The Taylor Swift Live Experience Made Me All Emotional
About halfway through “All Too Well,” I lost it. Couldn’t hold it together at all. Became an absolute mess. Couldn’t stop crying. It was embarrassing, frankly. I try to be honest with myself, but “person who cries at a Taylor Swift show” isn’t the way that I see myself. And yet there I was, blubbering to myself on the floor at the Lincoln Financial Field.
I couldn’t even tell you why I was crying, exactly. It wasn’t like the first time I heard Taylor’s new buddy Lucy Dacus sing “Thumbs.” That was an emotionally apocalyptic moment, a memory-fog black hole that brought up all sorts of heavy internal shit. I’m not that personally invested in Taylor Swift’s years-ago breakup with Jake Gyllenhaal. As far as I’m concerned, that’s settled business. This was something else. Gratitude, maybe? A sort of sensory-overload flood? Just sheer and overwhelming respect of motherfucking craft? I don’t know, but I was in it.
I was there with my daughter. That was the big thing. Clara just turned 14. She’ll graduate from middle school in a few weeks. Clara was born about six months after Fearless came out, so Taylor’s music has always been a part of her life. It’s been part of her vocabulary. In preschool, when some kid was being a dick to her, Clara literally retorted, “Someday, I’ll be living in a big ol’ city, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” Clara doesn’t really care about most of the music that I like. Even when we do like the same artists — Lana Del Rey, Mitski, Beach Bunny — Clara has found them on her own, and she likes them for her own reasons. But Taylor has always been there for Clara. We are a Taylor Swift household.
You probably know about the Eras Tour already. Even if you don’t want to know about the Eras Tour, you know about it. It’s the closest thing we’ve had to a monocultural musical event in a long time. Last year, when Ticketmaster bungled the tickets’ pre-sales, the whole affair became such a scandal that Congress held hearings. Swifties were reportedly paying tens of thousands of dollars for secondary-market tickets. At the shows, vast crowds of ticketless fans still show up just to sing along outside the stadiums.
Taylor Swift shows are not like regular shows. That whole unwritten rule of not wearing a band’s shirt to see that band — the PCU “don’t be that guy” thing — is inverted here. Virtually everyone arrives in something that’s associated with Taylor in one way or another. Homemade T-shirts abound. Costumes get very elaborate and in-jokey. I saw at least one person dressed up as the Taylor Swift character from Cats. I simply cannot fathom that level of dedication or confidence, but Taylor’s fans have it. The atmosphere is way more like an anime convention or something than like what I’ve seen even at big stadium shows in the past.
The people who go to Taylor Swift shows are invested. Last week, I wrote about going to see Zach Bryan and about the rafter-shaking full-arena singalongs that he inspired. A few people told me that I’d see something similar at the Taylor Swift shows, even though those two musicians occupy vastly different spots in the cultural firmament. Those people were right. Taylor Swift fans do the whole Dashboard Confessional full-throated emotional-singalong thing, and they do it in vast and overwhelming numbers. Taylor might be the biggest mainstream pop star on the planet, but her fanbase works as an insular but welcoming culture. It’s truly something to behold.
Clara knows that culture better than I do. I love Taylor Swift’s music, and I have probably annoyed many of this site’s readers by saying nice things about her over and over again. But I’ve never been a part of any fan community, for Taylor or anyone else, and the ways of the Swiftie are foreign to me. Clara educated me. She told me how fans make elaborate friendship bracelets based on individual Taylor songs or albums — she was working on hers for weeks — and then trade them with strangers at the shows. She told me how Swifties have things that they chant at particular moments of songs. (After the “Delicate” intro, for instance, it’s “one, two, three, let’s go bitch!” That one was loud, though I wasn’t ready to call Taylor Swift a bitch.) She told me that I would look like a total herb for not wearing anything Taylor-specific. She was right.
When you see Taylor Swift, you get it. She works for that level of adoration. She earns it. When I saw Zach Bryan a couple of nights before the Taylor show, I was struck by the connection between artist and audience — the specific skill and charisma required to write soul-baring, emotional songs and then to lead mass-catharsis singalongs of those songs. Taylor’s opener Phoebe Bridgers has that gift, too, and she had a couple of big singalong moments on Friday night. Taylor Swift does that thing, and she does it while nailing circus-acrobat tricks. After just watching Taylor, I was so tired that I could barely walk. Taylor showed up at the same stadium on the next night and did it all again.
The concept of the Eras Tour isn’t exactly earthshaking. Most veteran artists draw from their different albums when they play live, and Taylor’s show requires a few leaps of faith, like the idea that folklore and evermore constitute different eras. But Taylor’s show isn’t just about the songs. Each segment of the show is its own production, with different sets and costumes and color schemes and aesthetics. Taylor and her collaborators have figured out how to turn each of those records into stadium-level spectacle, even when the records don’t necessarily call out for that kind of treatment. When Taylor went all indie-folk, I thought the pandemic had her thinking that she was done playing stadiums, that she didn’t have to write songs with spectacle in mind. Instead, she’s finding ways to turn indie-folk songs into full Broadway musical numbers.
When I was in high school and my friends were making fun of me, they used the made-up word whizjets a lot. I didn’t want to play RPGs or watch chamber-drama films because I got bored way too easily. My attention-span is pathetic. I need whizjets. Taylor Swift’s live show has some of the best whizjets I’ve ever seen. It’s a little goofy to worry about spoiling a stadium concert, but I’d rather not discuss the different individual spectacles of the Eras Tour, just because I’m glad I didn’t know about all of them before I saw the show. The tickets are expensive, but when you’re at the show, you can see where a lot of that money goes. The whizjets — the pyro, the lights, the stage with the screens built in, the choreography, the moments that feel like David Copperfield magic tricks — are all breathtaking.
The funny thing about those whizjets is that Taylor Swift doesn’t need them. Taylor has never been a dazzling singer or dancer. People don’t become fans because she can do flawless Janet Jackson routines or because she can wail out big vocal runs like the ones that she brought on “Don’t Blame Me.” (In the past, Taylor has had a shaky rep as a live singer, but she sounded powerful on Friday.) What sets Taylor Swift apart is the songs. She’s always had collaborators, and you’ll sometimes still hear Damon Albarn types pop up to complain that she’s not really a songwriter. At this point, though, Taylor is 10 albums in, and she’s kept her central self intact as she’s moved into different genres and phases of life. The authorial voice is undeniable, and that’s why people pay attention.
The surprise-songs part of Taylor’s set — the short two-song interlude where she sings songs that aren’t on every night’s setlist — gets more attention than the rest of the show. I’m sure Taylor realizes that her entire set could be just like that. She doesn’t need the whizjets. She could still fill stadiums just by playing her songs with her band, switching things up from night to night, calling changes on the fly. Maybe she will do that one day. But Taylor also has a very particular vision of her own pop stardom, and that vision involves a whole lot of razzle-dazzle. It involves a three-hour show where every moment has been intricately planned-out — where she can’t even stop singing to yell at a security guard. (For the record, I had a great experience with the Philly security guards. I’m tall as hell, and they bent the rules to let me stand in the aisle and avoid blocking other people’s view.)
The sheer scope of Taylor’s show is overwhelming, but Taylor herself never gets lost, and neither do her songs. Taylor’s show involves an astonishing level of work and planning, but her innate poise is just as striking. To stand in front of that many people and accept their adulation, you have to be a special kind of person. Taylor beams. She radiates pride and gratitude that never shades over into false modesty. She never makes her show look like work. Instead, she seems absolutely overjoyed to be up there.
Early on Friday night, Taylor said that it was her “hometown show.” That’s a bit of a stretch. Taylor grew up in West Reading, about an hour and a half outside Philadelphia. But West Reading doesn’t have an NFL stadium, so this was as close as she was going to get. To achieve grand-scale pop stardom, you generally have to be a deeply weird person. Taylor Swift is probably a weird person in some ways, but her reaction to seeing that packed hometown-ish stadium — that levitating joy — is probably the same reaction you or I would have if we ever did anything to make that many people happy to see us. Maybe Taylor puts on such an elaborate show because she feels like she has to justify all that.
In a lot of ways, the Taylor Swift show works as fan service. She sings most of her biggest hits, but she also opens and closes with deep cuts. When you walk into the stadium, you get a little light-up LED bracelet, and those bracelets flash in elaborate patterns all through the set — one more way to make an audience feel like it’s part of the show. Taylor has always encouraged the cultiest elements of fandom, the singalongs and costumes and online community-building. As a result, the show doesn’t just feel like a show. It feels like a deep immersion in something.
Taylor’s best songs are specific. They’re about crushes or breakups or feelings of awkward unbelonging. She still makes them into big, universal anthems. That’s what “mirrorball” is about: Her own willingness to reflect other people’s feelings and experiences back to them. For me, the most powerful thing about Friday’s show was getting to watch my daughter, who has been hearing these songs for her entire life, screaming along with her entire chest. That’s what crushed me. That’s why I cried.
I’m about to get into minor-spoiler territory for this paragraph: During “All Too Well,” while I was frantically trying to wipe away tears before too many people noticed, it started to snow. It wasn’t real snow, of course. Taylor sings her line about remembering the first fall of snow, how it glistened as it fell, and jets all over the stadium shot white confetti into the air. That confetti fell slowly and silently, and you could hear a sort of collective gasp as it filled the air. It feels so strange to be going through this heavy internal personal thing and then to look up and see fake snow everywhere. I’ve been to a lot of shows and seen a lot of confetti-cannon action, but it’s never made me feel like I was being swept away to a different dimension. This was a magical whizjet, and I got to share the feeling with my kid. That kind of moment? That’s what it’s all about. I’ll remember it forever.