Swift’s ‘reputation’ tour showcases ingenuity, PR savvy

Taylor Swift loves rain, from her voluntary soaking on her “Fearless” tour and in the finale of “reputation”-era music video “Delicate,” to the rain-drenched lyrics of songs like “Sparks Fly” and “Clean.” So when raindrops began to fall as Taylor, seated at her piano, introduced the “Long Live/New Year’s Day” mashup at Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 2, she exclaimed, “Yes!…There is absolutely no group of people I’d rather dance in the rain with.” And in a surreal, enchanting, tooperfect-to-plan moment, she played the opening notes of the anthemic thank-you note she wrote for her fans and her band. We had the “time of our lives fighting dragons” together in the rain.

Evidently not all witches melt in water. After opening with “…Ready for It?” Tay dove into “I Did Something Bad,” which hits 13 times harder live than on “reputation,” where it already packs a scathing satirical punch. “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one,” a wide-eyed Tay insists as her backup dancers recoil from her like she’s a viper. So Swift shrugs and growls, “Light me up!” as they hoist her high and tilt her on her back as the background screen erupts into flames. The effect is poignant and borderline disturbing.

Besides dragons and witches, there were snakes. Lots of them. There were countless colossal snake statues (including a menacing 30-foot cobra), snakeskin costumes, a snake microphone, snake background visuals and a flying stage that was a snake skeleton with razor-sharp fangs and beady red eyes. But the snake I cared about most was Swift herself, whose knowledge of every nas- ty remark everyone has ever said about her—and her eagerness to feed a crowd of 52,000 a virtually verbatim list—is a venomous and sardonic bite in the jugular to Swift’s skeptics. As announced by the final voice-over before Swift appears onstage, “We’ll talk about Taylor Swift’s reputation.” In- deed we will; she’s a snake (of course), she holds too many grudges, her pain is manipulative, her kindness is fake (as is her girl-squad), she draws attention to herself, she plays the victim…

As with every other Swift tour, “reputation” underscores Swift’s signature capacity to command an audience with an extravagant and intricate epic pop spectacle—and with just an acoustic guitar or piano, plus her endearingly present, down-to-earth charm and homespun lyrics. The intended takeaway? Taylor Swift is, unequivocally, the reigning champion of everything.

Although Swift’s acoustic moments remain the true masterpieces (more on those later), the special effects are astounding and rival those of Broadway or Disneyland. Swift, who leaves no sparkle unturned, brings with her just over 80 trucks worth of equipment: pyrotechnics, a four-tier fountain, five stages (three standing, two flying), two massive screens, audience wristbands programmed to flash in coordination, miniature newspaper confetti, a giant snake-adorned seesaw and more. But even the over-the-top moments are organic— they’re so glittery, vengeful, dramatic, obsessively detailed and downright bizarre that only Swift’s overzealous brain could have conceived of them. Swift always features whatever she’s passionate about (Princess dresses! NYC! Revenge!), trusting that when you see how adorably happy her latest obsession makes her, you can’t help but love life on Planet Swift. Tay employs her penchant for maximalism in the service of her characteristic intimacy. For example, Swift arranged the three stages in a triangle so that every portion of the stadium gets a head-on view at some point during the concert. So when Swift warmly assures the audience that she can see every single one of us, including the people in the very back row, we believe her. (PS-If #taylurking wasn’t a thing, this would be sweet and uncreepy. But if she didn’t stalk her fans, then she wouldn’t be Taylor Swift.)

Two weaknesses: First, “reputation” is too damn good for a tour. The album’s strategic song order tells a captivating story that’s absent when Swift performs them out of order, including finishing with “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The concert ends on an awkward note of cathartic yet childish vengeance, while the album’s refreshing finale features Swift’s newfound maturity. Furthermore, the hyper-production sometimes sapped Swift’s smart songwriting. “Gorgeous,” a self-aware, deliciously sarcastic and deceptively meticulous stroke of Swiftian genius becomes silly, pedestrian pop in an overly choreographed live performance. Second, Swift kinda sucks at setlists. She should’ve replaced songs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake it Off”— overplayed on radio and bad from the outset— with lesser-known but exceptionally crafted gems like “New Romantics” and “Ours.”

Two unexpected highlights: the “Bad Blood”/ “Should’ve Said No” mash-up and the speech before “Delicate.” As for the former, I thought nothing could rescue “Bad Blood,” a lyrically dull, melodically grating pop catastrophe about how much Taylor Swift hates Katy Perry, but Swift salvaged the song by melding it with “Should’ve Said No,” a fiddle-doused ditty from 16-year-old Swift about a boy who cheated on her. Leave it to Tay to figure out that one. As for the latter, Swift donned a rainbow dress to Pride Month: “May we end up with a world where everyone can live and love equally and no one has to be afraid to be vulnerable and say how they feel.” For a minute there, Swift evinced emotion dangerously close to sincere, selfless caring. Can snakes be compassionate?

I’m a devotee of Swiftian acoustic guitar performances, which included “22” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” two of the weaker tracks in her songbook. Of course, Swift could transform an acoustic rendition of the alphabet song into a mesmerizing and dynamic tale of how “S” came before “T,” but it all started with “A.” So there’s nothing like nightly acoustic performances of “DWOHT” to rescue the one forgettable love song on an album of hard-hitting romantic ballads. Tay will never stop using her acoustic guitar as a crutch, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the undeniable showstopper was Swift’s acoustic piano performance, a melding of two killer album finales (“Long Live” and “New Year’s Day”) that didn’t need rain to be riveting. The confetti in “Long Live” falls to the ground and transforms into glitter on the hardwood floor in “New Year’s Day.” Swift’s vow to hold onto “spinning around” with the tens of thousands of strong mountain-moving, dragon-fighting “yous” flows effortlessly into her promise to hold onto the memories with the one “you” she holds onto as she sings the lyrics of “Long Live” over the melody of “New Year’s Day.” In 2009, Swift and legions of adoring fans reigned queens and kings of sold-out stadiums. In 2017, Swift and her boyfriend cleaned up bottles off a littered post-party floor. In both moments, “a band of thieves in ripped-up jeans got to rule the world.”

One of Taylor’s favorite words is “magical.” It seems melodramatic, but “magical” best describes the last three songs, performed in a rainstorm. I tossed aside my phone camera and the poncho I had contemplated wearing, and let the drops fill my mouth and drench my clothes as I sang in the rain with Taylor who, with her sopping hair, soaked sleeveless dress and massive grin seemed genuinely to be having the time of her life, not in spite of the rain, but because of it. Kind of like how she’s crafted the sexist, jealous, superficial (and occasionally deserved) insults hurled at her in the last 13 years into an ingenuitive, electric, elaborate, intimate, acclaimed, sparkling, serpentine, Swiftian spectacle. There’s resilient and optimistic, and then there’s Taylor Alison Swift. Long live, indeed.

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