Yes, I went to a Taylor Swift show last night. Judging by the audience of preteen girls at the Prudential Center in Newark, I doubt many of my colleagues have had this experience. My twin nieces, Hannah and Charlotte, turning 13 on Tuesday, wanted to see opening act Ed Sheeran. They had no interest in Swift, but since i paid for the tickets, I told them we had to do the whole thing.
Now, having seen her in arena, I can tell you why Taylor Swift will never find a happy relationship. In a minute. First the show: I don’t know who wrote it, directed, choreographed it, scripted it in within an inch of its life. But the Red tour show is not about rock and roll or even pop. It’s a humongous Broadway spectacle. Or a series of them.
There are 18 songs including a duet with Sheeran and a guest spot. Last night that went to Pat Monahan of Train, whom Swift called “my favorite singer from my favorite band.” I know, I am an old curmudgeon, but I did do a spit take. “Special guests” in my day meant Eric Clapton, Or Elvis Costello. And they sang a song from a Ford commercial. Eeee.
Most of the 18 numbers have total costume and lighting specifics on the scale of, say, “Les Miseables.” Or more. Swift makes countless costume changes, all stunning. The dancers- there are many– and singers– lots of them too– never sit down for more than two hours. They are very talented. The band is bland, and I’m not even convinced they were all playing their instruments live. They’re so incidental that Swift never introduces them. Whatever was country about Swift is gone. Her music has been rearranged into institutional 80s New Wave pop. The arrangements are clunky. Her own songs from older albums sound better solo, on acoustic guitar. But that’s just a small segment now.
Swift comes across like a QVC hostess. She is endlessly self promoting, listing all her awards for the audience, her so called accomplishments, her many successes. At one point she says that she and the audience have “a lot in common”– but she doesn’t mean several homes, celebrity boyfriends, and millions of dollars. She means that the audience, like her, is obsessed with Taylor Swift. She is disingenuous even to the eye of a New York 13 year old. And she often stands on stage, backlit, flirting with the large video screens.
But: the show is almost overly entertaining. It’s sort of brilliant in its nonstop, ceaseless attack. The detail work and the production are superb. Swift comes off like an actress playing Taylor Swift in a musical. You get the sense there is no there “there.” At what, 23, she is already beyond the pale. But the thousands of girls in the audience love her. I mean, love her. They adore her. They are transfixed. She is the realization of all their fantasies.
It’s the physicality of the show that made me realize, she cannot go back. Taylor Swift is now the G rated Madonna. She flies across the arena suspended from the ceiling on an open platform. She walks out in the middle of the audience sort of on a crane, barefoot. She swings around on a cherry picker (the same one Tina Turner used about 10 years ago in her mid 60s.)
By the time she reaches the end of this extravaganza, Swift is standing at the top of a huge staircase. She is wearing a top hat and is dressed like Sergeant Pepper’s cheerleader in red and gold. Some 20,000 people are speady before her screaming so loudly that you cannot hear anything. Imagine the adrenaline at this point pulsating through her. She tells the audience– it’s scripted but true –“I can’t believe you know all the words to all the songs.” They do, they really do, even though the songs are largely meaningless.
She is not Joni or Carly or Carole. She plays guitar well enough, but fakes piano miserably (like Justin Timberlake). She is a brand, and there is tons of merchandise. But she is also an entertainer. And she’s superb at it. You know movies are next. This is inevitable. She’s so ready for her closeup she’s already taking it. But a boyfriend who can measure up to the rush of being Taylor Swift? She’s asking too much. I think she will realize that soon.
Ed Sheeran? I like him. He’s sort of this year’s James Blunt or Jason Mraz. He plays amplified acoustic guitar really well, and is a good, athletic singer. He sort of sing-raps. One thing I didn’t understand: he put down the guitar mid-song and the music kept playing. Who was playing it? Compared to Swift’s show, Sheeran’s is like something from Folk City. The two acts complement each other.