Taylor Swift, Pop’s Maestro of Memory, Returns to the Stage
The opening night of the star’s Eras Tour traversed her 10-album career, revisiting crossover hits, rowdier experiments and more restrained singer-songwriter material.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The most meaningful Taylor Swift recording of the past few years is almost certainly “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault),” as layered and provocative as its title is unwieldy. A revision and expansion of one of her most gutting songs — the original appears on her 2012 breakthrough pop album, “Red” — it dissects a problematic, lopsided and ultimately scarring relationship with forensic detail. It’s a scathing commentary on the ex who inspired the track, and it also has something to say about the version of Swift who first committed this story to song over a decade ago: Swift now understands things that Swift then couldn’t possibly have known.
Around halfway through Swift’s three-hour performance at State Farm Stadium here on Friday — the opening night of the Eras Tour, her first roadshow in five years — she was at the center of the long runway stage, elevated on a platform, holding 70,000 people rapt with this tale of righteous fury and anguish. Plenty were singing along with her, but somehow, the accumulated voices sounded like one huge hush, students in awe of the master class.
There were plenty of peaks during this concert drawn from the full arc of Swift’s career — the first of a sold-out 52-date national tour that made news for its disastrous rollout of ticket sales — but none quite like this. Throughout the night, she zigzagged between stretches of high-octane hits from older albums and mixed-bag selections from more recent ones — celebration with splashes of duty. What this ambitious and energetic if sometimes scattershot performance underscored, however, was just how many pivots Swift has undertaken in her career, and how the accompanying risks can have wildly different consequences.
In modern pop parlance, album rollouts are often described as eras, but Swift’s career hasn’t always been that cleanly delineated. She’s made a few key turns over the years, though — on “Red,” when she divebombed into gleaming, centrist pop; on “Reputation,” when she made some of her sleekest and most au courant music; and on “Folklore” and “Evermore,” when she transformed into a woodland fairy.
The Cultural Impact of Taylor Swift’s Music
- Golden Tickets: After demand led to a Ticketmaster debacle, Taylor Swift’s most devoted online fans sprang into action to get each other into the Eras Tour at fair prices.
- New LP: “Midnights,” the singer’s 10th studio album, is a return to the pop pipeline, with production from her longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. Here is what our critic thought of it.
- Millennial Anti-Hero: On her latest album, Swift probes the realizations and reckonings of many 30-something women around relationships, motherhood and ambition.
- Pandemic Records: In 2020, Swift released two new albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore.” In debuting a new sound, she turned to indie music.
Songs from “Red,” one of Swift’s most acclaimed albums, arrived mid-show, and they were potent wallops — a jubilant and cheeky “22” followed by the indignant “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” And when Swift, in a one-legged bodysuit embroidered with a snake motif, performed selections from “Reputation,” she showed just how wrongly maligned that album was upon its release. “Don’t Blame Me” was husky and alluring, while “Look What You Made Me Do,” performed in front of dancers trapped in glass boxes dressed as old versions of Swift, brimmed with attitude.
Swift was cheerily, proactively defensive about “Evermore” — “an album I absolutely love despite what some of you say on TikTok” — but that segment of the show was particularly limp, especially the gloomy and spare “Marjorie” and “’Tis the Damn Season.” And the jolt from the melancholia of that restrained singer-songwriter release to the brazen stomp of “Reputation” was awkward. Songs from “Folklore” fared slightly better, especially “Cardigan” and “Betty,” but this section teetered toward melodrama, as if compensating for the less assured production on those songs.
The set list over-indexed on the four albums Swift released after her last major tour, supporting “Reputation” in 2018 — the chipper and jaunty “Lover,” the one-two bucolic swaddle of “Folklore” and “Evermore,” and “Midnights,” released last October. But the Eras conceit also meant that Swift wouldn’t have to exclusively lean on songs from these albums, which have in general been less popular, consistent and ambitious than her earlier ones.
She opened the show with a run of songs from “Lover,” a hit-or-miss album that still yielded some excellent tracks. “The Man,” performed in full office cosplay, was biting and hilarious, and “Cruel Summer” had an almost ecstatic chill to it. From there, she jumped back to “Fearless,” her second album, and the first one made with an understanding that her relationship with country music might only be a dalliance. The earnest pleas in “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” still had their old bite.
Before “You Belong With Me,” she asked if the crowd was “ready to go back to high school with me,” both a dare and a legitimate question. Of late, Swift — obsessive about memory and even more obsessive about lore — has made revisiting her old work integral to her public presentation. Her ongoing rerecordings project layers a veneer of artistic liberation atop a business tug of war with the owners of her master recordings. And the very notion of the Eras Tour suggests a desire to thread Swift’s many selves into one, to find common cause between the 16-year-old who first shocked Nashville, the 33-year-old who has since become one of the defining pop stars of the 21st century and all the Swifts in between.
If this show was an opportunity to perform songs from all of those phases, she did not always choose the tracks that are truly the most emblematic of those moments in time — sometimes specificity doesn’t age terribly well. (For what it’s worth, a song it would have been great to hear from each album, chronologically: “Picture to Burn,” “White Horse,” “Dear John,” “Stay Stay Stay,” “This Love,” “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” “Paper Rings,” “Exile,” “No Body, No Crime,” “You’re on Your Own, Kid.”)
Fans did not appear to be playing favorites — many of them were dressed as Swift from various eras, or as song titles or specific lyrics, or as Swiftie inside jokes. And Swift herself tackled each period of her career — the dynamic ones and the flaccid ones alike — with real gusto, in outfits covered in glitter, or fringe or glittery fringe. Her stage was set up for both big-tent power and maximum intimacy; it jutted out into the crowd for almost the entire length of the floor. Sometimes, she joined her dozen-plus dancers in crisp choreography, like on “ … Ready for It?” “Bad Blood” and, most vividly, “Vigilante ___,” for which she performed an enthusiastic chair routine.
She concluded with a selection of songs from “Midnights,” a challenging album to wrap a show of this magnitude — it’s more an amalgam of old Swift ideas than a harbinger of a new direction. During “Anti-Hero,” the screen behind Swift showed a version of her as a kind of King Kong, bigger than everyone and unfairly besieged, and on “Lavender Haze,” she was surrounded by dancers hoisting huge cloudy puffs.
There was a distinct shimmer that ran through the night’s final three selections, the tinny “Bejeweled,” the spacey “Mastermind” and the needling “Karma.” All of those songs, which can be brittle from a lyrical perspective, benefited from the scale of the production here.
But something far more meaningful had come just before that show-closing run. During an acoustic segment, she came out to the very farthest point of the stage, sat at a small piano and played her very first single, “Tim McGraw” (the only song she performed from her self-titled 2006 debut album).
In addition to “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” it was the night’s other pillar performance. It’s a song about memory and the ways in which people fail each other, and she sang it heavy with regret and tinged with sweetness.
But unlike “All Too Well,” which now benefits from the wisdom that time affords, “Tim McGraw” remained as raw as the day it was recorded. No real tweaks, no rejoinder from the new Swift to the old one — just a searing take on the sort of love that makes for a better song than relationship. There are some things Swift simply has understood all along.