Breaking: Taylor Swift isn’t just a voice in our ears or an abstract concept to argue about at parties, but a flesh-and-blood creature with a penchant for sparkly pajamas and the stamina of an ram. All concerts are incantations, making the audience’s idea of an artist a reality, but last night’s kick-off of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour in Glendale, Arizona, heightened the amazement with Houdini escapes-handcuffs physicality. After years of letting their inner lives be shaped by Swift’s highly mediated virtual output, 63,000 people can now attest to the vibrancy of Taylor Swift the persona. Somehow she seemed more superhuman when she saw her up close.
Every aspect of the night felt shaped by the Ticketmaster-breaking reality that she hasn’t shared air with masses of mortals since her 2018 tour, and that she’s released six albums (four original, two re-recorded) in the meantime. The emotional concoction was excess and gratitude, carved with nostalgia for lost time and made chaotic by physical circumstances. The structure was unwieldy but urgent: 44 (yes, 44) songs over three hours. Swift created the atmosphere of an ecstatic cram session, like an epic getaway with a distant bestie who was only visiting for one night. “So, um, is it just me or do we have a lot of catching up to do?” Swift asked early on, sitting behind a piano whose mossy crust gave him the look of a long-submerged treasure and helped make her point.
Going into the night, fans speculated about how Swift would apply her perfectionism to the tricky question of what songs to play. Perhaps she would assemble her albums into a streamlined playlist, reframing a now sprawling catalog around a thematic line. But instead, she decided to segment the night by album, letting the big lessons of her trajectory emerge from the juxtapositions already in it. And really, all expectations of a focused conversation by the fire fell away at the start of the set, when the stage clock struck midnight (although it was actually only 8 p.m.).
No space on Earth could handle the hype that erupted at the time. Her opening choice was unexpected: a blurry, shortened “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a somewhat plunging cut from 2019’s Lover (main chorus: “It’s been a long time coming”). Then came the highly anticipated live debut of fan favorite ‘Cruel Summer’, a song that symbolizes Lover‘s compelling, joyful maximalism. Overlapping sound waves — fans wailing like emergency sirens, the thump and thump of Swift’s live band and backing tracks — bounced around the Super Bowl venue to a terrible racket. Everyone was singing along, but no one, at least where I sat, could hear Swift. She faced a physics problem: How do you tell a story in a literal echo chamber?
The answer was for Swift to slow down and take control as she always has, with her words. At each pause to address the audience, Swift’s talent for focusing and maneuvering emotions helped to set a mood. In those overwhelming first few minutes, her first statement was recognizable: “I don’t know how to process it all of this.” She soon explained that the concept of the show was to adventure through her first 17 years of music, album by album – in unspoken and therefore exciting order. Then came the first real underbelly of the evening, the ballads ‘Lover’ and ‘The Archer’. For the latter, Swift stood alone, listing her vulnerabilities to a pulsating beat, until pyrotechnic sparks fell in a curtain behind her. This was where we all wanted to be: to feel one-on-one intimacy but with spectacular three-dimensionality.
Turning from one “era” to the next was like turning a pop-up book page, revealing new colors, architecture, and storylines. Swift’s art direction remains intuitive and straightforward, but the detail work is sharp, reimagining familiar imagery. For the segment dedicated to the cozy Folklore, she lazed, like a cat, on the sloping roof of a hut whose frame glowed with what seemed like starlight. The necessary giant snakes Reputation, her armored tank from a 2017 album, hung amid stark, vertically imposing scaffolding. In contrast, the urban wonderland of 1989 was horizontal, with the stage becoming a fashion show for Swift’s lively dancers to stomp across. On a night that lasted so long, little visual surprises went a long way. At one point she provoked a gasp seems to dive go inside onto the stage as if it were a pond and then swim across.
The order of the eras, and of the songs within eras, also kept the tension high. Swift’s beloved 2010 album, Speak now, emerged only for the enthusiastic “Enchanted,” sung by Swift in a ballgown amidst a field of flowers. Her self-titled debut also appeared only once, in a modest, piano-bound performance of her first single, “Tim McGraw”. The 2020 album on the other hand Always more– seen by some as a glorified collection of B-sides – got four songs with lavish set changes. After spending the last few years letting her work speak for itself as the public debated its significance and merits, she finally took a stand on her own catalog. Always more, she said, is “an album that I absolutely love, despite what some of you say on TikTok.” She cast a hilariously suspicious glance across the huge room. ‘I see it – I see it all of it.”
Her facial expressions were often just as powerful, compensating for the sonic detail that the stadium’s acoustics gobbled up. With her older lyrics reaching the cultural prominence of folktales, Swift was game for theatrical reinterpretation. Giving fans the “Delicate” performance they’d been agitating for on social media, Swift went comical, delivering “You can make me a drink” as an impatient command, not a come on. For the 2010 Fearless section, she acted charmingly blasé as she strapped on her guitar, invited us “back to high school,” and made half-hearted cheerleading gestures. These early songs were still great, but, she seemed to say with a wink, she’d grown a lot since writing them. The most stunning performances, however, were deadly serious, conveying icy resentment in glistening eyes and a stern clenched jaw, as in “Champagne Problems,” “My Tears Ricochet,” and the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”
Oh yes, that’s right – that mammoth set list made time for one 10 minute song. When she put on a glittering cloak and started strumming that wounded ballad, it was the prestige of a magic show. The public could finally wrap their heads around that she was really go for it, not just with this song but with this whole marathon revue concept that she’s been dreaming about for years. Late in the night, she broke with an acoustic moment of the era-by-era format — one whose featured song, she said, would change every night of the tour. She chose this opening show Folklore‘s “Mirrorball”, which clarifies her mission statement: “I’m still trying everything / To make sure you keep looking at me.”
She managed to keep us watching, though it must be said by the time it reached its peak Midnights era rolled around, the crowd—at least those who had survived—had transitioned from excitement to awe-inspired submission. Around me, the seats where people had screamed at throat-scorching frequencies early in the night were now empty. Small children brought to the show slept in the arms of their handlers. I felt the kind of happy buzz that often precedes deep sleep. The concert had been incredible, but so was the fact that this one human woman planned to do it again the next night, and for many after that.