The Week In Pop

Big Reputation: A Trip To Taylor Swift’s Hyper-Maximalist Stadium Tour

I am sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a football field. A few dozen yards in front of me stand two video screens several stories high, each angled slightly toward its respective side of the stadium, converging at the center of the stage like two sides of a triangle. A gargantuan rig of cranes, lights, and speakers looms over top, adding up to something like a construction zone out of futuristic sci-fi. On my wrist is a white wristband programmed to light up in various colors at the command of some unseen computer.

Twilight is setting in at Ohio Stadium, the 105,000-seat football temple otherwise known as the Horseshoe — reduced to a capacity of about 62,000 in tonight’s configuration. This is where the Ohio State Buckeyes play their home games, but occasionally other events happen here, such as international soccer exhibitions and superstar country music festivals. It’s played host to Metallica, U2, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, One Direction, and a co-headline gig by Billy Joel and Elton John, but no production in this venue has ever been as large as the one Taylor Swift has brought to Columbus on this unseasonably pleasant July Saturday night.

At one point this evening Swift will make sure to alert her audience to that factoid, which has been floating around local media all weekend. How could she not? Her Reputation Stadium Tour — always referred to as the Reputation Stadium Tour in all printed materials, video messaging, and stage banter, lest you forget what kind of venues she’s playing this time around — seems explicitly designed to be the biggest spectacle in all of summer entertainment. It is a perpetual gargantuan flex, a roving musical Infinity War that amplifies everything extra about her persona to an exponential scope.

Another stat circulating this weekend: The extravaganza I’m about to behold required 52 semi trucks full of gear and 30 more flatbed trucks hauling steel. As I will soon discover, the artifacts contained therein include those two towering video screens, two auxiliary stages to be situated at opposite corners of the field, two ski-lift-sized carts that carried her to those additional stages and back, a small Hollywood studio’s worth of costumes and set designs, an impressive arsenal of pyrotechnics, and at least one mechanical and/or inflatable python that rises up at center stage during “Look What You Made Me Do.” Presumably her caravan also includes several buses housing the hundreds of workers employed by the tour, including a small army of singers, dancers, and musicians. What’s not clear is how they transport the chip on Swift’s shoulder.

Reputation, the album from whence the Reputation Stadium Tour derives its name, was largely inspired by the pop star’s grudges against the media and celebrity rivals such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Snakes were a prominent theme in the album’s rollout, Swift owning the emoji bestowed upon her by Kardashian during the dispute over whether Swift approved West’s lyrics about her: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” No one came out of that exchange looking great, and Swift’s public silence on the 2016 election fueled further critique.

As a result, the writing and recording of Reputation coincided with a period of unprecedented notoriety for the teenage country star-turned-pop idol. Swift, who has been commenting on the media’s treatment of her in her art since 2010’s “Mean,” decided to acknowledge this perception and repackage it on her own terms. The album was not as much of a heel turn as advertised, but between the supervillain antics of “Look What You Made Me Do” and the not-that-innocent posturing of hard-hitting electronic tracks “Ready For It?” and “I Did Something Bad,” it embraced a darker persona than the meticulously image-controlled Swift had ever opted to project — not exactly evil, but extremely PG-13.

This exercise in personal branding is why I am now hearing Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” blaring at full volume from that speaker rig as those video screens go dark. It’s why the screens are suddenly lit up with slithering reptilian imagery, heralded by repeated samples of Swift singing, “Baby, let the games begin!” It’s why the screens are now sliding open to reveal Swift clad in a sparkly black legless bodysuit and knee-high black boots. It’s why the bass is booming harder than anyone could have imagined it would at a Taylor Swift concert, those jarring detonations that make “Ready For It?” such an effective opener on record and on stage alike. It’s why, during the second verse — the one where she casts herself as a criminal tamed by an incomparable lover — she’s joined by male dancers in goth snakeskin trench coats out of Star Wars or The Matrix or (gulp) a Yeezy fashion show.

This carries on into “I Did Something Bad,” a song built on post-dubstep reverberations that, if a few years outdated, feel powerful enough to knock this stadium off its foundation. There’s a lot going on at this point — elaborate choreography blown up beyond IMAX size on the video screens, flames shooting out of the top of the stage, fireworks exploding overhead (and yes, this is only the second song of the night) — but the most impressive part of this number may be the moment when Swift leans back, lifts her mic, and nails a glory note. It’s a surprising display from an artist better known for writing magnificent hooks and clever, detail-rich lyrics than for her vocal prowess, though frankly this is a production that could entertain without much actual singing from its protagonist.

Swift and her dancers’ futuristic goth wardrobe plus the way they’re being filmed has me flashing back to that live televised broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar starring John Legend a few months back. And as Swift moves on to addressing her audience for the first time this evening, I begin to realize that this is the best way to understand the Reputation Stadium Tour: as an oversized, high-tech touring Broadway production with a mostly tremendous soundtrack. Swift doesn’t even pretend statements such as “Oh, Columbus, look at all this!” are off-the-cuff. They’re lines from a script, and she reads them as such. It’s all part of the show.

From there we’re on to a less ominous segment of the setlist. During “Gorgeous,” a computerized pop tune on which Swift depicts herself as a slapstick rom-com heroine, she introduces each of the women in her live show by name and gives them individual spotlights onscreen. During “Style,” the 1989 synth-pop single with Drive vibes, the screens rise up and warp into new shapes, revealing her band on an elevated platform. This morphs into the first of several mashup medleys, segueing into “Love Story” and its fellow Fearless jam “You Belong With Me.” It’s a clever way to pay homage to her earlier catalog while clearing space on the setlist for lots of Reputation songs — and to get around singing the now obsolete lyric, “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts.”

After an artsy video segment stitching together various complaints against Swift — not unlike the list of common Drake critiques Drake paired with Scorpion — the dancers roll out a snake throne on a tilted stage and we’re plunged back into (relative) darkness with “Look What You Made Me Do.” Swift is now dressed in something like a royal boxer’s robe. The giant snake rises up out of the floor, flanked by a series of smaller but also imposing snakes. Tiffany Haddish appears onscreen to read the bit about how the Old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now because she’s dead — never mind that, in true Jesus Christ Superstar fashion, the Old Taylor is resurrected several times over the course of this show.

A newfangled “End Game” follows, reconfigured to excise Ed Sheeran and Future altogether, followed by the lesser Reputation deep cut “King Of My Heart.” Despite the appearance of a half dozen gong-sized drums, it’s the first time I find myself wishing she’d cool it with the new stuff in favor of more classic material. It speaks well of her discography that the show could contain only one song from Red and never lack for hits, but still, why limit the setlist to just one song from your best album?

Another costume change, this time into a sparkly silver dress, precedes a second audience address. This time Swift announces that she’d like to try the Ohio State football cheer in which she yells, “O-H!” and the crowd responds, “I-O!” because for major pop stars, not doing so when performing at OSU is apparently against the law. As the video screens create a starry backdrop and those white wristbands light up to create waves of color throughout the stands, she hops in a flying orb covered with Christmas lights to sing “Delicate,” one of the more popular but less remarkable Reputation tracks. She lands at the auxiliary stage closest to me, where Swift invites opening acts Charli XCX and Camila Cabello back to bop their way through “Shake It Off” in the company of another large snake prop. Maybe it’s because I’ve rushed over to watch this play out up close, but the party vibe is contagious.

Now for one of those Old Taylor resurrections: She plays two songs solo on acoustic guitar, first the decent Reputation track “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” then a quite moving reading of Speak Now oldie “Sparks Fly.” Her band kicks back in and she marches over to the opposite auxiliary stage, changing costumes yet again in the process, to sing “Blank Space” with some of the least fanfare of the gig — a disappointingly understated treatment for one of her best songs. As she traipses around the stage alone, her pop-goddess maneuvers have the air of a geek doing a Beyoncé impression in the mirror. “Dress,” perhaps her most overtly sexual song ever, gets a similarly stripped-down performance. Suddenly she’s flying again, this time in a skeletal snake pod of sorts, singing a mashup of “Bad Blood” and “Should’ve Said No,” banjos and acoustic guitars laced into a lurching synth beat á la Smashing Pumpkins’ “Adore.”

Back on the main stage, we get one more big pyrotechnic Reputation moment with “Don’t Blame Me,” for which her dancers don foreboding costumes that again call back to Kanye West’s iconography, this time the druids from the Yeezus Tour. Next is the piano portion of the show, with “Long Live” merged into “New Year’s Day,” the truly lovely ballad that closes out the sneering Reputation on such a hopeful note. Another dramatic video interlude sets up one final run of songs, again mostly from the new album but thankfully some of its highlights.

The Antonoff-infused synth gem “Getaway Car,” which really ought to be a single, finds Swift alone on stage against a backdrop of nature scenes from the American West. The stellar ballad “Call It What You Want” is presented in front of an illustrated retro mansion and a large functioning fountain like something out of Mary Poppins. The waterworks remain onstage for our grand finale, a confetti-strewn combination of two cheery kiss-offs, “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”

And then it’s all over. Swift is perched on the fountain waving farewell, surrounded by a sizable cast of costumed performers and flying colors. It’s a triumphant moment: the completion of a wildly impressive stadium show that doubled as a statement of dominance. Yet if the Reputation Stadium Tour is a deserved victory lap, I’m walking out of the Horseshoe wondering how long Swift can sustain the level of dominance required to keep playing venues this large.

This show was not a sellout — about a dozen sections in the upper bowl were covered in tarp — and Swift seems less like a surefire hit-maker than ever, despite “Look What You Made Me Do” spending three weeks at #1 last summer and Reputation racking up the biggest debut of 2017 without the benefit of streaming. In terms of subsequent singles, “Ready For It?” rapidly plummeted out of the top 10, and nothing else off the album has returned to that echelon since. Big interest out of the gate with a lack of hits to follow may be indicative of an empire in decline.

Or maybe those Reputation sales figures suggest Swift’s fan base is now so large and devoted, her catalog of hits so deep, her celebrity so all-consuming that she can continue playing stadiums in perpetuity even if her stranglehold on the singles charts continues to loosen. When discussing the biggest artists of her generation, she’s undeniably on the shortlist. She could easily build a solid two-hour setlist out of songs she didn’t play. Maybe she’s ascended to the same rarefied tier as those classic rock deities who’ve echoed across this venue before her, able to keep commanding stadium status for the rest of her career whether she ever scores another hit or not. And honestly, after spending two hours watching that show, who would honestly believe this woman will stop making hits anytime soon?

CREDIT: Karwai Tang/WireImage

CHART WATCH

Drake set a lot of records this week thanks to the massive success of his lengthy new album. Scorpion, of course, debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, crushing the new weekly streaming record in the process. Of his 732,000 equivalent album units — the biggest total of the year by more than 300K — only 160,000 comprised traditional album sales. Per Billboard, the bulk of the units — 551,000 — derived from a record 745.92 million on-demand audio streams, obliterating Post Malone’s previous record of 431.3 million streams for Beerbongs & Bentleys two months ago.

This has no bearing on its US chart placement, but Scorpion is also the first album to ever generate 1 billion global track streams in a week. It’s Drake’s eighth consecutive full-length to debut at #1, tying Kanye West, Eminem, and the Beatles for most #1 album debuts in a row. It therefore also ties Kanye and Eminem for second most #1s among rappers, behind Jay-Z’s 14. (The Beatles have the most career #1 albums at 19.) Its obscene popularity also led to record-breaking dominance on the Hot 100 singles chart, but first, let’s run down the rest of the top 10 albums.

In at an extremely distant #2 with 84,000 units/74,000 sales is Florence + The Machine’s High As Hope. After Post Malone at #3 come Gorillaz with a #4 debut for The Now Now via 63,000 units/52,000 sales. Up next are XXXTentacion, Cardi B, Juice WRLD, the Carters, and Panic! At The Disco. And closing out the top 10 are Guns N’ Roses, whose 1987 blockbuster Appetite For Destruction re-enters the chart at #10 thanks to 33,000 units of its deluxe reissue.

OK, back to Drake: Dude has seven songs in the top 10 this week, smashing the Beatles’ previous record of five, which has stood since 1964. “Nice For What” is back at #1 for an eighth nonconsecutive week. “Nonstop” debuts at #2. “God’s Plan” rises back to #4. “In My Feelings” debuts at #6. “I’m Upset” climbs to a new #7 peak. “Emotionless” debuts at #8. And the Michael Jackson collab “Don’t Matter To Me” enters at #9. Speaking of Jackson, Drake passes him for most top 10 hits among solo males with 31. (“Don’t Matter To Me” becomes Jackson’s 30th.) Drake is now has the third most top 10s among all artists following the Beatles (34) and Madonna (38).

It keeps going. Drake is also the first act to debut four songs in the top 10 simultaneously, beating J. Cole, who debuted a record three at the same time earlier this year. He passes Taylor Swift for the most top-10 debuts of all time with 16. He has 27 songs total on the Hot 100 this week — another record. He surpasses Post Malone for the most ever songs in the top 40 simultaneously with 21 and beats Elvis Presley for the most top 40 hits all time at 91. He tops Post for the most top 20 hits at once with nine and bests Elvis for the most top 20 hits all-time at 55 (and no there’s not an echo in here).

As for songs not by Drake in the top 10 this week: You won’t be surprised to learn that two of them feature Cardi B. Her former #1 “I Like It” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin falls to #3, while her Maroon 5 collab “Girls Like You” is in at #5. In any other year, having two singles in the top five would be remarkable, but Drake and Cardi have made it old hat. Rounding out the top 10 is XXXTentacion’s “SAD!”

POP FIVE

Twenty One Pilots – “Jumpsuit” & “Nico And The Niners”
Twenty One Pilots ended 2016 as one of the world’s five most streamed artists on Spotify — right between Rihanna and Kanye, if I recall correctly. They’re arguably the biggest rock band in the world in terms of current popularity and hit-making power, and they happen to hail from my hometown. I’ve already seen them linked to a potential nu-metal revival, and the unabashed screaming throughout “Jumpsuit” does not dispel those notions. The other new tune, “Nico And The Niners,” is a reggae-inflected number not unlike their prior #1 hits “Stressed Out” and “Ride,” but don’t be surprised if “Jumpsuit” is the one that shoots to the top of the charts this time.

Alessia Cara – “A Little More”
This is fine, but from a singer who won Best New Artist over Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, Julia Michaels, and SZA, I’m gonna need to see… a little more.

Niall Horan – “Finally Free”
I like this soundtrack one-off more than most Niall Horan songs because it sounds like a One Direction song. Let’s get that reunion in motion, guys!

Why Don’t We – “Talk”
At this point I’m pretty comfortable declaring Why Don’t We the best of the new boy bands. I’m still waiting for one of them to drop a single on par with “It’s Gonna Be Me” or “I Want It That Way,” though.

MØ & Diplo – “Sun In Our Eyes”
Yet another collab between these two, and probably the most promising since they teamed with Justin Bieber on “Cold Water” two summers ago. The chorus is excellent, not least of all thanks to some dope drum programming from Mr. Pentz.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift talks to rock muse Pattie Boyd in the new issue of Harper’s Bazaar. [Harpers]
  • Radio host David Mueller, who was fired after groping Swift at a meet-and-greet, says she ruined his life: “Now I’m afraid to even talk to women.” This creeper-ass dude ruined his own life! [Radar]
  • Drake’s “In My Feelings” video is reportedly being filmed in New Orleans with director Karena Evans. [HNHH]
  • Bebe Rexha is beefing with contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race who she said were cold to her. [Billboard]
  • Charlie Sheen stars in Lil Pump’s new “Drug Addicts” video. [YouTube]
  • XXXTentacion reportedly signed a $10M album deal before his death. [NYT]
  • “Yodel Boy” Mason Ramsey announced his debut album. [ABC]
  • Halsey and G-Eazy were working on new music together days before their breakup. [Billboard]
  • More bad news for G-Eazy: He was forced to cancel a concert in Calgary when denied entry into Canada likely due to his recent cocaine arrest. [TMZ]
  • New mom Cardi B filed a $15M countersuit against her ex-manager for breaching contractual and fiduciary duties. [THR]
  • In other Cardi news, she’ll be on DJ Snake’s new album. [Facebook]
  • Rudimental and Major Lazer released a video for “Let Me Live” featuring Anne-Marie and Mr Eazi. [YouTube]
  • Charlie Puth released a video for “The Way I Am.” [YouTube]
  • Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign released a video for “The Light.” [YouTube]
  • PRETTYMUCH released a video for “Summer On You.” [YouTube]
  • Eminem is releasing a capsule collection with Rag & Bone. [YouTube]
  • Panic! At The Disco covered Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • Good Charlotte will headline a benefit concert for the Capital Gazette employees killed in an attack in their newsroom. [US News]

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