Concert Review: Taylor Swift @ Nissan Stadium Nashville 5/5/2023
"i can change everything about me to fit in" - taylor swift
Every weekend this summer, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour takes over a new football stadium across America. The shows are over three hours long with no intermission, making it a minor accomplishment to get through one just as an audience member. Every stadium is sold out every night, and thousands more fans who couldn’t afford or acquire tickets stand outside the football stadiums to hear the refracted sounds or catch glimpses of the screens. Each show is a highly choreographed journey through Taylor Swift’s career, with frequent set changes and a cast of backup dancers like Broadway musicals.
The Eras Tour is communal spectacle. Fans come in carefully-planned costumes referencing Taylor Swift lyrics, or themed after particular eras. They hand out “friendship bracelets” to each other because in her song “You’re On Your Own Kid” she says talks about friendship bracelets, and when you walk in the tour gives out bracelets that light up synchronized patterns throughout the show. Beyond the community at each individual show, there’s also a community across shows. Taylor Swift plays two surprise songs every night unique to that show, and fans follow along with the surprise songs online, mourning the loss of beloved songs when she plays them live without them and watching TikTok livestreams of the surprise song acoustic performances.
I went to her first of three shows in Nashville. The city dedicated a bench to her, in Centennial Park, because she talks about Centennial Park in her song “Invisible String”, and the bench had a two-hour line for photos when we went to walk around. On Friday and Saturday night, 70,000 people were in Nissan Stadium and thousands more were lined up on the pedestrian bridge that connects to downtown Nashville across the river. During my show, Taylor Swift announced the release date of her 2008 album Speak Now Taylor’s Version remake, and the subsequent sounds of tens of thousands of girls screaming when their wristbands lit up purple will be the loudest thing I ever hear in my life.
I wish I had more to say about the coldhealing experience of going Ishamel mode at a Taylor Swift show. I did not dress up in an elaborate Taylor Swift themed outfit. I was on the field a hundred feet away from the corporeal form of Taylor Swift, because my sisters skipped class to wait in the TicketMaster digital queue for hours to get tickets. I was at times distracted by thoughts of a girl so I understood what Taylor Swift meant when she said “boys only want love if its torture”. Mostly I was watching the spectacle unfold around me, but I didn’t want to take notes on specifics because that felt mean to the specific people who I’d never see again who were being vulnerable about art they loved.
It takes passion for the art to be this vulnerable for an artist, to dress up in an outfit dedicated to them and scream their words. Thousands of other people will be screaming too, which makes it easier, but Taylor Swift had to build those thousands of fans. Taylor Swift is the most cared about artist in the world. There are musical artists with more fans, and some with more fervent fans, but Taylor Swift has the largest vector multiplication of the two, the most person-hours spent caring about any artist on earth. What is the art that everyone is here for? The Eras Tour is about all of the art Taylor Swift has ever made, so I’ll try to talk about it all.
TAYLOR SWIFT (DEBUT)
In 2006 Taylor Swift was an ambitious sixteen year old who strove to make radio country music. Yes, she came from a wealthy family, but not so wealthy to explain everything that happened since. She moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville in eighth grade, and released her debut album when she was only sixteen. It’s very raw, epitomized by “Picture to Burn”’s famous line “go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy, that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay” that has since been edited out on all streaming services. It immediately made her relevant, but she was just a quaint young country up-and-comer.
Fearless was the album that put Taylor on the map in 2008. Fearless continues her debut album’s aspiration to country stardom but points towards so much more. The songwriting is playful but strong, and her voice really comes out even though she’s nineteen years old. The album had radio songs like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” that get setlist time today, but at the time they were even more significant because they proved her potential as a pop crossover star.
In 2009, my family was a proud “listens to everything besides rap and country” house, and we debated whether Taylor Swift was pop or country, because my sisters already loved Taylor Swift. My youngest sister, born 2002, would listen to this album’s song “The Best Day” when she was sad, which was cute because it’s a song about being nostalgic for youth and the gifts your parents gave you, but she was seven years old and the time Taylor was being nostalgic for was close to my sister’s age.
Speak Now was twenty-one year old Taylor Swift’s sequel to Fearless. Fearless faced minor criticism because many of the songs were not written by Taylor Swift herself, so for Speak Now she wrote everything on her own. She wanted to title the album Enchanted, which I think fits its subject matter much better: whimsical, nostalgic, full of sad romanticism for the world, but she was overruled by her team. This album is not country music, it’s sadgirl music, but she called it country still. The songwriting is not quite as strong as Fearless, because she did it all herself, but it feels more emotional. It had a few songs that got radio play at the time like “Mean” and “Back to December”, and continued to grow her career.
She only plays one song from Speak Now on the Eras Tour, the original title track “Enchanted”. It was not that famous at the time but now does well on TikTok now. She comes out in a prom dress to play it.
“Enchanted” was written about the moment when Taylor met Owl City’s Adam Young, and when Adam found out the song was about him he released a cover of the song on Valentine’s Day, which Taylor Swift never publicly responded to. In Adam’s Version he adds a final verse:
I was never in love with someone else
I never had somebody waiting on me
'Cause you were all of my dreams come true
And I just wish you knew
Taylor I was so in love with you.
2012’s Red was Taylor Swift’s moment where she started making pop music, only mildly hiding behind the country label. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22” were played at every high school prom in America. The rest of the album has some sadder songs like Speak Now, but the arc towards the rest of her career was revealed.
For the Red section of the Eras Tour, she played those three 2012 radio pop songs, and two songs “from the vault”. “Nothing New” is one, which is a song she started alone at 22 and finished a decade later with Phoebe Bridgers. The central line of the song is “how can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22”, about an ingenue who feels her time is passing. It comes with dramatic irony, because Taylor Swift at 31 when she finished the song was still successful and knows how silly that feeling was, but the sadness of aging is still palpable. The other vault song she plays at the show is “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)”, which is an extension of the most famous sad song off of Red. This version doubles the length of the original by oversharing in an artistic manner about her decade-old breakup with one of her celebrity boyfriends. It’s a messy song but it’s fun to hear thousands of people singing about the performative male feminism of a “fuck the patriarchy” keychain.
This was the immediate climax to the Taylor Swift pop star story. In 2014, at age 25, the center age of life, she released her album named after her birth year, 1989. The opening track “Welcome to New York” divorces her from her country music past, putting her as a young girl in the most exciting city in the world. She goes into her melodically strongest pop songs ever. The entire album is strong pop, but singles were even stronger pop. This was the album that established Taylor Swift as a giant pop star, the biggest pop star in the world. It won the Grammy for album of the year.
1989 as an era is barely stylized at the Eras Tour, because there weren’t coherent symbols to the album. It was just the time where she wanted to make pop music. I think they had New York City on the screen in the background. On “Bad Blood” people in the crowd add the Kendrick Lamar ad-lib “you forgive you forget but you never let it go” as an inside joke with each other, because it’s funny that Kendrick Lamar did a version of a Taylor Swift song.
After 1989 there was a three year gap before more Taylor Swift music, her longest gap between albums ever. In those three years she had public feuding with Kanye, public scrutiny into her relationships with other celebrities, and the negativity seemed to get to her.
The album that came from those three years was Reputation. It’s the first album that leans into the “eras” concept, with an intentional aesthetic and story. On the heavily promoted opening single “Look What You Made Me Do” Taylor Swift says “the old Taylor can’t come to phone right now. Why? Oh, because she’s dead.” She has been so wronged by the media that she’s now evil, she’s become everything they said she was. Her promotional materials for the album frequently showed imagery of snakes, because Kim Kardashian tweeted that Taylor Swift was a snake for the way she handled the feud with Kanye.
Reputation is a strange album. It has a song where she features both Future and Ed Sheeran. Despite the evil Taylor Swift branding, it’s mostly an album about love. This album came at the beginning of Taylor Swift’s longest celebrity relationship ever with Joe Alwyn, and most of the songs are sweet stories about falling in love with him, contrasted with “the media hates me” to make this love story to feel like the real thing.
Reputation didn’t kill Taylor Swift as a pop star, but at the time it was mocked as edgy self-indulgent pop-rap. As time has passed, it’s been received more favorably as a phase of her career. Fans talk about “their Reputation eras” to mean they themselves taking on the blackpilled girlboss persona that Taylor swift adopts for this album. She brands this phase of the show with snakes, even though most people do not remember the Kim Kardashian snake tweet anymore, but they do remember her branding. It fits really well in the Eras Tour as performed anger by 33 year old Taylor Swift, as part of the Eras story.
In 2019, Taylor Swift followed Reputation with Lover, lover being the opposite of hater. Lover softens the edginess of Reputation into mass pop, the closest thing Taylor Swift ever gets to Katy Perry cruise ship background music. It’s still love songs about Joe Alwyn, but here the love songs feel less interesting, like calibrated a way to make her softer to general audiences again.
This is the opening era to the concert, because it’s such strong stadium pop and it gets people going. She comes out on the stage and reveals her physical form to the crowd to “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”, playing up the opening words “it’s been a long time coming” because she knows that people are excited to see her. She really milks the moment of “Cruel Summer”’s famous bridge, and it’s a good song so that’s fine. She plays feminist anthem “The Man” and pride anthem “You Need to Calm Down”. Lover’s often-mocked opening single “ME!” where Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie sing “girl there ain’t an i in team, but you know there is a me” did not make it into the setlist.
FOLKLORE AND EVERMORE
Lover achieved Taylor’s goal of resetting her image from Reputation, but it required a second image reset because at times it was not tasteful. The pandemic shut down her ability to tour Lover, so instead she made a lot more music, and it went really well. In 2020, she released a pair of albums that lean into a Bon Iver Phoebe Bridgers style, sad lyric-focused pseudo-folk music. It’s a departure from traditional Taylor Swift music. But it’s more tasteful to the increasingly “indie” desires of general audiences as streaming democratizes access to music. Taylor Swift isn’t afraid to go into overindulgent poeticism here, but it’s done well. Folklore lyrics are the most challenging poetry some Americans will ever willingly interpret. It could have been a risky career move, but it was all well-received. Folklore won the Grammy for album of the year.
While these are technically two albums, and they’re played as two separate eras of the show, from a practical perspective they’re one set of ideas. Folklore is summer pop-folk music and Evermore is a winter version of the thing. I have strong memories of both, of doing a little we*d during the pandemic lockdown while listening to Folklore as the month of August 2020 really did slip away like a bottle of wine, and of languishing in my bedroom playing online chess listening to Evermore in December 2020. I felt a little strange even at the time knowing that Taylor Swift wanted these albums to hit a particular demographic, but I guess I’m in that demographic so I like them.
Evermore and Folklore are crucial albums to Taylor Swift as the most-cared-about-artist-in-the-world because they’re the albums that proved her emotional range. They’re played during the Eras Tour as the emotional slowdown moments. They’re adult Taylor Swift, where she says fuck and where she sings about things other than the beginning of love. There’s less background dancers on the stage during many of them, just Taylor Swift at the piano, an intimate moment between her and 70,000 other humans.
Taylor Swift does not own the master recordings to everything before Lover, which is standard in the music industry. Some of the streaming profits go to the record label who originally distributed the music. In 2021 she began rerecording her earlier albums so that she personally could own them. She frames this as a moral choice, that it’s morally better to listen to music in a way that gives the artist the profits than the label, but I find it hard to take that argument seriously because she doesn’t help any other musician take control of their profits. Even if it were a moral difference I have a lot of other ethics to worry about in my life so I can’t get myself to care about streaming profit ethics.
Regardless of my opinions, Taylor Swift has such a strong culture that many do care. Many fans strictly listen to the rerecordings, and will angrily ask a bar to change to Taylor’s Version if they play the “stolen version”. Beyond the increased streaming profits, Taylor’s Version works as an idea because it makes people care more about Taylor Swift. Ethical imperatives make people passionate about anything, and here the ethics aren’t too hard.
To make the rerecordings more exciting than a repeat of music fans have already heard, she also releases older music that didn’t make it on to the albums on first release. Some of it is obviously edited by 30 year old Taylor Swift, but that’s fine. She takes ideas she was thinking about when she was younger and refracts them.
Only three of the six rerecordings have been released now, and the slow drip adds more fuel to the fire of interest in Taylor Swift’s music. She’s released six albums since 2020 if you count rerecordings. Every one of them has lots of promotion, with secret Taylor Swift Qanon hints left in music videos and Instagram posts and TikToks, all with their own hype machine that keeps people caring about Taylor Swift. From bedrooms across America young girls diligently count every emoji Taylor Swift posts, but they do it because Taylor Swift does hide clues in things like her emoji usage. It’s mutual passion for art, and there’s so much for both sides to care about.
With the total triumph of Folklore and Evermore, and the revitalization of her older music with Taylor’s Version rerecordings, Taylor Swift had an empty stage to do whatever she wanted. She made Midnights. It had some branding as 70s Taylor Swift, as Taylor Swift during late nights, but it was inconsistent and didn’t really make sense. In reality it’s Taylor Swift doing pop music with the lyrical confidence she had during Evermore and Folklore. It’s an okay album. I wanted to like it, because I like 1989 and Reputation, but the pop isn’t as strong as those. Midnights is the last era of the show. At this point people are really tired, after three hours of singing Taylor Swift, and since the pop isn’t quite as strong it sort of feels like a denouement.
Taylor Swift is almost too big to tour, between the size of this setlist and the size of her crowds, but she does it because she really likes performing. When she broke up with her six-year boyfriend Joe Alwyn in April, I tweeted “have to respect that taylor swift is more attracted to fame and power and the adoration of the crowd than she is attracted to any mortal human being”. And I stand by that, but what I’ve realized since is it’s a two-way love. Taylor Swift gives so much to her fans, inviting them for secret listening sessions at her house, hiding Qanon clues in everything she posts, relentlessly making art even though she certainly has no financial need anymore. In return they care about her back.
She closes the Eras Tour with Midnight’s “Karma”, which is a song that feels like thoughts from younger Taylor Swift but she wasn’t brave enough to say these words then. She’s always had an interest in karma, singing in Reputation: “the world moves on another day another drama, but not for me all I think about is karma.” Now, years later, she climaxes this song with: “Karma is the guy on the screen, coming straight home to me”. If you’ve had the kind of life Taylor Swift has, how could you say anything else? Taylor Swift has lived the aesthetic life over the ethical life, turning her relationships with celebrities and the arc of her career and much of the rest of her life into a decade-long story and then performing it in front of a few million unique people across America in a single summer. And sometimes I believe her that she karmically deserves it.
My favorite song off Midnights is “You’re On Your Own Kid”. TikTok users love it as a main character anthem, filming study abroad videos or retrospectives on high school with it in the background. The part they use is its final verse:
The jokes weren’t funny, I took the money
My friends from home don’t know what to say
I looked around in a blood-soaked gown
And I saw something they can’t take away
Cause there were pages turned with the bridges burned
Everything you lose is a step you take
So make the friendship bracelets
Take the moment and taste it
You’ve got no reason to be afraid
You’re on your own kid, yeah you can face this
You’re on your own kid and you always have been
Taylor Swift doesn’t perform this song, but she plays it over the loudspeakers when the lights come on at the end of the show as the fans walk out of the stadium, the moment that I have as the banner picture to this Substack piece. I think it’s a cute way to end things.