Taylor Swift is just like you. Taylor Swift is your friend. Taylor Swift is life. Taylor Swift is love.
They say with enough repetition, even the most asinine messages start to have a ring of truth to them. Hell, that's not even just true in government propaganda. It's the whole basis of the radio industry — "we'll play these songs so many times you can't help but like them." Well, after two hours of Taylor Swift, a grand spectacle of a show marked by elaborate set changes, dazzling costumes, backup dancers, a live band, and an admittedly stellar performance from the reigning queen of pop, I couldn't help but drink the Kool Aid. "Bad Blood" came on and I joined 8-year-olds to my right and the sorority girls to my left in singing the catchy chorus with Taylor Swift's other 20,000 best friends in the audience.
It was less persuasion than submission. 1984+2=1989. If the Taylor Swift concert were a movie, it was filled with product placement for the idea that Taylor Swift is your best friend, and after a dozen or so songs, I started to believe it.
The branding started early.
"Oh hi, Glendale, Arizona. I'm Taylor," she said after "I Knew You Were Trouble," the fourth song in the set, came to an end, addressing the crowd in a grateful tone, like how you'd talk to your sister. "This is my sixth time playing here. ... Over the last 10 years of my career, you guys have constantly shown up and supported me."
There were glowing signs in the packed arena, lots of flashing homemade signs (since when did people start bringing batteries and light bulbs to concerts? This is a trend I've missed), including one that said "We Can Build a Castle." The screams during and especially after each song were deafening, and women (and some men) of all ages screamed every word of Swift's songs back to her.
"Things have changed in my life [since my last album," Swift said, pausing to coyly ask the audience, "But how are you? Have you been good?"
She paused and went into her mindset when she wrote 1989, her most recent and platinum album.
"I was a single 25-year-old in New York City with a fresh haircut," she said, as if she were Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. "And I just wrote about what was happening to me."
Soon after, a video montage of Taylor Swift's best friends came on stage, featuring Lena Dunham, Karlie Kloss, Selena Gomez, and the three sisters of the band Haim. They all related stories about what an awesome slumber party it's like to be BFFs with T-Swift, which apparently involves snacks, cats, and listening to each other's feelings (I could totally do that stuff with Taylor!). It was an odd feeling at first — who does that, ask their friends to list why they love her so much? But there was a bit of political theater as well, as if all the impossibly beautiful celebrities were giving Swift endorsements.
The concert continued, though, going into "How You Get the Girl," which included an impressive little dance number featuring umbrellas, as Swift donned a dress that eventually glowed pink in the dark. "I Know Places" followed, after which Swift commented, "You're such an amazing crowd; it's blowing my mind," and insisted she could see every person's face in the audience, no matter where they were or how bright the lights that were above her shone into her face. "I can see friends of mine who are friends on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr."
There's a seductive quality to the idea that a celebrity might be stalking your social media, and it's romantic to imagine a songwriter trolling through these virtual diaries of ordinary girls and using them to keep herself grounded and connected to her audience while making millions of dollars a year. Did Swift actually recognize someone from the audience? Doubtful. But the girls around me didn't care. "I'm always lurking online," Swift said, eliciting an audible gasp of delight from one standing next to me.
Swift took this time to dish some no-nonsense relationship advice, and we were all ears. She even coined a term to describe the grey areas: "situationship." Don't be with someone who makes you feel you have to be a different person when you're with them, she implored. "All 15,000 of you deserve better than that," she said.
"I wish there were just two choices. You either go or you stay," she said, which all the hardcore fans recognized as a transition into "Stay."
As the song ended, Swift grabbed an acoustic guitar and announced that she would play a song called "Ronan," based off the blog of a Phoenix mother named Maya Thompson, who lost her 4-year-old son to cancer. It was apparently just the second time Swift had performed the song live, and it's truly heartbreaking. Apparently, she used words directly from Thompson's blog, and credited her as a co-writer. Swift said she couldn't promise to finish the song without crying, and as the song ended, close-ups of Swift on the video screen revealed her eyes glistening with liquid. She made it through the song without trouble, however.
Then we heard even more words of wisdom. "There are a set of individual circumstances that make up every person's life," Swift said in a stirring call for empathy that steered afterward into a diatribe against cynical people and more affirmations toward her young fans: "You are not damaged goods!"
The concert then ended with a series of smashing hits — "Style," "Bad Blood," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," a mashup of "Wildest Dreams" and "Enchanted," "Out of the Woods," and "Shake It Off." As the audience made their way back to the parking lots, a cynical music writer remarked sarcastically to a friend, "I wish Taylor Swift was my best friend."
"Me too!" chimed in a pre-pubescent girl walking next to them, in complete sincerity.
Looks like the branding worked.
Last night: Taylor Swift at Gila River Arena in Glendale
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Overheard: "She likes cats! She's just like me!" — a little girl behind me after seeing a video of Tay-tay holding two kitties.
Random Notebook Dump: We are the oldest people here unaccompanied by children.
Personal bias: Before the concert, I didn't like most of Taylor Swift's songs. Not even ironically. Now I follow her on Twitter.