The first impression is a memory from high school. My mother and I attend a sold-out performance of Mamma Mia! and cursory examination reveals I am one of a dozen men in the audience. Rarely in my life have I felt like such an interloper.
Saturday night was this multiplied by fifty-five. Soldier Field is jammed with women and girls, wearing a mix of official merchandise, homemade T-shirts, and their finest dresses. There is plenty of red lipstick and homemade electric signs casting light in the darkening sky. This is Taylor Nation, and they have come to experience the biggest singer-songwriter in the world.
Starting Soft, Getting Loud
The second impression is that it must be both a joyous privilege and a source of trepidation to open for Taylor Swift. These are artists performing on a gigantic stage in a filling stadium, and those present may only be waiting patiently for their hero and not interested in the acts that have only half an hour to make distinct impressions. Shawn Mendes, the 17 year-old Canadian whose debut album topped the Billboard charts earlier this year, launches things with a solo acoustic set. He is personable and has some good songs, particularly “Stitches” and “Never Be Alone,” but his superfluous covers and strained audience-participation attempts let him down.
Then, with the opening chords of “From Afar,” Vance Joy performs with musical spontaneity and vividness that leave me convinced he could become a superstar with one more terrific album and a headlining tour. Backed by a sympathetic group of musicians, Joy performs beautiful and unconventional folk-rock, with great confessional lyrics in the Nick Drake tradition and two or three shifting melodies per song, including the riveting “Wasting Time,” “My Kind of Man,” and “Georgia.” The exception is the closing “Riptide,” on which he unleashes rapid-fire ukulele and a welcome sing-along.
Finally, there is Haim. Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim’s Days Are Gone is a terrific record in the tradition of Fleetwood Mac and 70s California pop-rock, with keyboards and slick guitar licks abounding. Live, on the other hand…my father once told me that mid-1970s Zeppelin and the Who were the loudest bands he ever saw, and 2015 Haim could hold their own with those lads. They are not interested in running through their most familiar songs. Instead, they let loose with brontosaurian blues-rock jamming, four-way percussion ensembles, and thunderous riffing through their actual songs. It is rock and roll the way we dream it can be, and best of all, they somehow keep the vocal trade-offs and three-part harmonies of “The Wire” and “Forever” intact.
It is a fine contrast to the main attraction.
Taylor Swift is Your New Best Friend
She walks out to bursts of lights and synthesizers blaring the opening notes of “Welcome to New York,” and for the next two and a half hours and twenty songs, Taylor Swift is in control. At first, I fear she might be too in control. The presentation of a tight six-piece band, four pure-voiced backup singers, a brigade of male dancers, and a proscenium that changes several times makes me momentarily worry we are in for a run-through of “hits plus choreography,” with little musical variation from the studio releases. However, starting with a playful “Blank Space” during which she brandishes a golf club, Swift changes the arrangements and expands on her songs to create a distinctly new experience; one hears it in her voice, which projects a true reaction to the audience and their energy.
The set includes the 1989 album in its entirety with few excursions into her past albums. Though I am sad to hear little from her outstanding Red, this choice is welcome. Swift’s early albums mixed her already considerable gifts as a composer with juvenile, sometimes embarrassing lyrics, and passing most of that over is a relief. More importantly, 1989 is ultimately a concept album about self-discovery and growing into adulthood, and the songs work even better as a unit then as individual singles. Indeed, the live presentation and Swift’s intensely personal energy make the songs sound even better. “How You Get the Girl,” which was so lifeless as to be the album’s weakest link, now bursts into being with propulsive percussion and the instrumental interplay perfectly interacting with Swift’s vocal…and it leads right into a terrific “I Know Places” boasting metal guitar and frighteningly echoing drums and keyboards that increase its Peter Gabriel-style paranoid/romantic atmosphere. On the other end of the sonic spectrum, her performances of “Clean” and “This Love” mix strength and fragility, creating an intimacy in the stadium.
This intimacy is important, for Swift has now abolished the “Oh gosh, you like me!” attitude of her early years and now presents herself as a caring best friend/mentor figure. She performs most of her songs on a catwalk extending far into the audience, and she delivers several monologues on the importance of forgiving yourself for your mistakes, knowing when to put aside bad love affairs, and trusting your heart and believing in the good of the world. It sounds contrived as I write it, but the hesitancy and yearning in her voice do not sound false.
Indeed, this night leaves me feeling almost terrified of Taylor Swift, for watching her Nation hang on every word, cry and scream in response, and tearfully sing along to her special deviation from the usual set list (a “Fifteen” with just her and her guitar), it occurs to me how much power she can wield, and leads me to ponder how in the future she might use that power, especially as her stardom shows zero signs of abating. Her “philosophy” is simplistic enough to be troublesome (i.e. the blanket labeling of people as “haters”) , but its central tenets of friendship and self-worth are attractive. Truth be told, even I was humming along with “Fifteen” (a song that is very awkward for a man to sing).
That philosophy is reinforced in videos that play during the more extensive set changes, in which Swift’s famous best friends (including Haim), after sharing goofy stories of being in Taylor’s “squad,” offer sincere musings on female friendship and how to find real and lasting love. My two favorite speakers are Lena Dunham, as hilariously frank as her writing, and Cara Delevingne, who sounds like Eliza Doolittle at the end of her lessons.
Past, Present, and Future
All of this is not to detract from the actual concert, and one of the finest parts of that concert is Swift reinventing some of her greatest hits. Two songs from Red are completely shorn of their pop sheen and cuter touches. One of the night’s best transitions sees “Blank Space” turn into “I Knew You Were Trouble,” now slowed down, transposed to minor keys and droning chords, and transformed into frightening music with which you can still sing along. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” sees Swift pick up a white Fender and scream, backed only by more guitars and clattering drums. But the best reinterpretation is “Love Story,” which loses its country flavor and becomes the dreamiest of synth-pop fantasies; it sounds like a song that could have hit number one in 1989.
Swift’s last excursion into her past also kicks off the fantastic closing series of songs. She interpolates “Enchanted” and “Wildest Dreams” in a new arrangement for grand piano, reminiscent of classic Elton John and boasting a heartfelt vocal, then delivers extended workouts on two standouts from 1989. “Out of the Woods” is a showcase for Taylor Swift as performer, covering the stage like Madonna or David Bowie and repeating the last chorus over and over, driven to wrest every nuance from the song. However, “Shake It Off” is for the entire audience to get up and dance the night to its end. But there is more; I recently met a man who worked on the set design, and he told me that they built the stage in six weeks. I saw why he impressed this point when the catwalk, bearing Swift and all her dancers, lifted into the air and did a complete 360-degree spin over the audience. It was a magical finish, and a reminder that when Taylor Swift closes this chapter of her career, her ambitions will push her into directions surprising and unknown to us, and pop music will be the better for it.
Close-up photos of Taylor Swift from TSwiftDaily. All other pictures taken by Andrew Rostan.