I know I’m expected to write about important environmental and political issues, but when the biggest solo pop star since Elvis plays a gig (on Halloween!) just 54 miles away, it is hard to resist some cultural commentary.
This is Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour – so named for her birth year and most current release – and Raymond James stadium in Tampa on Halloween was the last U.S. stop before taking her (two dozen?) conspicuously-labeled semi trucks to Singapore.
Part of the experience is creeping towards the Stadium on Dale Mabry as cost-conscious throngs opting for $15 dollar ad hoc parking walk past you. The drive may seem like an accepted commercial strip landscape for football fans, but moms escorting young daughters to their first big concert had to contend with the NUDE GIRLS billboards and strip club advertising that likely provided some cognitive dissonance with Taylor’s girl-positive message.
I was heading to the $25 dollar parking at the stadium and if even just three quarters of the attendees parked there, that represented more than a million, presumably for Ray Jay.
Although there was still a dull red glow in the west by the time I got in the stadium, it was quite dark, apparently to improve viewing of the massive jumbotrons, although it also featured the dozens of fans who showed up with various LED displays incorporated in their clothing or various we-love-you-Taylor sorts of signs.
I headed to a men’s room, which was no doubt sized to accommodate presumptively male sports fans where I found impressive banks of lonely, expectant urinals.
The event was scheduled to start at 7:00, but those were the warm up acts – two solo male performers (do Taylor’s shows always avoid direct female competition?) Shawn Mendes, and Vance Joy, an Australian who gamely appeared in a pirate costume, simultaneously acknowledging both the venue and the date.
While I tried to find my vertiginous seat in the dark, the shortcomings of Raymond James Stadium as a concert venue became acoustically apparent: a nasty end zone echo. The echo wasn’t particularly daunting for Taylor, not only because virtually all the audience knew all the songs (they came to SEE her – they already know the dang songs), but also because Taylor has learned to speak in oratorical bite-sized phrases that anticipate and somehow accommodate echo. But some of the prerecorded video interviews with her girlfriends projected during Taylor’s costume changes were, for me at least, virtually unintelligible.
Because of the size of the stadium (and my seat location worthy of an air traffic controller) the concert experience is essentially reduced to watching large flat-screen TVs outdoors.
Taylor is a great showman (showgirl has to be wrong and showwoman seems foreign). She knows how to work a crowd better than Trump and the tight camera close-ups allow everyone to see her winks, eye-cuts, over the shoulder glances (poses really) and general audience flirtatiousness. This is iconic Taylor, big eyes, dark lashes, and paint-box red lips – not the nearly unrecognizable natural hippy look on the cover of November’s Australian Vogue. She shamelessly name-dropped Tampa and buttered up the audience, although there was no discernable gesture to Florida imagery in any of the sets.
Each song has a retinue of energetic sycophant male dancers, but why? This is Taylor Swift. Does Bruce Springsteen need go-go dancers? No. Not sure what those guys added, but I wasn’t the main audience, which appeared to be roughly 95 percent female and about 5% of those were wearing cat ear headbands – which I took as homage to Taylor’s feline obsessions. I see Swift as an exponent of good clean fun traveling with poignant stories, but still haven’t reconciled her bright-white two-piece playsuit combined with black garters and thigh-high black boots. I lost count of the costume changes.
We had each been given impressive white rubbery bracelets when we came in, all of which appeared to be defective until Taylor took the stage around 8:40. Once you pulled out the plastic strip protecting the virtue of the batteries, the translucent souvenirs were revealed to be controlled by some Taylor techies that could turn on white, red, blue, or green LEDs on command. This made every fan part of the show and allowed Taylor to assert that now that each of us was illuminated she could see each one of us 55,000 and consequently could sing to us as individuals (individual wrists anyway) instead of addressing an anonymous sea of blackness. The crowd-sourced lighting effect was impressive and, combined with roughly 54,000 singing along to the songs, a moving experience, although I was a little unnerved by the actual movement of the stadium beneath me – had the stadium’s structural engineers ever contemplated natural forces as powerful as Taylor Swift?
A long catwalk projected out into the field and it was subsequently revealed that it moved in multiple dimensions, thanks to scissor jacks and some sort of turntable, allowing Taylor to variously be lifted into a commanding pulpit above the field seating or actually rotated around above the terrestrial crowd. Didn’t see that coming.
Taylor is known for her ability to connect with her fans and she took time to provide a reassuring message of positive self worth and general rejection of haters.
Her concerts are also known for the special, not-previously-announced guests she attracts, unpaid performers who appear “out of the goodness of their hearts”. Since it was Halloween, Taylor was obliged to appear in costume (not as I had predicted, Scarlet Overkill, but as a goofy Olaf the snowman), which foreshadowed the appearance of Idina Menzel, who provided the voice for Elsa and who sang “Let it Go”, which is unquestionably the “Shake it Off” of Disney’s Frozen. Tampa’s other guest was Alessia Cara, an up and coming Canadian singer, according to Taylor.
The fireworks went off, Taylor bowed with those on stage, a thank you message appeared on screen and the stadium lights came on. She is not an encore sort of girl. Next stop: Singapore.