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Taylor Swift's Multiplex
The Eras Tour Opens Wide
Listen to Tim Riley’s narration:
Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, Taylor Swift
(Taylor Nation, 2023)
YOU FEEL FLATTERED watching Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour concert film, and not just because you catch a contact high from her adoring audience. In a field of immaculate divas and country popsters, Swift creates her own rainbow fingernail category: rural Pennsylvania prom queen sets her diary to song with a charmed charisma and a singer’s dance moves. A lot of rivals now circle her career’s new gravity. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner put it in her New York Times Magazine profile, at a Swift concert “the night is sparkling and young love is amazing.”
Pop’s female spaces find very few shades between “good girl” and “temptress,” and most succumb to prefabricated industry orbits (writes Kristin Lieb in Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry). In the before times, Miley Cyrus jumped from her Disney channel perch as a fun-loving “girl next door” into temptress with her “exotic” twerking in 2014. Did this create the pre-condition for Swift’s prolonged girlhood? Other figures move through boy-toy, whore, provocateur, “gay icon,” seek “self-imposed exile,” or marry—for “protected status.” Britney Spears’s best-selling memoir recounts pre-adolescent Mickey Mouse Club promise jaded by motherhood’s post-partum meltdown (“hot mess” vibes). Her brand now exudes victimhood and redemption, after suing her father to get out of a Victorian “custodianship” (read: enslaving Vegas corset).
By contrast, Swift turns her tabloid likeness into victory juice. Despite prime-time confrontations with corrupt industry figures (Kanye West’s 2009 Grammies snub, removing her catalog from Spotify in 2014), she strides like a lioness straight into conquering hero turf. The recent release of 1989: Taylor’s Version torches most standard industry contracts, where musicians sign away their “masters” in perpetuity for the honor of a recording deal. The industry doesn’t like this kind of pushback, or the way her self-produced feature bypassed distributors (and ad trailers) by dealing directly with AMC. Both the WGA and the SAG-AFTRA victories sponge off Swift’s supersonic energy. Swift’s fights are creator’s fights.
In Swift’s world, every high school is a Peyton Place, every small town traps a thousand bottomless dreams.
Striding down her long video-screened runway that juts well into the house, Swift plays off a gazillion screens for meta connections—and the audience holds up its own phone screens while singing along. The visual effects play up Swift’s hyper self-consciousness. Early on, the main stage dollhouse became a corporate headquarters during “The Man” to pantomime how patriarchal systems oppress by presenting as “normal” (it’s a club prequel to Rosanne Cash’s “If I Were a Man”). Swift’s not the kind of vocalist you want to hear sing a standards album (although she’s full of surprises), but her command and stamina carry wonders. Later, before Reputation’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” everything erupts into a snarl of vivid, coiling snakes from her Kanye-Kardashian Snapchat feud. (They also echo Britney’s live Burmese python that slithered around her neck during “I’m a Slave 4 U” at 2001’s MTV Video Music Awards. This may be where Cher bowed out.)
The only Swift sequence that sagged started with a flourish: after finishing “My Tears Ricochet,” she leapt straight into a floor screen and seemed to swim back onto the main stage, where she suddenly reappeared in new garb examining a paper-mâché cloud atop a stepladder. Then her troupe carried out a string of ladders with clouds onto the walkway and her Channel-crossing evaporated. As a visual gag, it lacked a kicker. But honestly, Swift leverages her strengths so well it’s hard to quibble. Halfway through, she stops for a solo acoustic version of “All Too Well” and you forget about the parade.
Somehow, Swift’s elaborate spectacle delivers an uncanny affection. She plays every inch of that arena, but it’s all in service of the stories, which pack emotional epics into compressed, hooky trinkets. At this hyper-amplified scale, Swift excels in how intimacies shape identity, how bad even the slightest social snubs can sting. In Swift’s world, every high school is a Peyton Place, every small town traps a thousand bottomless dreams. The rapturous crowd swells alongside her in a joyous faint. But you don’t have to even know her songs to revel in Swift’s joy of performing, dress-up, and extravagant production numbers that rarely feel fussy. Her grandeur catches humility, gratitude, and a certain innocence.
In fact, you feel the sure hand of Swift’s sensibility throughout, from the costumes, dance numbers, song authorship, and stage patter straight through to how the professional dancers work hard to thrust and parry without upstaging her. Control emerges as a key theme for Swift’s show, much the way it once did for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition (1990). But Madonna lusted too hard after The Classic Barbra Streisand Crossover, and Swift portrays teen dilemma with far more wisdom and softness.
If her harmonic range proves narrow, her imagination feels implacable, fierce even in its tenderness. Where Madonna made hard work a central pillar of her persona, Swift’s efforts focus on pleasure, and she’s frequently silly (“Shake it Off” trips on delirious camp steroids). Her lyrics celebrate the rewards of long-distance connections and how emancipating personal challenges can feel when shared.
For a lot of parents, a big piece of the show’s enjoyment comes from watching Swift’s reflected glory in our younger companions. When she kneels down to give one of Kobe Bryant’s surviving daughters, six-year-old Bianka, a hug, the whole audience swoons. The look on that girl’s face blows up on the big screen and ricochets around the space like a love bomb. Now excuse me while I stick pins in my El*n Musk doll while listening to my AI software read Streisand’s deluxe Winnebago memoir in the voice of Kermit the Frog.
“What I Saw at the Taylor Swift,” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the New York Times Magazine, October 12, 2023
“If I Were a Man,” by Rosanne Cash, from 10-Song Demo (1996)
“I’m a Slave For You,” Britney Spears, MTV Music Video Awards, 2001
Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna (1990)
Elvis Costello’s Red-Shoe’d Angels
Listening back to this Dangerous Amusements podcast, reminded me how the roadies played My Aim Is True at my first Springsteen show at Red Rocks in June of 1978, so we all knew Bruce approved. Here’s a playlist of all the tracks we mention, and more: