“I missed you guys,” Taylor Swift told her opening-night audience in Phoenix Tuesday, referring to the fact that she’d taken a longer-than-usual time away from touring, Absence makes the heart grow stadium-sized, so Swift’s “Reputation” tour is her first to take her out of arenas into even bigger venues, starting with a University of Phoenix Stadium opener that played to 59,000 fans, a record for the number of people squeezed in under the Arizona behemoth’s massive dome.
If you’re planning to see the show at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl two-night stand next weekend — or in any of the 36 cities she’s set to reach in the next seven months – and you hate tour spoilers, feel free to stop reading now. But if you’re “…Ready for It,” here are 10 takeaways and surprises from Swift’s first night back. (See a clip from the performance below.)
Indiana Jones would really hate this tour.
Snakes figured a little bit into the imagery for Swift’s “Reputation” album and videos, but they’re everywhere in the set design here. A giant cobra head rises from center stage early in the set, like the kind of inflatable props you used to see at a Stones or Elton or Pink Floyd show. Later, two similar cobras arise for Swift to visit at the rear of the floor, overseeing a pair of secondary stages. And then she returns to the main stage aloft inside an airborne snake’s ribcage. On the 172’-x-40’ video screen that sits in front of what seems to be about a city block’s worth of scaffolding, some Medusa-style effects pop up. Yes, she’s determined to put the REPtile back in REPutation.
As the Marx Brothers might ask: Why a snake?
“So you’re wondering why there are so many snakes on stage, right?” You read our minds, Taylor! It’s a classic case of owning your epithets: “Someone called me a snake on social media and it caught on,” she said, sitting at the piano and offering an introduction to “Long Live” that lasted several thoughtful minutes. “And then a lot of people were calling me a lot of things on social media. And I went through some really low times for a while because of it. I went through some times when I didn’t know if I was gonna get to do this anymore. And I guess with the snakes, I wanted to send a message to you guys that if someone uses name-calling to bully you on social media, and even if a lot of people jump on board with it, that doesn’t have to defeat you. It can strengthen you inssssss-stead.” (Just kidding; she did not add a hissing sound to “instead.”)
She has surveyed the web and discovered everyone’s favorite Swift song is. And she’s taking that request.
Performing at a rear stage alone with just an acoustic guitar, Swift introduced the second of two numbers she performed in that stripped-down format by telling fans, “I will say that when I read things that you write me — letters or comments or posts or whatever — there is one song that you request (for me to) play more than all other songs, and it wasn’t even a single. And I figured since you guys have made this first night of the show such an unbelievable experience, I will play this song that you seem to request more than the others.” And if you are a hardcore Swiftie, you thought, OMG, is it going to be “All Too Well,” from the “Red” album? And it was. (Don’t bank on that getting played every night, though: The implication was that this choice was a tour doorbuster special, and Swift has been known to use her acoustic segments for wildcard slots on past tours.)
Camila Cabello and Charli XCX do not head back to the hotel at the end of their warm-up sets.
On this tour, Swift’s “Shake” brings all the girls to the yard — that is, both of her opening acts, who make a reappearance halfway into the headliner’s set. “Shake It Up” used to be a show-closer for Swift, and you’d think it’d be even more so now that it’s being updated to feature Cabello and Charli. But it feels a little bit like Beyoncé reuniting Destiny’s Child at the Super Bowl or Coachella: You can’t imagine the grouping being anything other than a climax until the star simply moves onto the next solo surprise.
Taylor Swift is a sexual being.
That probably goes without saying. But between “I Did Something Bad” early in the show and “Dress” much later on, this might be the first Swift tour to gently warrant a PG-13 rating. Oddly, with “Dress,” Swift is the rare performer who can make herself sexier by adding a layer of clothing — in this case, putting on a sheer black gown over a one-piece that had seemed more innocent before the sensual addition. But there are other moments where like the goofy, guileless, unguarded teen of ten years ago seems to suddenly reappear.
Mash-ups, medleys and interesting segues rule.
Swift performed 24 songs in the set, but not all of those were played in their entirety. When she did bunch songs together, though, it wasn’t necessarily just to hasten things; there was usually a compelling musical or lyrical reason behind the groupings. “Bad Blood” was mashed up with a song so old it didn’t seem likely she’d perform it again, “Should’ve Said No,” and they obviously had their anger in common. For her solo piano segment, she combined two of her sweetest album closers, “Long Live” and “New Year’s Day,” finding salvation in the love of the crowd and a romance. Meanwhile, in Variety’s own review of “Reputation,” we pointed out that “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” sounds a little like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” — and apparently she agrees, because a medley of those two bratty sing-alongs closed the show.
Don’t expect a reprise of the “1989” tour.
Swift doesn’t like to remotely do the same tour twice, so it’s not really a surprise — except to the extent that it was such a huge album — that she only sings four songs or parts of songs from “1989.” Tuesday’s show also included six pre-“1989” tunes, again, most of those also medley-ized in some way. That left a lot of room in the show for a whopping 14 out of the 15 tracks from this past fall’s “Reputation.” It’s a good enough album to deserves all that real estate.
“Reputation” is so electronic that it was nice to hear one song, “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” get the acoustic treatment.
“A lot of times people in the music industry would tell me what you wanted,” she told the crowd. “A few times it would be things … ‘You can’t make a pop album because your fans are country fans. They’d never understand that. They’d be confused.’ And I’d say to them, ‘I’m pretty sure that I know them better than you do. I’m pretty sure that they want to connect with a feeling in the songs. They don’t care if…’” The roar at that point drowned her out. “I still write songs the exact same way…. So each song can kind of be broken down to acoustic even if it isn’t like that on the album.”
She’s still feeling the after-effects of Kanye-gate.
“I think something good that came out of it was that I learned a really important lesson that I’ve been telling you from the stage for about 10 years but I never had to learn so harshly myself,” she said in another lengthy rap. “You shouldn’t care so much if you feel misunderstood so much by a lot of people who don’t know you as long as you feel understood by the people who do know you… So thank you for taking the time to get to know me, for sticking up for me. and for seeing me as a human being.” Meanwhile, it’s interesting that the set ends not on a placid note but with the recent album’s big F-you to West, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which is kind of a punk-rock way to close the show.
There will be drenching. Again.
Swift used to close some of her early arena shows by standing in a downpour. She’s getting back to her roots in some ways, then, because this one ends with an on-stage fountain.
For a complete review of the Swift tour opener, see next week’s print issue of Variety.
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