Taylor Swift Is the Modern Queen of Pop, For Better or Worse
Photos by Jack Gorman
Minute Maid Park
September 9, 2015
The only thing missing from Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour is a giant banner that reads, “Mission Accomplished.”
No joke — this show had pretty much everything you could want from a stadium-level pop spectacular: giant video screens; a stage that moved; choreographed dance routines; a top notch band; blinking wristbands for everyone in attendance; high end graphics; lots and lots and lots of costume changes; and at its very center, a brilliant singer-songwriter who knows how to absolutely command a stage.
It’s tempting to call it a victory lap for music’s biggest solo act, but that doesn’t sound grand enough for what Taylor Swift is trying to accomplish on this tour. Taylor Swift isn’t so much a pop star at this point as she is a superhero, the shining figure everyone who loves her music looks up to.
And she’s damn good at it, too. She’s got the pop-icon moves down, whether it's the way she walks across the stage with pure swag or how she can command the entire crowd with a well-placed look and wink at the camera. She’s even taken the time to reinvent some of her older songs to fit in with her new aesthetic, including an absolutely rocking version of “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
She is, simply put, working on a completely different level than almost everyone else in music. The tour is an amazing production, one that treats its star like the icon she is and in the process makes thousands (45,000 in Houston, for example) of people happy. It is a joyous celebration and, dare I say it, critic-proof.
So let’s punch some holes in it.
There are two moments in the show where Swift goes offstage to change costumes, and the audience is treated to some videos of people who know her talking about how cool she is. It is bizarre. One minute you’re rocking out to a really great ‘80s-pop take on “Love Story” and the next minute Selena Gomez is on screen talking about Taylor.
It’s weird that someone who displays so much raw confidence onstage doesn’t understand that the only thing less cool than telling people you’re cool is having your friends tell someone you’re cool.
But, fine, whatever: the crowd seemed to think it was nifty enough.
The crowd seemed to think that everything was nifty, because largely it was, but it didn’t really feel special.
Taylor Swift is at her best when she talks. Or at least she was. Two years ago she came to town and while you can argue that she was still playing a character known as Taylor Swift, that version of Taylor pulled an amazing trick: she made herself sound like the underdog. And in doing so it was easy to feel an emotional connection with her and her music; she became someone you didn’t just go to see, she was someone you wanted to root for.
This is not really something you can do with a superhero. Spoiler alert: superheroes win. They release albums that sell massive amounts of copies. They play stadiums. They’re the person everyone talks about.
What's infuriating about this dynamic of old-underdog Taylor and new super-cool and awesome Taylor is that it sounds like some weird psychodrama, real-life version of “You Belong to Me.” “Old Taylor” is the girl you were friends with, you could count on, and you could trust; “New Taylor” is the girl who wants everyone to think she’s cool and that she’s their friend, but probably wouldn’t remember your birthday if not for Facebook.
It’s so obvious that it can’t possibly be correct. Life is weird, but it’s probably not that weird. Taylor Swift probably isn’t some egomaniacal monster who Fearless-era Taylor would write mean songs about.
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So then why didn’t it feel special?
Perhaps it’s because she’s just too good at what she is now that you can’t help but miss the old Taylor if you knew her. By becoming more like everyone else, she became less like herself. Even when she talks now, it doesn’t really connect the way that it used to; she’s no longer the girl who is sharing her heart with you, she’s the girl giving you Yet Another Empowering Pop Music Speech.
Which she’s really good at, by the way, because she’s really good at everything.
Taylor Swift (wants you to think she) took a risk and made a big, unapologetic pop record that was a critical and commercial success. She confirmed that she is in fact the modern queen of pop. She plays stadiums.
Taylor Swift is the pop star she wanted to be, for better or worse.
So, Who Was the Special Guest? Wiz Khalifa
I Thought It Was Going to Be Beyonce: It was never going to be Beyonce.
Personal Bias: Two years ago I reviewed Swift over at the Toyota Center. That show holds a special place in my heart because a) it was the best show I saw that year; b) it was the first time I had reviewed a really major show for the Press that was outside of my element. Before that review, I was mostly stuck trying to find new ways to write about EDM shows. That review helped show my editor that I could review big pop shows, which was a big deal for me. (Or he could just be desperate. Hi, boss! [Hi! — ed.])
The Crowd: Really happy that it’s Pumpkin Spice Latte season.
Overheard in the Crowd: “Where’s Taylor” asked a 4-year-old, arriving at her seat during one of the openers, learning a valuable lesson about how going to see someone famous is not like going to see grandma.
Random Notebook Dump: With the NYC theme of the show, a fun thing to do is to pretend every time the backup dancers change costumes they’re becoming a new gang in a Warriors remake.