“So you’re wondering why there are so many snakes onstage, right?” Taylor Swift asked the crowd on the opening night of her “Reptiles” — sorry, “Reputation” tour. It’d crossed the collective mind of the capacity crowd of 59,000 inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on May 8. The golden snake microphone might have required a bit of squinting to make out, but it was a fairly in-your-face move to position three enormous inflatable snakes around the stadium, hovering over the two rear stages as well as the main one. It’s not like anybody needs a good reason to float over a football field’s worth of fans in a snake-shaped cage, but Swift intended to explain how pop’s most celebrated cat lady had come to claim cobras as her new spirit animal.
“Someone called me a snake on social media, and it caught on,” Swift said, not even coming close to naming a name but clearly referencing the moment when Kim Kardashian, injecting herself into the feud over Kanye West’s “Naked” video, subtweeted Swift with some snake emoji, uncoiling a whole Twitter campaign meant to embarrass the singer. “I went through some really low times because of it,” she continued. “I went through some times when I didn’t know if I was gonna get to do this anymore.” Of course, if the bad-rep-embracing “Blank Space” taught us anything, it’s that Swift is wise to the modern way of taking ownership of the epithets used against you. Why call in St. Patrick for an exorcism when you can just go scaly on a massive scale?
Swift didn’t bring up any molting metaphors, but those are implicit in all the snakiness, too. The recitation about how the old Taylor is deceased and can’t take our call was present, as expected, in “Look What You Made Me Do” — delivered in concert not by Swift but Tiffany Haddish, in a crowd-pleasing video cameo. The two-hour show had plenty of fierceness to go with that, especially in the early going. But it still had plenty of moments where you would have sworn it was pre-decedent Taylor on the line… the guileless Swift we remember from two or three skins ago. There will be bad blood, and a few kraken to unleash, but at the beating heart of it all, we’re still left not so much with dragons or defensiveness but in the endearingly earnest presence of pop’s most approachable superstar.
Last fall’s “Reputation” was an album of many love-and-war juxtapositions. The backlash from the whole Kimye-gate brouhaha had a creative silver lining, in that it gave Swift some newfound rejection to write about — the public kind — right at about the point she was apparently falling in love and no longer finding fodder in romantic schisms. As a result of these seemingly contradictory experiences, “Reputation” ended up feeling like the most self-protective and most tenderly openhearted album she’s ever done.
This tour has those same contradictions to deal with, seeing as the set list is dominated by 14 of the 15 songs from “Reputation” (omitting only “So It Goes”), with 10 oldies — most of them also from the Max Martin/Shellback school of programming — squeezed into thematically appropriate intervals. The demands of modern choreography and ever more massive production design dictate that some of the emotional underpinnings are going to remain just that. But she uses her two hours on stage to paint a rewardingly holistic picture, even if there’s a lot of distance to travel between naive Taylor (“Love Story”), sexy Taylor (“Dress”) and karma-is-mine-sayeth-the-Taylor Taylor (“Look What You Made Me Do”).
The vast scaffolding on stage, sometimes visible behind the translucent 172-by-40-foot video screen enveloping it and sometimes not, suggested some kind of enormous underground city. Taking up residence two or three stories up was her usually unseen band, who would very occasionally send a lead guitarist down as emissary. Her dancers get to display a lot more personality, though it was a ways into the set before they warmed up from their initially militaristic, deep-maroon look and manner into warm, playful foils. They, too, receded when Swift took an airborne trip in that snaky cage to her rear stages for some more intimate material.
One of the dancers did follow her to the back of the stadium when it was time for her to do “Dress,” the latest album’s PG-13 sensual reverie. The white-robed figure ran complementary circles around her, with artificially extended arms weaving folds of white fabric through the air. For much of the show, Swift had worn a succession of feisty one-pieces, like a Wonder Woman who favored darker colors. But for the more erotic “Dress,” she added a sheer black gown to the ensemble, somehow getting sexier by adding a layer. As the interpretive dancer teased her, it was almost as if Gal Gadot had been given an abstract love scene in the middle of all that WWII super heroism.
But it’s the Alone Time With Tay on the other rear stage that most fans will treasure most. There was a two-song solo segment with just Swift and her guitar, half of which consisted of her proving that the recent album’s “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” worked as well acoustically without the Max Martin-izing. The other half will apparently be a wild-card slot. On opening night, she acceded to online demand by resurrecting the rarely played breakup ballad “All Too Well,” the song that’s like a secret handshake among True Swifties. (In two subsequent shows, she’s replaced that with “Wildest Dreams” and “The Best Day.”) During these two songs, she put ona Nudie’s-style jacket that perhaps was meant to subliminally refer back to her country days… although Porter Wagoner probably never had a coat with rhinestones formed into a coiled snake.
She also spent a few minutes alone at a piano, turning the fan anthem “Long Live” and the romantic ballad “New Year’s Day” into a contented medley of acceptance. Mash-ups also occurred during segments that were fully produced and full of more nervous energy; everyone’s celebrity-feud favorite, “Bad Blood,” morphed into her a song of teen betrayal from her debut album, “Should’ve Said No,” maybe to reinforce that life never stops being high school.
Swift occasionally played older sister to her audience. “I guess with the snakes,” she told the crowd, taking a pause at that piano, “I wanted to send a message to you guys that if someone uses name-calling to bully you, and even if a lot of people jump on board with it, that doesn’t have to defeat you. It can strengthen you instead.”
It was a nicely maternal moment. But it was also nice to see Swift prove that she’s not so much older and wiser that she won’t troll back. Midway through the set, Swift let her inner brat out to play with a “Shake It Off” that turned into a slumber party, with opening acts Camila Cabello and Charli XCX returned to the stage. That spirit returned at the very end, when the older hit “We Are Never Getting Back Together” segued into a taunting deep track of more recent vintage, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which just happens to be a blatant eff-you to her foremost celebrity tormentor. No longer bound by either choreography or maturity, Swift and the dancers cavorted in a fountain, offering up a figurative middle finger, and the impishness of the celebration felt liberating — a capper that felt almost punk-rock in foregoing any usual show-closing stateliness. The snake inflatables had already been put to sleep for the night, but you could imagine them purring.
The “Reputation” tour reaches the third of its scheduled 36 cities with stops at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena Friday and Saturday night.
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