There is very little to say about Taylor Swift that has not already been said about Taylor Swift -- in thinkpieces, in profiles, in the daily analysis of her Twitter feed that passes for “celebrity journalism" in 2015. But try as you might to get to the heart of why 25-year-old Taylor Alison Swift is the biggest pop star in the world right now, you won’t really understand it until you see her perform live.
This is not to say that her vocal performance at Levi’s Stadium on Aug. 14, the first of two nights she played at the squeaky-clean new venue this weekend, exactly blew me away. Nor did any of the visual elements of the stage show, although her team of hard-working, hard-sweating male backup dancers deserve a nod. I like a lot of Taylor Swift’s music and I find her fascinating as a phenomenon, I should say upfront. But the thing I did not comprehend until I saw Taylor Swift in a glittery blue two-piece, perched atop a runway that had morphed into a giant swinging crane, maneuvering over a crowd of 50,000 screaming fans who all paid $150 to $1500 to be there and begging them to believe that no really, I’m a big dork, totally insecure, super normal and just like you, is that Taylor Swift has maybe pulled off the biggest trick in the history of pop music. It’s a coup of the highest degree to be able to make a surprised face and have it communicate that you can’t believe all these people are here to see little old you while you are flying over them, literally dancing on a sparkly pedestal in the center of an enormous football field.
“This part of the country has always been really special to me,” she said early in the evening, smile spreading across her face, which would have been a more convincing comment if she had referred to it as the Bay Area and not “Santa Clara, California!” at least a half-dozen times over the course of her two-hour set. Still, the attempt to make us all feel special ran strong through her stage banter, which took the form of confessional, sometimes rambling pseudo-diary entries: about how if someone’s not texting you back within a reasonable time frame you deserve better (sure!); about how it’s important, when you find happiness, to just enjoy it and not be fearful about when it’s going to end. A monologue about how much she appreciates that her fans feel comfortable enough to share their lives with her via social media turned into the following: “So I just want to give a big shout out to all the people here who have anything to do with tech!” Woooo. Eat your hearts out, Apple Music truthers. The woman knows how to stay on brand.
As for the songs: This was the 1989 tour, a party for the album which signaled that Swift’s crossover from country to pure pop is complete, and she performed nearly the entire hook-filled, Max Martin-coated album, opening with “Welcome to New York” as the city’s skyline appeared behind her. As pop stars go, Swift has always been a strong songwriter, even if stadium shows don’t exactly lend themselves to highlighting it. “Blank Space” sounded good because “Blank Space” is an exceedingly good pop song. “I Knew You Were Trouble,” off 2012’s Red, got the most exciting reboot, with super-heavy electric guitar and industrial levels of reverb turning it into something like metal; in an alternate universe it could have been played off a truckbed by the crazy guitar guy in Mad Max: Fury Road. “Love Story,” which she explained she wanted to reinterpret to make it blend with the other tracks on 1989, fared much worse, sounding more like a discarded, downtempo Abba tune than a reinvented country-pop one. The rapping breakdown on “Shake It Off” was even more embarrassing live than it is in the music video, which I didn't know was possible. “Out of the Woods” continues to be the most underrated song on the record, helped here tremendously by a chorus of live backup vocalists, not as tremendously by highly literal visuals (oh look we’re in the woods and now we’re, um, out of them).
In general, the visuals provided by the crowd, each of us dutifully wearing the multi-colored light-up bracelets that had been taped to our seats, provided the most interesting scenery of the night. They were more interesting, certainly, than anything Swift’s carefully curated gaggle of famous friends had to say about her in a series of pre-taped interviews that ran on giant screens during set breaks and costume changes. “A typical hang with Taylor? Well, there’s always food -- Chinese takeout that you eat way too much of, baked goods,” giggled supermodel Cara Delevingne, prompting more than one of us to flip her the bird, I’m guessing. The members of Haim talked about Swift’s cats, while Lena Dunham, Jaime King, and Selena Gomez all shared their own “she’s totally just a regular girl” type of anecdotes that totally just felt, well, forced. If you’re really just a regular girl, why am I watching supermodels on giant screens insisting that you’re really just a regular girl?
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter what any music or culture critic has to say about Taylor Swift, because for those who belong to Taylor Swift’s empire -- and there are zero barriers to entry -- the distinction between “super normal real girl Taylor Swift” and “years of market research smushed into the shape of a leggy blonde billionaire named Taylor Swift” is a false dichotomy. If you are a 13-year-old girl right now, you have grown up following your favorite musicians on Twitter and hoping they will reply to you, and thinking celebrities owe you their private lives via Instagram, and Taylor Swift is without a doubt the best at this particular game. Throw in an understanding of how to skirt the line between family-friendly tween idol and legitimate sex symbol, a remarkable control of branding, some perfectly general lyrics about self-esteem and relationships -- and, yes, hard work -- and you’ve got yourself a truly exceptional pop star.