In the three long years since Taylor Swift last played a full gig in the UK, an awful lot has changed.
Since the halcyon days of 1989, the US superstar has gone from being everyone’s BFF to being branded a ‘snake’ on social media, while her music has moved on from heartfelt country through splashy pop to the darker, more menacing Reputation album.
Those changes are acknowledged in the opening video as her career flashes before our eyes, overlaid with snarky comments as Joan Jett bellows “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation”. Surrounded by snake imagery, it seems like Swift is shedding another skin.
And yet, much has also stayed the same in Swiftworld. And, whether it’s dispensing genuine warmth to her fans or giving what she proudly declares to be a sold-out Etihad Stadium in Manchester the most exhilarating show it is ever likely to see, Swift still displays all the qualities that made her the most-lauded star of her generation.
Music Week was there for the first night of her UK stadium tour – and is here to bring you the key moments from a thrilling new show…
THE NEW SONGS
Reputation has smashed sales and streaming records, but also polarised the critics. But, rather than just play it safe and bang out the hits, tonight’s show perfectly showcases the album’s hidden gems, the enhanced live versions skilfully highlighting it as a record of real range. So, I Did Something Bad’s pulsating EDM sparks such an incredible ovation from the crowd that it briefly brings back Swift’s famous “surprised face”, while the playful swing of Gorgeous and a revved-up Getaway Car both eclipse the recorded versions. Best of all, however, is the full gospel rendition of Don’t Blame Me, which takes the show to a whole new level.
THE OLD SONGS
Swift now has so much material to choose from that, inevitably, more than a few old favourites don’t make the cut, particularly with Swift’s perennial focus on the new. But the Reputation setlist still works hard to make sure as many aspects of the “old Taylor” come to the stage (if not the phone) as possible. So she intertwines Style, Love Story and You Belong With Me into a single, rocked-up behemoth of a banger; drops Should’ve Said No into the wicked cavorting of Bad Blood and baits a spectacular closing This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things with a blast of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Rumours of the old Taylor’s demise have been greatly exaggerated; she is not dead, just dead good.
The key to Swift’s enduring stardom is she brings heart and soul to what can – in other, less deft hands – be a soulless stadium experience
Swift likes to set new production standards with each tour – the flying platforms of Red and the levitating stage of 1989's British Summer Time stopover have since become Big Pop Show staples for anyone with A-list aspirations – but Reputation ups the ante still further. For someone who once made an entire video (Shake It Off) about her inability to dance, Swift is now quite the mover, holding her own against some spectacular choreography from her backing dancers, while the big screens, moving stage, costume changes and giant inflatable snakes all play their part in a show that often takes the breath away. Then there’s more flying: she travels from one end of the stadium to the other on a fairylight-strewn basket to sing Shake It Off with excellent support acts Charli XCX and Camila Cabello, then makes the return journey on a sort of giant flying serpent platform. That’s not the end of it either; the finale features a working fountain on stage amidst fireworks and a Hollywood-style song-and-dance extravaganza that even Busby Berkeley might have considered a tad over-ambitious. Swift pulls if off effortlessly, of course.
But, of course, anyone can fly over a stadium on a massive snake platform thing. What marks Swift’s show apart from almost every other tour out there is its relentless musical reinvention (eg recasting Style’s intro as a soulful stomper) and its celebration of the quieter moments. Aside from her friend Ed Sheeran, few stadium shows would dare to take a bruising dubstep banger like I Knew You Were Trouble and recast it as bruised acoustic angst. She’s helped by a multiple stage set-up that allows her to bring intimacy to each corner of the stadium but, ultimately, its Swift herself that keeps the crowd spellbound.
And that is the key to Swift’s enduring stardom; she brings heart and soul to what can – in other, less deft hands – be a soulless stadium experience. Her tribute to Manchester’s “incredible resilience to keep dancing and to keep the joy and keep the excitement” after the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert a year ago is perfectly judged, while her other asides clearly strike a chord of positivity with her still mainly-teenage fanbase. And, while she botches the segue from Speak Now-era classic Long Live to Reputation standout New Year’s Day as she sits alone at the piano (“That was not correct at all!”), she recovers with real self-deprecating charm and grace. She may be a flying pop megastar at the helm of the greatest show on earth, but Swift remains resolutely human, and all the better for it.