Taylor Swift Songs, Say, did I mention Taylor Swift was in town? Only about 500 times? Pardon my enthusiasm: “Red” was my favorite album of last year, and I’ve probably driven my neighbors crazy by playing it over and over ever since its release. I faced down Hurricane Sandy to that album. I pull-quoted its songs in e-mail messages; I talked it up to friends and family and to the poor listeners of Rich Russo’s radio show who were probably expecting a rock critic to talk up Tame Impala instead.
When I needed confidence; when I worried; when I wanted to dance like I was 22 (and I haven’t been 22 in a very long time); it was Taylor Swift’s “Red” I turned to. Nothing’s changed — I had a doctor’s appointment in New York City a week ago, and no analgesic could have steadied my nerves or soothed my pain any better.
When I listened to her first three albums, I thrilled to the proprietary undertones of Swift’s songs: Her appetite for love and romance was immense, and that made my heart flutter. I didn’t think it was possible, but “Red” upped the ante. “Don’t you dream impossible things?,” she sings on “Starlight,” and it sounds as if she’s coming apart with desire — like she’d stuff the whole world in her pocket if she could. The whole world should be so lucky.
Swift has never been the most confident stage performer or the strongest live singer, but my expectations for the Red Tour were lofty anyway. Did Taylor Swift live up to them at her Wednesday night show at the Prudential Center? Did the concert portend good things for her Thursday and Friday night shows at the Newark arena? Let’s go song by song, just as we did after the Newark stop on the Speak Now Tour nearly killed her.
STATE OF GRACE
Four albums in and millions upon millions served, and she’s still doing that thing where she looks around the arena like she’s astonished we’re all there. Heck, maybe it’s sincere. Imagine you had the ability to connect with ten thousand teenage girls, and the words you wrote in your bedroom resonated so strongly with them that they were willing to stand in line for hours just to get an opportunity to sing them back to you. You’d probably never stop wondering how that happened. And they are singing them back, as loudly as they can. I am pleased to see that Swift’s fanbase is just as enthusiastic about the new album sides as they were about the singles from “Fearless.” It makes me feel like we’re all growing up together. Even arrested adolescents like me.
This is such a good song that it’s next to impossible to mess up. Some of the long held notes are giving Swift trouble, and she pulls flat from time to time, but for the most part, her singing is stronger and more confident than it was on the Speak Now Tour. Swift doesn’t really dance the way other pop stars do, but she doesn’t have to: She can just come to the lip of the catwalk and jump around like a dork, and it’s so adorable that the crowd goes bananas. Midway through the song, large glowing cylinders emerge from beneath the stage, and others are lowered from the rafters. These are supposed to be drums, and the dancers pantomime hitting them. It’s as good a visual approximation of Jeff Bhasker’s luminous, percussive production sound as I’ve encountered, including those in Kanye West videos.
The dancers grab big red flags and run around with them. I feel like there’s been a flag dance in almost every arena show I’ve seen in the last year. So far, the stage elements of the Red Tour have all been used in other shows: a drumline hanging from the ceiling, a backlit silhouette projected onto cloth to open the concert, people running around with flags. Taylor Swift straps on a red electric guitar and plays rhythm while her main main takes a lead. His guitar is red and glittery too. They stand back to back and make guitar poses, like Bruce and Stevie, or Richards and Wood.
YOU BELONG WITH ME
The night’s first curveball. Swift takes one of her best-known songs, rinses away the country-pop elements, and presents it instead as a Motown number complete with chord substitutions. Okay, maybe closer to “Every Day I Write the Book” than genuine Motown, but it’s the thought that counts. I’m not sure she’s got the vocal chops to pull it off, but she wins points for her guts. She’s flanked by four backing singers, all of whom awkwardly attempt Supremes-style hand dances. They’re all the way in on this one. I keep expecting them to revert to the original arrangement, but Swift refuses to chicken out. To their credit, the little girls hang with her.
THE LUCKY ONE
Taylor Swift loves to talk to the crowd. I’m inclined to wish there was less talk and more rock, but she usually manages to say amusing stuff. The spoken intro to “The Lucky One” is an unfortunate exception. Swift takes the opportunity to complain about the price of fame and her poor treatment by the press. “They don’t tell you what the papers are going to say about you”. Oh, you mean like the guy from the Newark Star-Ledger who wrote that you’re a fantastic songwriter and your album was a triumph? C’mon, Swift, get over it. She’s really struggling with the leaps from the low notes to the high ones here, and she’s not helped by goofy choreography that has her chased around by make-believe paparazzi. This is the low point of the show.
Oh, right!, Taylor Swift is a country singer. Sort of. So far, her fiddler has had very little to do besides jump around with the star. In retrospect, her turn away from Nashville was foreshadowed on the Speak Now Tour. “Mean,” the most country song in her repertoire, was done as a set piece loaded with hobby horses, cows on wheels, dancers in the roles of guileless but enthusiastic hayseeds, and other examples of ironic cornpone. It was the country as it might have been imagined by a Broadway producer, and not a producer of “Oklahoma,” either. This year’s model does not return to the farm; instead, the set resembles a carousel. There’s a metaphor operating somewhere here, but I’m missing it. Swift pauses dramatically when she gets to the part where the big meanie says that she can’t sing. Because there are still people who insist she can’t. There are people who say J.K. Rowling can’t write, too.
STAY STAY STAY
I played in indiepop and tweepop bands for the better part of a decade. Thus it is not as a come-lately to Shelflife and Sarah Records that I insist that “Stay Stay Stay” was the best tweepop song waxed in 2012. Some find it impossibly cutesy; I say that if the Snow Fairies or Tullycraft had gotten onstage at the San Francisco Popfest and performed this song, there would have been an explosion of joy and cupcake batter from Fell Street to the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s even a xylophone part; how twee is that? Swift tucks a bit of “Ho Hey” into the song, which is completely unnecessary, but it does reinforce something that every Grammy-watcher knows about the star: She’s up on her contemporary pop, and she knows all the words to everything.
Those Max Martin beats sound fantastic, and appropriate, pumping out of the arena speakers. For a moment, it looks like Swift, who is generally buttoned-down and on script while in performance, has been overcome by the moment and compelled to go nuts. But her stage dive turns out to be part of the act: She’s caught by her dancers, and carried to a platform at the back of the arena. This begins the customary acoustic segment of the show.
Swift has been doing a different solo song in this slot each night; she checks Twitter, she tells us, to see what her fans want. No truth to the rumor that I tweeted “Starlight” ten thousand times. Seriously, I cannot pretend to be objective about this song. Here is my trenchant rock critical analysis of the performance: Mmmmmmmm.
EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED
Disastro. Swift is joined at the back platform by opening act Ed Sheeran, who wrote “Everything Has Changed” with her, and who sings with her on the recorded version. But something is terribly wrong with Sheeran’s performance: either he’s been slipped a mixed-up backing tape, or he hasn’t compensated for the doppler effect of standing a hockey rink away from the band. He can’t get in sync with Swift: He keeps coming in too early. The discontinuity between the two singers nearly stops the song cold. Taylor Swift snaps into damage control mode, but the problem isn’t fixed until a tech hands Sheeran a fresh earpiece. By then, the song is half over. The star is not happy. She doesn’t like deviation from expectation, which hardly makes her much different from other pop stars (or country stars) but probably disqualifies her from participating in the next hootenanny.
Swift is still a little shook up from “Everything Has Changed.” But “Begin Again” calls for her to sound fragile anyway, so it’s not that much of a problem. Just like “Holy Ground,” it’s such an ace song that only self-sabotage could keep it from going over, and Swift is no self-saboteur.
The time has come for Taylor Swift to rejoin her band on the mainstage, and the magic floating pedestal is readied to transport the princess across the Prudential Center. Stagehands strap her in like she’s about to ride Kingda Ka. I really wish pop stars would cut out the aerial bits from their stage shows, and not just because Swift’s malfunctioning floating balcony nearly deposited her feet-first in section 19 the last time she was in town. The spectacle does not compensate for the anxiety I feel, and I can’t be the only one. Taylor Swift’s show is not about death-defying tricks or magic carpet rides, and after watching Pink’s trapeze act at Izod Center last week, it’s hard to get excited about a star standing on a circle — especially one as terrestrial as Swift is at her best.
I KNEW YOU WERE TROUBLE
The fiddler finally gets a spotlight moment. Somebody with his finger on the gestalt, or on the YouTube replay button, has decided that violin and dubstep go together, and Swift’s sidewoman introduces “Trouble” with a solo. After that, it’s like Skrillex popped up out of the floor like a jack-in-the-box. The dubstep elements politely tucked into the recorded version are amplified and extended; there’s an elaborate mid-song breakdown featuring a bass drop. Incredibly, it all works. Who would have guessed that of all the pop stars monkeying around with dubstep, the one who’d figure out how to make it fit would be Taylor Swift? Scratch that, that’s exactly what I would have guessed. The version of “Trouble” is so exciting that I don’t even mind the inexplicable staging — Swift starts out in a ballroom gown at a mock masque, and strips down to a tight black dress midway through the song. I have no idea what it has to do with the lyric, and again I’m left wondering if there’s a metaphor I’m missing, or if the stage director who put the show together was taking laughing gas.
ALL TOO WELL
Swift retreats to a big red piano and starts the epic breakup number by herself, which makes it sound less like “With or Without You.” Honestly, though, it’s “With or Without You.” As the song intensifies, she begins throwing her hair back and forth like Tori Amos used to do. She nails the high verse, and everybody in the audience comes down with a case of the rock chills. A row down from where I’m sitting, a girl dressed in pink waves her glow stick like a shaman in a trance. She can’t be more than eight, but she knows all the words and she’s spinning around, possessed by the music and by Swift’s performance. Every cell in that little girl’s body is feeling it, and I am overcome by the dead certainty that this is what it’s all for: all the news stories and hyperbole and premature-evaluation record reviews, and everything else that accompanies modern music-making. Those long hours in practice, the backing tapes, the sleight-of-hand onstage, the confetti drops and pyrotechnics; it’s all there to support the moment when the eight-year-old girl hears Taylor Swift sing “All Too Well,” and the song wraps itself around her heart like a blanket. The feeling passes, the lights change, and we’re on to the next one.