I turned 20 this month, and last weekend I got to ring in my exit from teen-hood by feeling old at a concert for the first time ever.
I felt like I heard Taylor Swift’s 1989 everywhere I went in Ann Arbor this past school year. I didn’t even get the album until many months after its release, but at first listen I found I already knew all the songs — from friends’ cars, from pop radio, from every damn computer at The Michigan Daily’s offices. Thanks to the ubiquity, as well as the fact that she’s been making music long enough to now have older, nostalgic fans, I assumed a Taylor Swift concert would contain a solid mix of teens and college-aged kids.
Nope. Last Saturday’s 1989 Tour stop at Ford Field felt like an inauguration ceremony for Kid President. Rows were filled with families — mothers and daughters, mostly — and even though I was one row removed from the top of the upper deck, my sightline was never threatened by anyone over 4 feet tall. If Swift had played “22,” most of her fans would have been a decade or so away from being able to sing the chorus.
Which is honestly all great — if I was taking a kid to see one of her first-ever concerts, the cosmopolitan yet down-to-earth and accessible pop of 1989 would be a great one for that occasion. And, if you didn’t know already, kids bring hella enthusiasm. Ford Field was saturated with screams from the moment Shawn Mendes, the first opener, started playing. I had never heard of the 16-year-old singer, but apparently he has a number-one record, and kids love him and his vaguely familiar-sounding (to me) indie pop. To his credit, the still-pubescent Mendes displayed extreme poise as he played for an incomprehensibly large mass of people. Vance Joy followed, and fans didn’t seem quite as excited about him. Like Mendes, he was just a dude standing still and trying to play guitar for a 50,000-strong crowd watching from a distance, but Joy still delivered on the catchy beach-pop of “Riptide,” and you can’t really expect much more from an opener than one excellent song.
After the house music excited us by playing “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Feel So Close,” Swift opened, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Welcoming us to New York. Yes, listening to the song’s bubblegum chanting is probably what a lobotomy feels like (in a good way!), but the huge synths did exactly what they were supposed to do, lighting a fire under all of us, getting our blood pumping and covering Ford Field in a blanket of euphoria (and don’t sleep on those subtle pro-LGBTQ lyrics, either). Everyone in the stadium (or, “room,” as Swift insisted on saying) had a light-up bracelet synchronized to the music, so we were all flashing brilliantly together.
From even before Swift arrived on stage, the label 1989 didn’t just establish Swift’s birth year or her influences on the record, but it also harkened back to a time when everybody actually liked the same pop culture, when what was playing on the radio was what everyone listened to and pop stars actually sold millions of records and mounted these kinds of tours with some regularity. Few present-day artists are able to unite audiences as singularly and consistently as Taylor Swift.
I actually expected Swift to be much more awkward on stage, since her marketing so often presents her as self-conscious and “weird.” Her choreography and style was never especially outlandish or over the top — aside from a light-up pink dress, her wardrobe seemed mostly like regular clubbing outfits — but Swift strutted confidently across the long narrow walkway that extended far out into the audience, leaning on her backing tracks a bit but still hitting every note she wanted to hit. She owned the stage impressively with her sophisticated demeanor while still trying to stay relatable to her acolytes, like Tavi Gevinson possessed by the spirit of Madonna. Her speeches to the audience were both laughably forced (like when she said coming to Detroit was “like coming home” because she sang the national anthem here once) and surprisingly heartfelt (like when she spoke to music’s ability to get us through hard times). She gave multiple soliloquies on the nature of love and relationships and ’80s movies as part of long-winded introductions to whatever the next song was.
Regardless of some of the show’s contrived corniness, Swift really made a point of letting the audience know how much she loved them and how much they meant to her, setting herself up to be as fun and approachable as one can be when she’s a millionaire whose songs are forever lodged in our collective memory. To all her devoted fans, Taylor is, if not their best friend, at least their cool older sister. (And yes, Swift’s charisma got to me, too — by halfway through the show, I felt I could call her Taylor.)
One knock on these kinds of big choreographed pop spectacles is that their meticulous planning and choreographed nature means any possibility of spontaneity is eliminated. But there was one true surprise on this tour stop when Taylor brought out Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons to perform “Radioactive,” drawing even louder screams out of the audience and creating the kind of bombastic singalong that works better and better the bigger it gets. I assumed Imagine Dragons must have been on tour nearby, but a look at the band’s schedule shows that Reynolds inexplicably made a pitstop in Detroit between … Napa, California, and Portland, Oregon. Taylor Swift works in mysterious ways.
Another potential criticism of huge shows is that true expression can be lost because, with an audience so large, the artist can feel obligated to simply deliver familiar versions of her most popular songs, one after another. Taylor clearly did not feel this obligation, electing to play almost exclusively new songs and putting twists on the few older ones she did perform. “Love Story” got a synthy ’80s-movie-soundtrack remix and “I Knew You Were Trouble” got heavier and darker. I believe those two and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” were the only non-1989 songs on the setlist. If you had seen Taylor open for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at The Palace and then swore off music for eight years, you wouldn’t have believed this was the same woman at Ford Field last weekend.
The only area where Taylor’s concert really suffered was in its pacing. It took her more than two hours to get through what was probably less than 90 minutes of music. Career highs like “Blank Space” got burned off quickly, with deeper cuts like “I Wish You Would” and “How You Get The Girl” receiving more fully realized productions. Additionally, whether it was because of a monologue or a costume change, very few songs were played back to back, so that downtime killed a lot of momentum. However, when so many numbers (from the same album, no less) are literal showstoppers, it’s hard not to still be impressed. Despite some of its flaws, Taylor’s show was one of the best experiences with music I’ve had this year. Sure, some of it was campy, but it was impossible to hear so many fans singing along to every word, screaming for everything Taylor did, and not be moved by how much her music has affected so many people.
Taylor’s show may have been devoid of irony, but Lana Del Rey’s concert at DTE the following night had irony right in the title: the “Endless Summer” tour, on a night when the temperature never climbed above 50 and all of our butts on the lawn got wet even if we were trying to sit on blankets.
In general, I always imagined Del Rey as a much more aloof presence than Taylor Swift, someone who would be able to stand stoic to all that admiration Taylor got at her show. But the two still have plenty in common, using their best work to craft compelling personas and explore the melodrama of romantic relationships. The difference is that Swift is somehow still able to present herself as a very relatable modern woman, while Del Rey seems attached to nothing but rose-tinted recollections and hazy imaginings of the jazz era. There was a moment when Del Rey took a break from singing to take selfies with fans in the front row, and I found myself surprised that she even knew what a cell phone was.
While the crowd was huge by almost any artist’s standards, it was obviously low key when compared with 1989. Del Rey’s backdrop was like a Hollywood soundstage of New York, featuring faux skyscrapers with light-up windows and big, obvious retro spotlights brightly illuminating Del Rey and her band. I expected the actress in Del Rey to go through multiple costume changes, but she just looked stunning the whole night in a simple light-green dress. From what I could tell, almost everything coming out of the speakers was played live, with only occasional extra vocals piped in. The guitar, in particular, was heavy and rocking and gave an extra boost to slightly faster songs like the set’s closer, “Off to the Races” — though, in general, Del Rey’s voice could have used that same kind of boost to keep up.
Del Rey shined in the set’s quieter moments, particularly in a perfectly chosen cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2.” She sat in a chair and smoked a cigarette onstage while she sang the folk song, which led into “Brooklyn Baby” — for my money, her best achievement so far, a perfectly grooving balance of sarcasm and defiant pride.
Though the atmospheric, sauntering tempo meant she never really got people dancing beyond laconic swaying, the fans adored Del Rey, screaming for everything she did as they formed a monolith of flower crowns (plus one white idiot in a Native American headdress) that ran all the way up the hill at Pine Knob. I was worried the bad weather would perhaps keep some people away, but I didn’t see any open spaces by the time the show started. Everyone there seemed to be in her late teens or early 20s, and like the Taylor Swift show, the women’s restrooms sported long lines while the men’s rooms stayed nearly vacant.
While I was nearly the same age as practically everyone in attendance, I found my attention drawn to the very few couples or groups in the crowd who seemed old enough to be parents, relaxing on lawn chairs in front of much younger people who might have been their kids or might have just been randomly sitting near them. If I had my way, at least with where my head’s at right now, I would be one of these people in a few decades’ time. This really freaks me out. The infinite youth at Taylor and Lana’s shows made me worry that, eventually, I’m either going to stop loving the music that gives me so much joy and life, or I’m doomed to become the most out-of-place attendee at all the shows I want to see.
Eventually, I suppose, you have to stop jumping up and down in the pit and unfold the lawn chair. Once you hit a certain age, you’d rather be comfy in the back of a festival ground than be fighting for every inch of personal space, trying to get closer to the artists you most admire. You end up seeing old artists on their reunion tours rather than whatever’s playing at colleges in the present. Taylor Swift was clearly speaking to younger people in her show Saturday, even as many of my friends become nostalgic for her old music; Lana Del Rey seems like she’ll forever be frozen in her “young and beautiful” phase, even though that’s obviously impossible. It would be amazing to be as young as the pop stars forever, to never grow out of their target audience. But maybe, someday, we’ll be able to share our love for the ’90s aesthetic with young people, just like Lana shares her love for the ’40s with us. Maybe we’ll soon get wistful for 1989 when we play it for a new generation, like Taylor does with the actual music of that year. Either way, when I get too old (and even more uncool) for these shows, you can bet I’ll use my kids as an excuse to still see the best artists in the world.