Taylor Swift (Jonathan Quilter/Dispatch photo)
Taylor Swift sang, acted and occasionally danced Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena, though she left much of the gyrating to a capable team of backup dancers at her beck and call. Swift donned what must have been a dozen different dresses, looking radiant in each one. She played an electric guitar that looked like a banjo and an acoustic guitar covered in glitter. She wildly tossed her massive poof of curly blonde hair, which always bounced back vibrantly tussled but perfectly situated. At one point, she arose out of the stage floor seated at a white piano like her country-to-pop crossover forebear Garth Brooks circa "The Red Strokes" (no paint splatter though).
Watching Swift soar over her audience in a flying veranda during the show-closing "Love Story," decked out in a pink princess dress, you have to wonder if living this fairy-tale spectacle nightly is her dream come true. And indeed, when the curtain pulled moments later, the singer's feet visibly hopped with uncontainable excitement.
As for the rest of us? We had fun too, thanks to Swift's stellar songbook and a ridiculously elaborate stage show that rivaled anything I saw at the Lady Gaga concert last spring.
Actually, Swift and Gaga have a lot in common. They both exemplify the formula for success in today's pop music climate: Keep your music as generic as possible, but build an incredibly distinct cult of personality around it. (See also: Black Eyed Peas.) Gaga's playing to society's outcasts; Swift is playing to adolescent girls, whose hormones often leave them feeling like society's outcasts.
Swift soars above the crowd (Chris DeVille/Alive)
Swift's target audience turned out in droves Tuesday, many of them with parents in tow. I didn't notice many cowboy hats, though, despite Swift's origins in country music. These days she's a full-on pop star, albeit one rooted in the Nashville singer-songwriter tradition rather than the sexed-up fembot archetype pioneered by Britney Spears. As every music critic in America will tell you, Swift writes her own songs, and she's good enough at it that her music's appeal extends beyond the preteen ranks (unlike, say, pretty much every Miley Cyrus song that isn't "Party in the U.S.A.").
For example, consider "Fifteen," which Swift performed while sprawled on a luxurious couch in the princess dress, later to be joined by her bandmates and background singers. In a sense, she's directly pandering to budding young women when she sings about getting burned by the first guy who says "I love you." But she's writing from a knowing, been there-done that perspective that will resonate with anybody who remembers and regrets high school romance. She's the big sister with the shoulder to cry on, but also the well-adjusted niece adults look forward to hanging with at family reunions.
If Swift knows how to tell a story, she knows how to sell it too; the chorus sounded humongous, even when it was just Swift and her guitar the first time through. Earlier that night, she ran to the back of the arena and leaned against a rotating neon tree, strumming a ukulele as she played to the cheap seats. Of course, there were few such moments of minimalism Tuesday. More often, Swift was backed by a full-fledged band of slick music biz pros and a slew of accompanying players that at points included a harpist and a bridge full of violinists. And don't forget about the acrobats, ballerinas and hip-hop dancers. Most of the songs felt more like musical theater productions; some of them ("Speak Now," for example) even got their own miniature plot lines.
A musician usually can't put on such a lavish production without first building a strong collection of songs. Just 21 years old and three albums in, Swift's catalog is peppered with a clunker here or there, but she's been remarkably consistent thus far, and her most potent weapons — detailed storytelling and unshakable melodies — are still being honed. It's hard to imagine her putting on a spectacle like this one for the rest of her life, but as she ages from upstart pop star to seasoned veteran to living legend (hey, it's possible), Swift seemingly will be able to pull off whatever kind of show her dreams are made of.