she takes advantage of it. She does it modestly, of course -- she thanked every group of super-fans in turn, by section -- but firmly. Every one of those huge stageshows is an extended parable about her movement from vulnerability to authority.
And all of them were turned out impeccably. The whole show is choreographed to the word, from the pensive sitting-on-a-stool-with-a-banjo interlude about bullies being something you have to deal with and not something you outgrow to a truly bonkers, significantly dubsteppier version of "I Knew You Were Trouble," which opened with a solitary violinist dancing around in kneepads before growing into a slow-motion dance-fight scene between Swift (in a big, breakaway dress) and a series of guys in English manor house garb and masquerade masks.
As rehearsed as it clearly is, it all sounds very earnest and extemporaneous in the moment -- her affect is a little reminiscent of a perky youth minister at Sunday School, with jokes and references everybody in the room understands funneling into lessons about self-esteem and hard work. (At least, it sounds earnest and extemporaneous until each mini-lecture ends with the title of the song she's about to sing.)
We talked to Man-Cat a couple of weeks ago about what led them to create BreakUpWithTaylorSwift.com, a remarkable website in which you can, uh, break up with Taylor Swift. They don't like the way pop icons are generated from above -- the way popular songs are a genre teams of songwriters are building, and not a tag for songs people like.
They have a point, as usual. But in a pop music scene where corporate-driven trends and entertainment are basically inevitable -- where corporations might not be people but do have Twitter accounts operated in the first person singular -- Taylor Swift seems like the best possible benefactor. Better the Diet Coke Twitter account sponsoring her scavenger hunt than LMFAO's.
Swift herself said -- in one of her extemporaneous-sounding, extremely rehearsed between-song fireside chats -- by way of an introduction, "I write lots and lots of songs about my feelings." Later on she jokes about how often she writes about breakups; it's clear she's reading her own press, and assumes everybody else is.
But what she's doing with those feelings is laudable. She's worried, she tells her fans, about "How to live your life the right way." She's interested, she tells them, in challenging herself and being a better person. She's basically modeling the creation of art, whether her songs are actually art or not.
Lots of them, at least, probably aren't. There's a formula to a Taylor Swift song -- the way the verses leak into the huge choruses, particularly -- that wears worse over 20 songs than it does when you're listening to the latest single by itself. When she dropped the spectacle for a brief acoustic set things dragged a little, at least for this non-initiate.
But in isolation they're great pop songs, no matter who's co-writing them, and they blossom in a crowd of 15,000 super-fans and in front of an enormous stage show. If you can give yourself up to spectacle, and admit that "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is in your head already, it's a good time, whether you're in her demographic or not. It's probably even a great time.
And by the end of the songwriting process, no matter who's involved, the songs are about feelings and breakups but also being assertive when you have a reason to be, and independent and flip when that's called for, and earnest when it isn't, and well-dressed all the time, apparently. I could use some of those lessons now; I was certainly learning worse ones from enormous corporations when I was nine. (Thanks, nWo Wolfpac.)
Taylor Swift probably isn't making those girls polite and self-possessed and mature, though she probably has something to do with all the red lipstick and cowboy boots. The causation is probably the other way around.
But if her ridiculous, celebratory live show and her work-hard-and-be-aware-of-your-feelings worldview and her big, blunt pop songs gives those polite and self-possessed girls something of their own to enjoy and make glittering, light-up signs about -- something they can recognize themselves in -- they could do much worse than what is, worst-case-scenario, a little anodyne for rock and roll fans. Sex and drugs are bad for 9-year-olds.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
See more photos after the jump.