Taylor Swift is back in the concert ring
Taylor Swift is back in the concert ring Image Credit: AFP

Taylor Swift had endless choices when deciding how to kick off her first concert tour in nearly five years on Friday night, a captivating spectacle that stretched over three hours and included 44 songs. After starting with a brief snippet of ‘Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince’, the namesake song to her 2020 Netflix documentary, she launched directly into ‘Cruel Summer’.

As the track’s hazy opening synth-pop beats blasted through State Farm Stadium, at Glendale in Arizona, you could hear the gasps, with simultaneous shouts of “OH MY GOD!” barely heard above the ecstatic mayhem (and in some cases, heaving sobs) among the nearly 70,000 in attendance. Swift, resplendent in a shimmering bejewelled silver bodysuit and matching knee-high boots, beamed at the crowd, because she knew exactly what she was doing.

Swift fans believe that, in a parallel universe, ‘Cruel Summer’ (the yearning anthem on her 2019 album, ‘Lover’, about a steamy and toxic relationship, with a chorus that demands you sing-scream along) was destined to be the song of the summer of 2020, released as a single as Swift planned to embark on a series of festivals called Lover Fest. Obviously, the global bummer of 2020 happened instead. Yet the obsession with ‘Cruel Summer’ persisted, especially because Swift had never performed it live.

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This cover image released by Republic Records shows "Lover", the latest release by Taylor Swift. Swift’s superb 18-track new album ‘Lover’ finds the singer-songwriter looking backward and forward through the lens of love. (Republic Records via AP) Image Credit: AP

So this wasn’t just a song. For many, this was a stinging, subconscious reminder of how much we lost and what could have been. It was also a moment of pure, delirious joy - not only because of the thrill of hearing a beloved song live for the first time, but also because it’s clear that even one of the most powerful celebrities on the planet had felt all of that, too. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that at the top of her first show on her Eras Tour - 52 dates of sold-out stadiums - she wanted to pick up right where she’d left off before the world shut down.

“I don’t know how to process all of this and the way that it’s making me feel right now,” Swift told the stadium when the song was over, her voice slightly shaking. Later, she added: “I’m really, really, really overwhelmed, and I’m trying to keep it together all night.”

“Trying to keep it together” has rarely applied to the 33-year-old Swift, who, nearing the end of a second decade as a professional musician, has ascended to a rare, glorified status as a once-in-a-generation pop star. She has no chill. After rising to fame with songs about her awkward, unpopular teen years, she now embraces cringe and earnestness. That’s part of the draw for her legion of fans, who see her as one of them. After Ticketmaster melted down during sales for the Eras Tour, the parent company’s chairman went on the defensive by pointing to the extreme demand, claiming that the number of people trying to buy tickets “could have filled 900 stadiums”.

The Swifties shelled out hundreds - sometimes thousands - of dollars for tickets and travel and descended on Glendale this weekend, determined to make the often harrowing process of ticket-buying a distant memory. The Phoenix suburb, which recently hosted the Super Bowl, could hardly contain its excitement. The mayor declared it would temporarily change its name to ‘Swift City’, and electronic signs on the highway encouraged safe driving with Swift puns: “CUT OFF? DON’T GET BAD BLOOD. SHAKE IT OFF.” “RECKLESS DRIVING? YOU NEED TO CALM DOWN.”

But that was nothing compared to the electric energy surrounding the stadium. To be a Taylor Swift fan is to learn to master the clues and secret messages that could be embedded in every lyric, public comment and social media post, no matter how opaque. To be a Taylor Swift fan is to always come ready, which includes devising the perfect outfit to wear to a concert, with unlimited options bestowed by the singer herself, who chose a tour theme, “eras,” that celebrates her past and present.

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Taylor Swift Image Credit: Reuters

Being in the crowd was like being in a force field where all pretences are gone; Swift’s music covers the spectrum of bubblegum pop (which she refers to as “glitter gel pen lyrics”) to deep introspective poetry, and her concerts are a place where you can dance or cry to either. Swift has laid bare her own insecurities and emotions over 10 studio albums and more than 200 songs. Here, in her presence and among one another, fans become their truest selves.

Scanning the crowd, you could see countless sequins and bejewelled skirts and jackets, an homage to the “1989” era. There were also dark blue dresses with stars for ‘Midnights’; red heart sunglasses, a black bowler hat and a T-shirt reading, “Not a lot going on at the moment,” a shout-out to the “22” music video; dark lipstick and black leotards as a tribute to “Reputation”; lyrics scribbled down people’s arms in marker, something Swift used to do before every concert; and No. 13 painted on hands, another former Swift tradition, from when she was starting out as a country star.

“My inspiration is the Red Tour, one of Taylor’s iconic outfits, and I just wanted to re-create it,” said Giacomo Benavides, a 26-year-old content creator dressed like a circus ringleader who travelled from Peru for the show.

Some were even more specific: Olivia Jackter of Tucson, 26, wore a traffic-light get-up that displayed the phrase “I don’t know,” referring to a lyric from the song ‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’. Would non-Swifties understand it? Of course not. Did that matter? Of course not. “This was going to be my costume for Lover Fest. I’ve been waiting for this for years,” Jackter said.

A group of 20-something women attached plastic Easter eggs to white T-shirts with photos of some of their favourite “Easter eggs” and hints that Swift has dropped over the years. One man dressed in a cat costume as Swift’s newest pet, Benjamin. Two women whooped excitedly when they walked by each other in a line for food and saw that they wore matching floral dresses similar to what Swift wore to the 2021 Grammy Awards.

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift Image Credit: AP

Another popular theme was “All Too Well,” the searing break-up ballad that recently got a second life when Swift released the updated 10-minute version. Lots of fans wore outfits displaying those lyrics. Ivan Hernandez of Phoenix sported a blue T-shirt that read, “Where’s the scarf, Jake?” - a reference to the song’s supposed subject, Swift’s ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, and the lyric that suggests that he swiped her scarf.

“[My son] wanted to go to the concert, and he said, ‘Let’s wear outfits,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to wear an outlandish outfit,’” said Hernandez, 46, whose 13-year-old son, Eli, was wearing an Eras Tour shirt they had bought at the merchandise stand Saturday afternoon before Swift’s second show. “So I just went online and started looking for something about ‘All Too Well,’ and this is the one that came up.”

Swift, who misses nothing, praised everyone for their effort from the stage.

“You have really outdone yourselves, guys. The way that you decided to show up to this concert, you really, really decided to show up,” she said, noting that she saw people dressed as mirror balls (from the song “Mirrorball”); and willow trees (from “Willow”). “I have seen, like, really amazing, specific visual representations of lyrics or weird online inside jokes that we have.”

“I was thinking about tonight and how special this is,” she added. “You have led me to believe, by you being here, that it’s special for you, too, so it’s really nice that it’s mutual.”

Swift’s unusually close relationship with her fans started back when she was a country artist, a genre in which singers are supposed to think of listeners as their peers. Swift always went a step beyond, chatting with fans on MySpace back before Nashville executives even knew what that was, and that connection has continued to this day.

In concert, Swift referred to the journey that she and her fans have taken together, like they’re a family. (The “four new members of the family,” she said, are the four albums she has released since her last tour.) She made no secret of the fact that she monitors fans’ social media activity, even drily noting that her 2020 record ‘Evermore’, is “an album I absolutely love, despite what some of you say on TikTok.” (People on the platform are convinced that ‘Evermore’ is her “forgotten child.”)

This is all why her bond with her fandom remains so strong. She connected early on to fellow teenage girls who inferred from society that their crushes and feelings and dreams were silly, only to find someone in Swift who took them seriously and who could articulate, in songwriting, what they didn’t even know they were feeling.

“By the time she’s done living through something and writing about it and releasing music, I’m living through it,” said Briana McReynolds, 32, of Phoenix, who showed up in a T-shirt covered in lyrics, as well as a purple streak in her hair to represent “Lavender Haze,” Swift’s latest single. Her best friend, Chris, accompanied her to the concert as an “emotional support Swiftie.” (“I’m doing my best,” he said.)

“She’s just accidentally kind of written the soundtrack for my life,” McReynolds said. “She’s matured with all of us, or we’ve matured with her. So no matter what age I am, she can totally sing my heart.”

Caitlin O’Connor, 32, of San Diego came to the show with her mom; they have seen every Swift tour together for the last 15 years, and O’Connor makes sure to go multiple times.

“You don’t need therapy; you need Taylor Swift songs,” O’Connor said. Swift’s concerts, she explained, “are my happy place, and there’s nothing else like it. It’s the most natural high you could get in your whole life.” On her arm, she has a tattoo of lyrics from Swift’s “Treacherous”: “All we are is skin and bone, trained to get along.”

“I love that line. Really, at the core, everybody is human,” she said. “And that’s also the thing with Taylor Swift concerts: Everybody is really nice. ... You bond over something immediately.”

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Swift is highly aware of the world she’s built, and she doesn’t shy away from it. In a surprisingly direct admission, while introducing the song ‘Mirrorball’, from her 2020 album ‘Folklore’ during an acoustic set, she reiterated to the crowd just how intensely she’s missed them over the past several years.

“I was thinking about how one of the songs that I wrote with you in mind during the pandemic was one of the first songs I wrote on ‘Folklore,’ and it was me writing about how badly I craved the connection that I feel from the care that you have directed my way,” she said. “I was trying to think of a sort of eloquent way to say that I love you and I need your attention all the time.”

The stadium quieted as she strummed and sang.

“I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try; I’m still on that trapeze, I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me. ‘Cause I’m a mirror ball. ... I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight.”

And although she asked the members of the crowd for their attention, she didn’t need to; it was already there, and it always will be.