Taylor Swift largely cycles between two primary facial expressions onstage — a Dorothy Gale-like look of wide-eyed surprise, and a teasing, pursed-lipped pose befitting a tour sponsored by Cover Girl — and the dichotomy between the two seemed to sum up the state of her music as well. An increasingly interesting young adult performer still tethered to the teen-pop machinery, Swift played to her base for the first of four sold-out engagements at Staples Center last night in support of monster seller “Speak Now,” delivering a supreme spectacle that could well mark a turning point in her career.
Contemporary country pop has long since taken over the elaborate conceptual staging that used to be the territory of ’80s hard rock, and by that token, Swift’s 2011 tour will likely go down as the estrogen-skewing equivalent of Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” tour of 1987. (At one point, a guitarist even brought out a Van Halen-model Kramer “Frankenstrat” for a fret-tapping front-stage solo.) The young female crowd, many of whom were doubtless experiencing their first show of this scale, responded with a sustained gale-force volume that somehow kept climbing to higher and higher peaks.
It would be difficult to quibble with that sort of enthusiasm. The concert — which stretched to well over two hours — was a maximalist, craftily staged display in which the petite headliner managed to retain the spotlight despite competition from a nine-piece band, a sextet of dancers, a trio of aerialists, a surprise cameo from a rapping Justin Bieber and a constantly moving, pyro-accented mise-en-scene that most strongly resembled Disneyland’s recreation of the French Quarter.
Swift is not the strongest of singers but she works smartly within her own range, and a mid-set acoustic suite showcased that voice most effectively. Accompanying herself on ukulele from a spinning perch in the back of the arena, she delivered a lovely version of “Fearless,” then switched to guitar for a tribute to Southern California’s musical heritage in the form of a conceptually incongruous, yet oddly successful pairing of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” with Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.”
Once a soft-spoken, almost painfully precocious performer, Swift is now a confident 21-year-old Grammy winner with three multi-platinum albums under her belt, and hence her frequent attempts to hew close to her old wallflower image seemed rather contrived. The teenaged Swift who sweetly pined for an unavailable boy in “You Belong With Me” is now the twentysomething who breaks up other people’s weddings in “Speak Now” and slap-boxes with a female dancer on “Better Than Revenge,” and while that tension — between naivete and sass, victimhood and vitriol — is an exciting one, it’s not something that she’s figured out how to own.
She might yet, though. Kicking things off with two standouts from her last album — “Mine” and “Sparks Fly” — Swift gave adult readings of rather adult songs, tackling grown-up love and lust with an authority and directness that one hopes she’ll continue to develop. She’s already claimed the Gen-Y Shania Twain crown — whether she wants to shoot for Carly Simon’s and Liz Phair’s as well is now entirely up to her.
But for most of the show, Swift’s conversational song craft took a backseat to arena showmanship, and there’s really nothing wrong with that when it’s executed as well as this.
Swift’s band was rock-solid throughout, with bassist Amos Heller unleashing some surprisingly jazzy, fleet-fingered runs.
Taylor Swift plays New York’s Madison Square Garden on Nov. 21 and 22.