When Taylor Swift released her second album, fearless, back in 2008, she was a bright-eyed singer-songwriter hoping to make it big in Nashville. Fifteen years later, it’s obvious that she’s made it big everywhere. “I don’t know how it gets better than this,” the 33-year-old sings to a stadium of 70,000 people. Every last one of them shares the feeling.
The five years since Swift’s last tour have been among her most productive. She made four additions to her “family” of albums: 2019’s a lover2020s Folklore and more and more, and 2022 years Nights. At the same time, she was busy re-recording her first six albums as part of her plan to reclaim the master recordings, after a very public battle with her former record label.
Her “Eras Tour” was designed as a journey through that staggering back catalog of 10 albums, from her earlier forays into her self-titled debut to the switch to synth-pop. 1989then to the subdued folk and alt-rock of Folklore and More and more. During the opening night of the tour, it often feels as if the audience is caught up with Swift’s past, present and future. In the 44-song set list that spans three hours and 15 minutes, she shows why the “era” concept is so integral to who she is. Each chapter marks a specific shift in her art.
There is palpable joy at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Costumes are decorated with hand-painted lyrics; faces shine with brightness; hands are covered by Swift’s lucky number 13. The fans I speak to say the concert feels like “coming home”. Swift herself admits to feeling a little overwhelmed: “I’m going to try to hold it together all night.”
Many of Swift’s greatest hits make it into the set list, of course, but there are also surprises. Like the fact that she opens on “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” the hazy synth-driven track from a lover, inspired by Swift’s political disillusionment. On it, she cast herself as a high school student dealing with bullies as an allegory for the right-wing gaining power in America, and the heartbreak and despair that came with it. Deeper album cuts appear in the form of “Illicit Affairs,” the dirge on which Swift battles her inner emotions, and a striking acoustic version of “Mirrorball,” which she dedicates to her fans. Later, they get the chance to scream-sing along to some of her most cutting lyrics on “Vigilante S***” (“I don’t dress for women/ I don’t dress for men/ Lately I dress for revenge”).
Each era transition is marked by both a costume and set change. “Look What You Made Me Do,” the 2017 single that heralded her return after a long hiatus, sees different versions of Swift inside glass cases: a nod to a time when she struggled to reconcile her sense of self with her public image. For songs from the autumn, island Folklore and more and more, the stage is flanked by trees and a cozy, moss-covered cabin. At one point, the stage is bare except for a long wooden table she sets for two people. It is sparse and cold, reflecting the harsh sound of “tolerating it”, where she pleads for another person’s attention.
It’s telling that Swift closes on “Karma,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to how she finally rose above the tabloid headlines, feuds and rivalries that once circled her like vultures. Clad in a sparkly fringed jacket, joining her troupe of dancers, she seems as liberated as she’s ever been. “Ask me why so many fade/ but I’m still here,” she sings. The answer is right there for all to see.