September 1, 2011
@ HP Pavilion, San Jose
Better Than: Anything that Jonas Brother ever deserved a crack at.
15. Before taking the stage to "American Girl," an honor that Tom Petty has denied Michelle Bachmann, Taylor Swift is introduced via text messages broadcast on jumbo screens. These whip up the crowd as well as any announcer ever could.
14. These texts followed dozens sent from fans of Swift's pleading their case for seat upgrades. The most telling of these: "Your music is so relatable, your my idol." That cuts right to the heart of Swift's wild -- and well-deserved -- popularity. A Cover Girl model, she wears short skirts, and she forgoes sneakers. But she still sings from the heart of the girl on the bleachers.
13. 13,500 shrieking Taylor Swift fans sounds a lot like the bird-attack sequences in The Birds.
12. Swift's singles "You Belong With Me" and "Mine" are two of the finest, truest, most hurtling rock songs to hit the world this millennium.
11. But crunch and soar and stomp as they do, those singles are still totally country, just so long as you're willing to accept -- as millions already have -- that Nashville's sonic purview now includes any and all non-metal rock music ever to have hit the airwaves back in the days when new rock songs actually still hit the airwaves. "Sparks Fly," her opener, echoes "Summer of 69"; "Better Than Revenge," her snarling kiss-off to a gal who stole her Jonas, is what Liz Phair has been aiming at for two decades; and "Mine" and "You Belong With Me" could have been big, buzzing alt-rock hits with just a couple lyrical tweaks: You would just have to strip them of their straightforward yearning and their telling narrative details, the two country hallmarks that make them connect so strongly.
10. Taylor Swift wandered through the crowd in formal wear, perched herself beneath a spinning, lit-up tree deep in the cheap seats, and knocked out a solo acoustic cover of that Train song I can't be bothered to Google.
9. Also, while sitting beneath that tree, Swift sang "Fearless" accompanied by a harpist and her own ukelele.
8. Taylor Swift enjoys elaborate production numbers. These included an old-timey '50s sock-hop kind of thing, a bit where prancing extras from Oklahoma cavort around the rustic back porch from which Swift stringbands through "Mean," a wedding-crasher scene with pews and a bride and a cardinal, and the back-to-back goth-cheese extravaganzas "Enchanted" and "Haunted," the first involving a ballerina flitting about a fairy bower, and the second featuring a trio of giant bells that Swift bangs with an over-sized mallet until at last they are raised far above the stage and aerialists tumble forth from them and then dance/dangle in the air the rest of the song. Also there's a gazebo for some reason.
7. Taylor Swift has gazebo money.
6. For all this over-the-top stuff, Swift still obeys the cardinal rule that separates country singers from other pop stars: that relatability, even in full-on idol mode, as she is here, larking through Broadway-style production numbers dressed like she's on the cover of Vanity Fair. After most of the songs, Swift poses grandly, her arms out and her face toward the heavens, holding the mood of the lyric (often anger or defiance). She's like the prow of some ship, buffeted not by wind and sea but thunderous adoration. Seconds pass, thousands scream, and Swift cracks a smile, lets out an I-can't-believe-you-guys-are-so-loud laugh, and somehow moistens up her eyes just enough so that we can tell that she knows how much she appreciates all this.
5. One of her many dancers dresses up as a janitor and does a solo tap number with a broom. Eventually, the janitor character happens upon an ancient switchboard. One by one, he stands before each of three switches and mimes, "Should I pull it?" The crowd screams, and he does, until, with the third one, Taylor Swift leaps up from below stage as if she's been shot from a cannon. She's in a new dress, of course.
4. Introducing "Mean," Swift goes on about how nice the crowd is, and how rare it is to find nice people, and how most people are that word that's the opposite of nice. Then, like the Little Mermaid she at times can resemble, she says she can't think of the word, so the crowd shouts it out, like this is The Price is Right and only they know what to bid.
3. Most of the show, her voice is confident, scrappy, and not noticeably sweetened. (Some big notes toward the end seemed to me to bear the silvery watermark of pitch correction.) Her banjo, ukulele, and guitar all seem to produce the notes she seems to be playing. Her piano -- a white baby grand elevated from beneath the stage for "Back in December" -- I just have to take her word on. And the half-dozen violins her back-up singers and dancers saw at on the elfland footbridge I doubt we're supposed to take seriously.
2. But whether it's all real or all live is hardly the point. Instead, the point is the way this music and spectacle all start with simple, specific, deeply personal feelings -- being lied to at fifteen; being the too-guarded offspring of an emotional wreck -- and amplifies them to arena-sized universality without in the least bit cheapening them. Great pop music matches something true inside the performer to something true inside the listener, and then sets it off in the listener like fireworks. By that standard, Taylor Swift's is great pop music.
The Story of Us
Back to December
Better Than Revenge
Song by Train That I Can't Be Bothered to Google
You Belong With Me