Over the course of her effervescent, heart-tugging, clinically professional two-and-a-half hour victory lap in the swampy stadium twilight of Nationals Park in Washington, DC, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter-superstar Taylor Swift reminded me of many things, including: an animated mannequin, a Rockette on XR Adderall, a megachurch pastor (“Thank you for letting this album into your heart”), a motivational speaker for girls aged 9-16, the rudest senior in the sorority house, a cat, a cyborg, a cyborg cat, a benevolent empress, a therapist who forgot the name of her client, a golden trophy perpetually caught in the moment it’s changing hands, a teenager who just took her first trip to the sex shop, a lost-in-her-own-world karaoke queen.
It was Tuesday night, and the air was heavy and swollen with an impending thunderstorm that never broke. There were no men’s bathrooms in sight and no lines for beer either. A man wearing a homemade “1989 Chaperone Dad” T-shirt trudged around the concessions floor, looking to relieve himself, dodging streams of girls and mothers, all adorable and almost all white, who had come to the annual Taylor Swift Young Leadership Conference to engage in the safest possible fantasy with 41,887 of their best friends.
Or was it 25,000? After emerging in a glittery bomber jacket, a pleated skirt and red lipstick to sing “Welcome to New York” to a comically sweaty Washington, DC, Taylor Swift looked over her shoulder at the Jumbotron camera with an expression that perfectly bridged both Broadway ingenue and off-Broadway sex villain, and then she turned around and faced the crowd and said she couldn’t imagine anything better than being here with all 25,000 of us. We yelled back at her—YASS, AMERICA, MY CHEERLEADER QUEEN—our wrists all alight with those ingenious collective-rave LED bands she gave out that turned the audience into a sort of bioluminescent aboveground emotion reef. (Big-tent DJs should start working this into the budget; it must really be something—not that Taylor would ever—to be onstage and druggy, staring at all these people who paid to be near you, looking at the lights flicker and go.)
Throughout the show, Taylor kept guessing numbers: forty thousand, 37, back down to 25. It was one of the only inconsistencies—I’d say there were no cracks whatsoever—in her superhuman technical endurance. The 1989 tour is an extended set, and her face, her body, her chirrup, her attention, her effort, and her notably improved voice were all stadium macro—clean, symbolic, magnificent—while also so tuned on the micro-level, so whittled to the essentials, that nothing about Swift seemed remotely capable of causing offense. Those are the terms of her triumph: she’s now so fully aligned with conservative ideals of perfection that she can stand up to the scrutiny of every possible audio/visual close-up. (Or, of course, she’s achieved the girl-in-2015 dream of so carefully orchestrating your self and environment that even the most trickily intimate moments look good.)
Another notable, over-discussed girl-in-2015 dream is the achievement of a posse as photogenic as Taylor’s. The interstitial highlight reels featuring all her famous girlfriends—Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, etc—pop up between songs, evincing nothing interesting about female friendship other than the fact that it fits very neatly into the thing Taylor Swift does best, which is aggressive large-scale flexing off the strength of the most sweetly-hued ideals. By the last little interlude, the posse was talking about Love As A Concept, throwing around words like “authenticity” and “intoxicating.” In the peaceful darkness of my Port-a-Potty, I rolled my eyes so hard that I tipped my careful squat off-balance and unfortunately kicked my $10 beer.
But my crippling non-interest in Love As A Concept is why I’ll always be out of Taylor Swift’s target audience, and her hashtag-squad strength is why she’s been super nailing it in terms of guests. There was Weeknd with the tune the previous night; also Lorde, also the USWNT. “BO! O! BA! MA!,” my friend kept chanting. When Swift started the bring-out-my-guest portion, my hopes were high. “When I thought about who to bring out tonight,” she said cheerfully, smiling like her mouth was the U.S. Mint, “I thought—what’s the artist that everyone is listening to this summer? What’s at the top of the charts? What’s the real song of summer?”
My friends and I looked at each other, icicles of anticipation. Taylor Swift was going to bring out Fetty. The White God Sweezus was gonna sing Trap Queen.
Then: “Jason Derulo!” she shouted. The crowd went insane. I puked, in a mental sense, from my disappointment. Derulo came onstage—unrecognizable to me audibly, as he now rudely refuses to sing his own name—and breezed through that catchy one of his that sounds like One Direction, unbuttoning his shirt with every verse. By the second chorus, he was three-quarters open; Taylor was so abstractly enthusiastic about it that she could’ve been playing DDR. Then Derulo ripped off his shirt, and the crowd hit a note they never hit again—a hormonal fever that for the only time in the show erased Swift’s bland but mesmerizing nu-sexuality from the stage.
“HE TOOK HIS SHIRT OFF FOR YOU,” yelled Swift after the song was over. “HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?” There was an ache in the screams from the 11-year-olds, that ambient desperation. Swift and Derulo skipped offstage like a bridesmaid and groomsman matched by height doing their walk-in dance at the reception.
The orchestration of the show was mostly on that register—broad, cheesy—and the set direction is resolutely in the aesthetic middle class. At one point, the projected background apes the White Stripes infinite swallow in such red-white-and-blackness that I was sure Swift would cover “Seven Nation Army” until she didn’t. (She should!) During “Wildest Dreams,” my friend whispered that the aqua-twinkly faux rain felt like Little Mermaid in church. The props are revue-esque, benches and doors and silhouettes. With the fleet of male backup dancers, I frequently felt like I was watching an episode of So You Think You Can Dance where the girl in question really couldn’t but had made it to the end because she looked so good in short-shorts.
But everyone knows this about Taylor’s dancing, anyway; she’s phenomenal at posing and can’t move her hips. It’s a funny feature of today’s pop snowglobe—one that adds to the try-hard and racially retrograde feel—that all the white girls have this block on their abilities. Katy Perry moves like a new mom at Zumba, Miley like a seventh-grader on PCP. (Love them both.) Swift doesn’t even try to get any moves popping; she just dramatically repositions herself, sometimes acting the lyrics out so literally it’s like an elementary school play. She gets 80 percent of her stage mileage out of a kicky runway strut, and generally operates like a thick invisible layer of bubble wrap is separating all her body parts from the pocket of the beat.
But, that’s not to say she can’t get in there another way. Swift’s automatic musicianship—on display only briefly behind a guitar for one song and a piano for another—is as physically magnetic as any choreographed routine. Her utter assured appeal with an instrument is a part of Old Taylor that fits into New Taylor’s omni-dominance, but not necessarily with New Taylor’s desire to try out and then win everyone’s game. On this tour, she barely plays anything she wrote before 1989, except for a transcendently beautiful M83-ish version of “Love Story” and a SUPER TIGHT version of “Trouble” that she begins in her newly acquired, prettily textured, Lana-ish, Beyonce-at-the-dip-in-“Halo” low range—and then busts wide open into a brash, huge Fall Out Boy jam. (She also plays the audience-catnip “You Belong With Me,” prefaced with a convincing and recurring monologue about how surprised she is that she feels like playing it, and how she never does, but she totally will, just this time.)
Instead, Swift spends the 1989 World Tour playing her new stuff, with the live mixes ingeniously altered so that they’re much closer to the songs the album is ripping than to the album itself. I had never heard, until this live set, how much “Bad Blood” is a ripoff of Katy Perry’s “E.T.,” with the spareness, the thudding beat, the one-handed chorus melody, the spot for the watered-down A-list bars; with that and the Squad Vid, the exquisite gaslighting of Perry (with the help of Max Martin, who co-wrote both of those tracks) comes complete. On the album, “Wildest Dreams” sounds like a Lana Del Rey rip, but live—weighted into a proper ballad, the chorus hanging portentously—Swift sounded quite a bit like Jessie Ware. “Blank Space” rang out more like Lorde than ever, the hollow-clocked wink of it, and “I Wish You Would” sounded even more like HAIM, who had cut their opening set short because the forecast said rain.
Between songs, towards the end of the set, Swift announced, “I don’t get nervous anymore.” What a funny thing to remind the audience, because, first, that’s quite obvious, and second: why the hell would she? Swift is not only at the height of her powers, she’s outshining everyone else—militantly and pointedly so, while maintaining a truly impressive set of impenetrable defenses, which range from deliberate (the Slumber Party Supermodel Just-Like-You Posse) to earnest (the avowed feminism, the open letter) to innate (the fact that she’s white, blonde, bone-thin, and beautiful). Most of her costumes on a curvy black woman would be viewed as aggressively lascivious; on Swift, lingerie is almost businesslike. When she came out in a white two-piece and black garters, the golf-clapping bro in the row in front of me briefly, respectably, averted his eyes.
I spent most of the show, by the way, howling with glee—screaming, sweating, a 12-year-old having the best night of my life. Every kid’s got a first big outdoor show, and Taylor Swift’s version—so family-friendly, so cognizant of the audience’s happiness while sorting that happiness into a few very basic lines—would be a tweenage dream. Pop music draws on the sublimity of being rendered generic; Swift does it in a way that’s domme, inspiration and therapist all at once.
At one point in the show, she sang on a ledge that swings above the crowd’s heads in a circle. A bright blazing spotlight shot diagonally across her, straight to the row where I was standing. We were so dazzled by her whole situation that, for a full minute, we didn’t realize that we had been blinded by any spotlight; searing and white-hot, it seemed like Taylor Swift’s natural glow. My friend put on her sunglasses. Then the spotlight moved, Swift’s ledge moved with it. Eventually she swung right over us. For a moment, she dropped her camera-sharp gaze and looked right at our faces. A deep, rude boredom passed over her expression, like a cloud. Then she looked back up, cunning and perfect, the dip already forgotten. That’s the Swift that interests me.
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Images via AP, me, Getty, AP, me