Over the last decade, Taylor Swift has gone from bright-eyed Country and Western sensation, to universally beloved pop-phenomenon, to… whatever it is exactly she is now. No longer simply shaking it off, Swift’s complicated feud with Kanye West ended with her looking like a bit of a snake, and telling the world she would “very much like to be excluded from this narrative”. She returned months later with an album full of trap beats, attitude and frequent allusions to said narrative.
That album, Reputation, was her worst-reviewed, and by any metric of commercial success was a step backwards. And yet, Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour—the recording of which has been released on Netflix—was the most successful tour of the United States by anyone ever. Worldwide, it grossed $350 million, roughly the same as her last two world tours combined. Her career is simultaneously ascending and in retrograde; she has more die-hard fans than ever before but is diminished in the culture overall.
The show opens with a pre-recorded video. In the background, you can hear the rapturous screams of thousands of Swifties. Glitched-out, black and white footage of a reptilian leather-pattern flashes across the screen, interspersed with press footage of Swift, accompanied by fragments of unflattering media commentary. Swift’s voice enters the mix, first speaking over, then coming into unison with, all the other voices. She, then they, repeat the word ‘reputation’ as though it were a mantra. The message is clear; Swift believes she has been unfairly maligned, and she’s not going to take it anymore.
During the first phase of the show, Swift performs two synth-heavy tracks from her recent album, …Ready For It? and I Did Something Bad (which, by the way, doesn’t actually address any of the bad things she is accused of having done). She is costumed like a disco-bound Star Wars villain, all in black, with big boots, thousands of sequins, and a cowl. This is the new, menacing Taylor Swift, who pushes her male backup dancers around, and boasts of the punishment she inflicts upon her enemies amid smoke and explosions, all underneath a giant AT&T logo.
But about fifteen minutes in, Taylor is back to her old self, smiling and bouncing around and thanking the audience for loving her. Between songs, she launches into enthusiastic, but painfully artificial, stock speeches. There are many possible examples; she announces that she wants to check out what’s happening in a particular part of the stadium, because those people are cheering for Taylor especially beautifully. When Taylor gets to the other part of the stadium, everything is set up for the next song, so you do get the feeling she was heading there anyway.
Swift must have repeated these scripted moments hundreds of times, and yet she delivers her lines as if she really means them. Frequently, in these asides, Swift takes advantage of the fact that the 2nd person pronoun in English is the same in the singular as it is in the plural; she’s always speaking to you. You have made this tour possible, she loves you, she can see you and your light up wristband no matter where you’re sitting, you told her which songs she should play tonight, you told her what kind of music to put on the new record. It’s all a bit strange—with background music, and rabid enthusiasm from the crowd—until she starts to sound more like televangelist Joel Osteen than a pop star, at which point it is incredibly strange:
“I think that what we’re really all looking for in life, and I think the things that can scare us the most in life are the things that we think will threaten the prospect of us finding something real. For example, having a bad reputation, in our mind, could get in the way of you finding real friendship, real love, real acceptance, people you really fit in with…. And I think that’s why some of us… are sort of afraid of having a bad reputation. Because we’re so scared of something fake like gossip, or a rumour about you, or a name you got called, getting in the way of you finding something real. And so when it comes down to that fear and that anxiety, it’s just all really delicate, don’t you think, Dallas?
While she’s sermonising, the giant screens are covered with stars, onto which Taylor is projected as though she were a celestial apparition. Then she is carried aloft on a golden, glowing chariot, over the audience, like a goddess in the machine.
After that, for minutes at a time, Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour resembles a normal concert, with songs old and new, occasionally reimagined acoustically. She jumps back and forth from the jaded, electro-villain persona (with giant snake puppets, black colour schemes, and backup dancers in futuristic Asian-inspired costumes) to the bubbly, girlish Swift of yesteryear (with rainbows, confetti and flanked by famous friends. It’s not jarring, but only because everything from the musical arrangements to set design is executed with consummate professionalism, right down to the moment a backup dancer hands Taylor a tissue.
For the outsider looking in, it is alienating and strange, and you get no real sense of who Taylor Swift actually is. But for the Swifties—members of a gnostic cult who have spent countless hours researching the secret messages hidden in Taylor Swift’s videos and liner notes—it all makes sense. Taylor Swift is fully old and fully new, and has died, and has been raised again, and she has a personal relationship with you, and she loves you, and she always will.
Taylor Swift: Reputation is streaming on Netflix now
James Donald Forbes McCann is a writer and award-winning stand-up comedian.
Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox
Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox