I caught myself looking at the screen a lot that night at Ford Field. It’s where I’m most used to seeing Taylor Swift, how my brain most comfortably processes her — broken up between camera angles, the editing making her into a collection of discrete, two-dimensional images that can be twisted small enough to fit into a Twitter icon, or stretched out to a massive, inhuman size on the screens at the end zone of a football stadium.
And yet, the real Taylor was right there, golden haired and sparkling in her many catsuits and dresses. Her presence looms so large in culture and memory that seeing her, tiny and present and so fundamentally real, felt like an earnest shock to the system. When the booming opening bass notes of “Ready For It” kicked off the show, we saw her silhouette rising above the crowd, hooded and huge, but when the glow dropped, it was just her. Alone on the massive stage, tiny across the waves of people and lights in the crowd.
The “Reputation” tour is an impeccable tour de force pop production, with lighting, stage design and choreography expertly conceived to create an experience that feels both massive and intimate. Apart from a small issue with the sound that slightly pitched up Taylor’s voice (though that might just be a consequence of broadcasting a mic feed across a ridiculously huge and kind of weirdly shaped venue), the show was impeccable, and full of brilliant creative details.
Taylor Swift has never been much for subtlety, and in live performance, the melodrama was deliciously entertaining. Ninety foot snakes popped up during “Look What You Made Me Do,” dancers were mounted atop golden thrones in “King Of My Heart” and Taylor held her arms out as though she was being crucified on no less than two separate occasions. When the lyrics called for her to “beg you on my knees to stay” you can bet she dropped all five feet, 11 inches of herself to the floor. The girl commits.
Like in her previous tour promoting 1989, each person in the audience was given a bracelet that lit up along with the show, and the result was a stadium that felt like a self-contained galaxy, each of us equipped with our own little stars that shone in purples, reds, pinks, blues, golds. And really, the show felt like a world unto its own, a complete multi-sensory, multi-dimensional experience. It was a perfect tribute to Taylor’s many old and new identities, never condescending towards her past selves because she clearly understands the intimate way her audience invests our lives in her own history. Such is the power of a Taylor Swift song — personal to her, the writer, and personal to everyone who hears it.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the best parts of the show found Taylor performing alone. Her stage presence and easy intimacy with tens of thousands of people at once just can’t be taught. The night’s highlight was “Delicate,” when Taylor stepped into a sparkling gold cage that floated her up over the crowds and across the stadium. The screens that usually displayed close-ups of her face were blacked out and speckled only in purple starry lights to match our bracelets, so that all you could see in the stadium were spots of lights and the gold orb containing Taylor, floating above our heads. “I know that it’s delicate,” she sang, her voice hushed and tender, and the song washed over 50,000 people.
She made a great effort to bridge old and new material — the jaded cool-girl affect of “Style” merged seamlessly with the sweet earnestness of “Love Story”; the righteous anger of throwback “Should’ve Said No” melded with the petty fury of “Bad Blood.” The true stroke of genius, though, was when she sat at the piano and played “Long Live” and “New Years Day” together, weaving together with devastating precision two of the sweetest songs in her catalogue. “Hold on to the memories / they will hold on to you,” she sang before her voice dropped to a low murmur, “And I had the time of my life with you.” She let the piano notes hang in the air for a bit before she looked up at us, and her face broke into a smile as the audience let out the loudest cheer of the night. We cried, we loved Taylor Swift.
As I was confronted with the jarring presence of a person who I’d only ever understood through screens, I found myself thinking a lot that night about what that must feel like to be Taylor Swift, actual human being, so small on a such a big stage, everyone looking at you and everyone seeing something different in your image. What it must feel like to run through a crowd of people carrying signs with your name and your face, hordes of strangers reaching for you with arms outstretched and trying to grab at different parts of you. What do we want from Taylor, and what does she want from us? What is it like to have complete strangers say they love you? What is it like to maybe love them back?
It’s long been commented that Taylor’s most valuable skill as a pop star is her ability to make a sentiment, song or moment intended to be consumed by millions feel as though it’s directed at each individual person experiencing it. And to be sure, there’s an element of manipulation to that, the way her public persona deliberately cultivates a parasocial relationship between her and her fans. Through little tidbits of admissions in her music, social media and public profile, her fans feel like we know her when we clearly don’t, like we might even love her.
It’s a strange paradox — intimacy created not despite distance between audience and performer, but rather because of it. Still, I think the distance can be desensitizing sometimes. It’s easy to take a pop star of Swift’s popularity, impact, fame and notoriety and see her only as a nexus of conversation, a figure onto which we can project pretty much anything. A concept that we can discuss, use as a framework for debates about gender, class, race and pretty much every other topic you can possibly think of. It’s easy to forget in all the talk about the concept of Taylor Swift™, that there’s a very real Taylor Swift. It’s only in these rare spaces where it’s possible to make a real life contact and connection that we can remember there’s a version of Taylor who’s just a person. Talented and charismatic and wildly wealthy and popular, sometimes kind and sometimes vicious, sometimes hungry and sometimes tired, sometimes her best self and sometimes her worst self — but at all times human.
“Can I tell you guys a secret?” she asked halfway through the show, standing alone on stage in a glittery leotard and oversized patchy jacket, strumming her guitar. “This tour is the most fun I’ve ever had.” She looked out at us and smiled, and there was a cunning glint in her eyes as she let us into her world, each of us made to believe we were her co-conspirators and the keepers of her secrets. I saw real love in that look, too — but I’m sure someone else saw something different.
She ended the show with a mashup of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” storms of confetti raining down on us and the lights on our wristbands going haywire with colors. The screens and the stage were configured to look like an opulent mansion as she danced around in her glittering purple dress, leading the audience in a cathartic, floor-stomping chant. She took a bow and the doors of the mansion locked. Then she said she loved us one last time — and in a flash, she was gone.