Taylor Swift’s “Reputation Tour” At Metlife Stadium, Friday, July 20th, 2018, Reviewed
There was a period in Taylor Swift’s career, say from 2008’s “Love Story” to 2012’s “State Of Grace,” where she was essentially infallible, with the exception of the very greatest of great pop stars no one has managed the competency on every single level that Taylor did: from public image, to songs, to tours, to audience outreach: she was simply the gold standard of stardom.
It was impossible to maintain. We get that. The Prudential Center performance on Taylor’s Red tour (my review here), with Ed Sheeran opening, even if she’d done it again it would have lost the element of surprise. It was an astonishingly complete and big yet intimate show filled with songs off her best album. By the time I caught the show for a second time during the summer, the sheen was off, the place was so big the sense of oneness was diminished. But there was another masterpiece in the wings, her 25th birthday party cum Jingle Ball final act in 2014, where we got “Love Story” and “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” -the latter two the first time she’d performed them live, was a joyful yelp of unbridled girl power.
Last night at Metlife, Taylor performed all three of those songs, “Love Story” -which received the loudest welcome of the evening- as a medley with “You Belong With Me”. And Taylor hadn’t lost her mojo, not entirely, and it is hardly the first time she has leaned too hard on her latest release, but 1989 is a better album than Reputation, and while the Reputation songs certainly improved on stage, the album wasn’t the sort of hit she has had in the past because it isn’t as good as the album’s she has released in the past: trying to traverse the line between TayTay from the hood and Swift the avenging media pro, she was good at both and great at neither. Swift has precisely one consistent album, Red, other than that one there has always been dead areas, they are like the AT&T of pop music. The highs are sky highs, the lows aren’t that low, but for an artist who prides herself on being as far from a heritage act as you can possibly imagine, the twelve songs off Reputation don’t all deserve the ready for its close up.
That’s one flaw, now here’s another, from Speak Now, where Taylor discussed finding and raising your voice, Taylor spoke well to her young female fans (she noted that if you were ten years old when you first heard her, you are twenty-three years old now) all the way to 1989... This is what Taylor said during the 1989 tour where she insisted her fans and friends took pride in themselves: “If there’s one thing I want you to remember from tonight, remember what I’m about to say. You need to look into the mirror in the morning and not tell yourself that you’re not special, or that you’re not good enough, or that you’re not pretty, or you’re not awesome. Let me tell you what you are not. You are not the opinion of someone that doesn’t know you.” For Reputation, her speech was not as uplifting at all and it boiled down to “Your reputation can torment you.” Perhaps if she tied the idea to something else, to social media maybe, Taylor would have said something less self-serving. As is, I don’t think anyone felt included, not really. Taylor is as pop music as hip hop, as rap stars, in 2018, where everything is so self-obsessed only the hooks let you in. Perhaps it has always been so with Taylor, she claimed that if you’d been with her from the beginning it was like you’d been reading her diary for thirteen years. The difference is that a song like “I DId Something Bad” is closed off in ways “Speak Now” never was. Red was the turn around, Red was when she got Max Martin involved and became a popster but Red, as transitional as it might have been, was locked into place through her sincere sexuality, both 1989 and Reputation, seem geared towards a pop moment of reality in person.
The Reputation tour is a huge undertaking but it seems to slip itself up and in some ways it is smaller than both Red and 1989, gone are the little playlets where she acted out the songs, and gone, always going, are the essentials, the “Our Song” and “Forever And Always” and “Mine”…. “Mine” is better than half of Reputation combined. And a story song, not a diary entry. Having made that claim, this tour, and I’ve wanted Swift to do a theatre tour for years now, is the last great Stadium tour, it is huge, and yet, simultaneously, it is strong in a feminine manner: if you compare it to U2 or Coldplay who perform similarly sized tours, it maintains a close eye on its audience and its audience is feminine. And if you look for a woman who can fill a stadium you are stuck with Madonna, whose last tour was genius but badass, and Lady Gaga who straddles too many fences and anyway doesn’t have the catalog (last time I saw Gaga she hit the stage at 1030pm, Taylor was there by 9pm). Both of the opening acts last night, Charlie XCX, who I can take or leave, and Camila Cabello, who has the looks and three songs she can hang a 30 minute set on, but reeks of insincerity, are not up to the task. U2 have film from the Irish Civil war, and the women that he sings to are Oedipal in the extreme (though Reputation most resembles U2’s Pop tour) , but Taylor doesn’t have an Electra complex, and romance is seen through a lens of strength and perseverance, of doing it good and right, while the songs let her down, and violence is most her concern in a distant manner. This is the female superstar, this is a response to the violence of the male dichotomy: all politics are sublimated in the female gaze of love.
If romance and love is the sine qua non, it is tempered through self-realization and self-worth but the further Swift moves from her roots, the harder it is to sympathize with her -her most heartfelt comments had to do with performing three nights at a stadium. 1989, which in some ways is not as good a concert as Reputation (it was much busier), let us in but Reputation is a little distant. The harder it is to get through the door of her heart, the more she has to work us. I say this well knowing that Taylor walked across the Stadium high fiving fans last night, something I can’t remember her doing since Fearless days. Still, the happiest, most wonderful moment of the entire evening was “Style” into “Love Story” into “You Belong To Me,” and the best performance was a truncated “New Year’s Day”. The urge to connect overwhelms Swift but the material let’s her down, second rate material like “End Game” and “King Of My Heart” are given too much weight. The set did one thing, it brought “Dress” and “Getaway Car” out from the mid-album doldrums. Makes you wonder if Team Tay chose the wrong material to release as a single. The song performances were absolutely excellent, especially on two occasions one where she sings alone and strums her acoustic guitar , the other where she plays the piano. I would have killed for “State Of Grace”, for the one song she changes every show we got “Welcome To New York”. A great song but talk about coal to Newcastle. Taylor’s voice has never been better than it is right now, sure there is a lot of double tracking and stuff and that’s the cost of doing business, yet when she just sings the weakness that once plagued her has entirely disappeared and she can soar on even a late “Tell Me What You Want”. The closer was a little weak, and that goes back to the album: nothing quite works as a closer and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” doesn’t come close.
The set is gorgeous, and the snake logo is used for everything it’s worth, the stage setting has her playing to every edge of the stadium, and it is beautiful and thrilling but remember, it is only the icing on the cake. Taylor looks better than she did earlier in her career, her face is fuller and there is a lushness that will play very well in her-30s.
If I could wish anything from Taylor is that she goes back in the studio the moment the tour ends and record a small scale old fashioned album, her Tapestry, and play a month of small venues. As Stadium shows go, Swift is in a league shared by very few artist and her strong female presence is a thing to take pride in. So are her songs, just not all of them.