Taylor Swift at Gillette 2011
When Taylor Swift pops out of the floor her eyes are wide, the kind of wide your eyes would be if a) you had not expected to be lobbed onto a stage in front of 54,000 screaming fans, or b) you were very, very good at looking surprised and knew the exact angle at which you would be projected onto several larger-than-life video screens hanging in front of a set that is adorned in savage red gilded-age movie-theater sashes and pixie-dusted curtains while fireworks smash into a dusky sky above your head.
I don't pretend to know which one Taylor Swift most resembles, the ingenue or the movie star. But in her gold-grass dress and the number 13 scrawled in marker on her hand like something out of a Danzig or a Johnny Cash song and her corkscrew-curled blond hair whipping in the wind, she makes one of the greatest cold-open concert entrances I've seen since before Madonna got old. The thing you are meant to understand right away about Taylor Swift is that every inch of her is a shooting star. And she tells you so without baring a centimeter of cleavage, even when she bows deeply from the waist.
"Three women run the pop world right now," began a story in last week's New Yorker magazine. The three they were talking about were Adele, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce. I had time to ponder the omission of Ms. Swift as I was idling in traffic en route to seeing her play the first of two sold-out shows at Gillette Stadium this past weekend, to a combined crowd north of 100,000 fans. Perhaps it was an omission of genre -- maybe in New York they still think she's just a country singer. Or maybe pop ubiquity just isn't what it used to be. Or maybe it's that Taylor Swift is adept at hiding in plain sight, until the moment you lay eyes on her. You might wonder, for a second, how she is not the biggest female music star in the world. And then after another second you might realize that she already is.
The story about Taylor Swift's Saturday night performance at Gillette Stadium is that it rained -- not at first, not until more than halfway through the show -- and that instead of it becoming a disaster it turned into something more like a baptism. As is usually the case, the professional photographers had long been shooed from the field, but if they had been there still they might have captured some of the most gorgeous images you'll see all year: the way the spotlights cut across the downpour, perforating the darkness. The way the clouds kept the firework smoke low and thick. The star, on her back, dragging herself off the black rain-slick catwalk. Then panning back out to the sheer scale of it: the people and the water and the star and the smoke and the light.
As fine a singer and songwriter as Taylor Swift is -- and she's a finer one than she gets credit for in the cynical circles I tend to frequent -- there is little room for improvisation or spontaneity in her big-tent pop-music show. If you're bringing costume changes and flyaway sets and aerialists -- if you're at the level where your competition isn't so much other musicians as other forms of entertainment, like musicals and video-game systems and Hollywood blockbusters -- then everything gets scripted and blocked. Pop fans are not rock fans; rock fans tend to overvalue the unscripted moment, while pop fans tend to undervalue the power of an unmitigated fuckup.
What both groups are looking for is an experience that is as unmediated as possible between performer and fan. What the rain did -- at first in drizzles and then in droves -- was to release Taylor Swift from the obligation to hit her cues. And that seemed to free her to have the kind of ungated emotional response that's usually the first thing to disappear from a young star's repertoire. Great performers read audiences perfectly and Swift understood, instinctively, how to flip the small drama of a downpour into the kind of bonding moment her (primarily) young and female audience would relate to, intimately. That night, and most of the next day, Twitter and Tumblr were jammed with echoes and variations on a theme: "I danced in the rain with Taylor Swift last night. Best show ever." I'm with the girls on this one: I wouldn't have traded Saturday night's storm for Sunday night's dry run, no way no how.
Is it worth mentioning that her band never missed a beat, the singer sang beautifully, and that her animated video-screen packages would make a great iPad app? Probably. In her intimate moments -- especially the one just as the rain came, when she casts herself away at the lonely end of the infield on a small music-box-like island with a plastic palm tree on it and everything -- she sings stark details in a way Ryan Adams wouldn't frown upon. And then there's a song like "Better Than Revenge," when she'd trot out her band -- including the flashy kid guitarist with the tragic Edward Scissorhands haircut -- and for several whole minutes pretends she's in, I dunno, Paramore. (If someone ever makes a Teen Nick movie out of Paramore's "Misery Business," they'll be able to nick an easy sequel by following the script of "Better Than Revenge.") It still feels a little weird to hear Taylor sing her hit "Mean," perhaps because it plays so strongly against two country-music tropes: Mean girls have all the fun in Nashville songs, and good things seldom happen to anyone who brags about running off to the big city.
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