Tim Johnson photo
Do you think Lindsay Lohan's mom is jealous of the way Taylor Swift's fans shriek for her mother, who was milling about Nationwide Arena before her daughter's concert last night? ("ANDREA!") Do you think if Swift actually had a sense of humor about her public persona ("14,000 of you have opted in to hear me sing about my feelings for the next two hours") she would have worked the goat into "I Knew You Were Trouble"? Do you think when Jesus comes back he'll be flying on a lightbulb-studded circular platform like the one that carried Swift around the arena last night?
Many questions come up while watching a Taylor Swift concert in 2013, but none linger so much as this: What is she, exactly?
No one has made the transition from mainstream country to mainstream pop as effectively as Swift, yet traces of her former self linger because they resist adaptation. Consider "You Belong To Me," a chipper love lament about the girl next door beating out the sexy cheerleader for the dreamboat, a more confident answer to Saving Jane's paranoia. A new arrangement that framed the song as Motown girl group fare fell flat compared to the twangy original, and there is dark irony in hearing Swift sing "She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts" while decked out in a sparkling red dress and elbow-length gloves. The country songs fared much better when she let them be country songs, as on "Love Story" and her acoustic rendition of "Our Song," written for her ninth-grade talent show(!). Even "Red," the soaring title track from last year's crossover smash, worked mostly because it played like old-school Swift.
The recent pop hits "22," "I Knew You Were Trouble" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" succeeded too, though she still seemed to be feeling out how to carry herself in a new persona that plays Stomp-style percussion on glowing cylinders and pulls off the Madonna saintly-to-sexy strip midsong. She appeared stuck between the grownass woman of Red and the daydreaming child of her previous records, playing banjo on a treasure chest but also posing seductively in silhouette behind a bright red curtain. The Red songs designed to be dramatic (the Ed Sheeran duet "Everything Has Changed," the piano ballad "All Too Well") weren't, though the sweeping, U2-inspired opener "State of Grace" effectively set the stage.
Her banter, seemingly designed to be friendly and approachable, came off as plastic and rehearsed, especially when she continued to address the crowd as "Columbus." ("I'm aware that these emotions on either end of the spectrum could be categorized as the crazy emotions; I'm aware of that, Columbus.") Oddly, her normal side shone through the most when she was attempting superstar gestures like the dramatic hair toss, the guitar hero strut and the diva dance. She has moves, but they're singing-into-the-curling-iron-in-front-of-the-bathroom-mirror moves. And she scored major points by spending her entire four-song acoustic interlude on a rotating, elevated stage in the back of the arena; between that and the flying around the arena, she gave every person there a chance to feel like they were up close and in the action.
The production was maybe even more elaborate than last time Swift toured through town, with a moving video wall that was deployed in several ways — live feeds, canned interludes, a scrolling goodbye message that read "THANK YOU :)" — and an insane amount of singers, dancers, musicians and costume changes. There was ballet, Broadway and a Lindsey Stirling-style dubstep violin solo. The amount of extreme Taylor closeups was a little gratuitous, but they consistently showed a face that still appreciates the thrill of performing her songs in front of a sold-out arena. The Swift of Red is not jaded about love no matter how many romances go sour, and the Swift of The Red Tour isn't jaded about living her dream. Amidst all the pageantry and mixed messages, at least that much was real Wednesday.