A Bad Reputation: Taylor Swift at Wembley Stadium

I imagine that at some point during the design meetings for Taylor Swift’s reputation world tour someone tentatively suggested that a 110-foot stage with a video wall that extends to cover the whole stage floor; two B-stages, each the size of the main stage on the 1989 tour; fireworks in several locations; seven different microphones; elaborate set-pieces, including a tilted stage and a light-up gold cage which carries Swift across the stadium mid-show; and literal balls of fire shooting above the stage at regular intervals … might be a bit much. I also imagine that Swift immediately fired that person, and bought two more giant inflatable snakes, because fuck you, the old Taylor is dead.

Every inch of the reputation tour has been meticulously crafted: the last two songs which play before the start of the show are Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” and Joan Jett and the Blackheart’s “Bad Reputation”; the confetti is actually tiny newspaper pages printed with “TAYLOR SWIFT”, a nod to the reputation album cover; every audience member is presented with “a gift from Taylor” on arrival – a plastic bracelet which lights up different colours in time with the music (God forbid anyone ruin Taylor’s Instagram by bringing their own glow sticks that contradict the carefully crafted tour aesthetic – they are forbidden, unless you want to spend $5 on the Official Reputation “Light Stick”). Everything that happens in the stadium happens because Swift wants it to.

Before the start of the show proper, the video screen behind the stage plays a series of clips. We see footage of meet-and-greets (the notorious “Secret Sessions”, for which Swift handpicks fans based on their social media presence and invites them to one of her many homes to party with her and hear the album before its release); fan reactions to the notorious “Look What You Made Me Do” music video; and behind-the-scenes glimpses of tour planning. These videos are a very clever, very strategic way to begin the show: the central figure in all of them, of course, is Swift herself. This is unsurprising – it is her concert, after all – but these clips position her in a very specific role, which extends beyond the boundaries of the concert to make a claim about the way Swift conducts her life these days. To be precise, they position her in two roles – one that she continues to claim, and one that she purports to eschew: the Artist Who Loves Her Fans, and the Micromanaging Control Freak, respectively.

In all the behind the scenes footage, Swift is 100% in control. We see her very clearly articulating exactly what she wants, and then getting it. She chooses which characters will fight in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video; she picks out costumes; she arranges her dancers and singers around her like they’re puppets and she’s the puppet-master. Whether intentional or not (and I don’t believe anything she does is unintentional – certainly not these days), this part of the concert clearly articulates that Taylor Swift knows what she’s doing, and is doing it alone (or at least is solely in charge of directing her minions). These two narratives go hand in hand: Taylor, as she introduces herself in the Secret Sessions videos, has meticulously planned everything for you guys, for the fans; she does it because she cares, because she wants her fans to have the time of their lives. She has always positioned herself, first and foremost, as an artist who loves her fans, who makes time to meet and get to know them, who shares her life with them and surprises them at weddings and always, always, remembers to thank them in her awards speeches. Some critics have argued that this is insincere, that she’s just savvy enough to know that if she curates a strong enough fan base they’ll single-handedly keep her career alive – and they have.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll already know something about the controversy that has dogged Swift for the past 6 or so years of her super-stardom (if not, we’ve curated a handy Controversy Appendix for you). reputation the album is an attempt not to address that controversy, but to move past it; not to be “excluded from this narrative”, but to craft a new one entirely. The first single, “Look What You Made Me Do”, was a superb double bluff – initially seeming like a poor attempt at a diss track, it revealed itself to be a much more complex, tongue-in-cheek potted history of Swift’s career, which heralds in a new era. By rapidly re- and de-constructing an army of her past selves in the music video, and then dramatically declaring that “The Old Taylor […] is dead”, Swift takes a shot at everyone who ever criticised her for appearing false, as well as the whole of contemporary celebrity culture, while looking fabulous.

Clearly, the old Taylor is not dead; no-one but the old Taylor would care enough to do all this. She is alive, and (literally) kicking, trying to wrest narrative control back from the likes of Kimye – and succeeding. By releasing a lead single which is, let’s face it, actually pretty bad, Swift gave all her critics the opportunity to dismiss her once and for all as a failure; to laugh at her pathetic attempt at a diss track, and then move on with their lives, leaving the rest of the album alone. And, hidden behind the facade of “Look What You Made Me Do”, reputation is not an album about revenge; it’s not even about her reputation, except for a few satirical references. Predominantly, it’s a record about love, and healing (and sex. There’s quite a lot of sex). This, then, is the setting for the reputation tour – a paradoxical refutation of the importance of reputation, and a foregrounding of it. The tour, like the album, blends intimacy with extravagance, love with pure, blazing spite.

The whole show is overblown, magnified, turned up to 100. There are the video screens on the floor which, incidentally, the support acts (Charlie XCX and Camila Cabello) don’t seem to have access to – during their sets, only the back wall of the stage is used, and as soon as they disappear, the floor lights back up, covered in Swift posters; the pyrotechnics; the acrobatic dancers; the set-pieces. There is gold everywhere – on microphones, on the props, in the costumes – and a general atmosphere of ridiculous luxury, which is consistently undercut by Swift’s lyrics. The whole point of reputation is that things are not as they appear: Swift might seem like a mind-bendingly rich pop star, she argues, but really she’s just like you and me; she brings out all these signifiers of over-indulgent wealth only to proclaim that “The taste of your lips is my idea / Of luxury” (“King of My Heart”). “End Game”, her collaboration with Future and Ed Sheeran (of which only Swift’s parts are included in the setlist; she doesn’t bother to adapt the other two frankly lacklustre verses), participates in this same duality: the song itself is a sarcastic nod to the public view of Swift, oozing fake swagger which the fans know better than to take seriously (“Big reputation, big reputation […] I got some big enemies”), and the costumes and set-pieces further contribute to this sardonic impression.

Although these melodramatic performances make the tour deeply fun, allowing the audience (and presumably Swift herself) to enjoy themselves inhabiting a role which isn’t theirs (after all, doing something bad is so much more satisfying when you normally only do good things), Swift made her name as a relatable girl-next-door songwriter with a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter in three minutes. As a result, it’s the quiet moments in the concert that really stand out; a mash-up of “Long Live” and “New Year’s Day”, which got a two-minute standing ovation at the first Wembley show; “Delicate”, sung as Swift flies over the crowd in a glittering gold cage; the B-stage songs, particularly “Dress”. This song is performed by Swift alone, although the dancers are still present, performing elaborate choreography with swathes of white material to contrast with Swift’s black dress. This song is where the wristbands come into their own: in your average concert, there’s no way to guarantee that the audience will play along with what you want, especially when stopping the music – usually taken as an opportunity for the fans to start screaming. But, by giving everyone a wristband that obeys her cues, Swift successfully keeps control, and when she reaches the climax of the song – “say my name and everything just stops” – the music cuts out, the lights drop, and for a moment Wembley stadium goes completely dark.

The majority of the setlist comes from the new album, but a few old tracks are worked in. “Blank Space”, the satirical track which poked fun at her boy-crazy image back in 2014 and which is an unequivocal predecessor to the drama of reputation itself, makes an appearance, as does “Shake It Off” (another track from 2014’s 1989, about the need to rise above the drama, for which Swift is joined by tourmates Camila Cabello and Charlie XCX). It’s a Swiftian tradition to have a B-stage, giving the more acoustic tracks an intimate feel by moving them away from the lights of the main stage; it’s also a tradition to leave a gap in the setlist for a different surprise song every night, a dip into the Swiftian oeuvre, a chance for fans to hear songs they’ve maybe never heard live before.

On night one of Wembley, this song was “So It Goes” – the only song from the new album not to have made the cut for the tour setlist – and on night two, it was “Fifteen”, a nostalgic letter-to-my-younger-self track from 2008’s Fearless. This was surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly) moving: the song is recursively retrospective, a trip back in time to a time when Swift was looking back in time, advising her fifteen-year-old self that “in life, you’ll do things greater than dating a boy on the football team / But I didn’t know it at fifteen.” What she didn’t know at eighteen, when she penned this song, was what would happen in the coming decade – the good and the bad – and this convergence of timelines, of different layers of retrospection, was deeply poignant.

Swift has always had a tendency towards both retro- and introspection, frequently referring back to previous lyrics or themes in new music (see discussion of “Look What You Made Me Do” above). This excavation of her own oeuvre is evident on tour, as she takes material from previous albums and reworks it for a new purpose. Other than “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” (both of which are perfectly in keeping with the message of reputation, and fit well into the concert without needing any alteration), the other old songs that appear do so in mash-ups, literally being broken down and resurrected as something new – as Swift claims to have recently experienced herself. The first mash-up takes her breakout single, “Love Story” and follows it with “You Belong With Me”, another single from the same album (2008’s Fearless) about waiting for a boy to notice you. The two songs work well together because of this shared thematic concern – in the context of reputation, though, they are too earnest and passive for the New Taylor to really get behind; what was once a romantic teenage daydream becomes a tongue-in-cheek performance against a kitsch background of lurid pink and pulsing hearts. Later in the show, she combines “Bad Blood” (from 1989) with “Should’ve Said No” (also from Fearless): two recriminatory songs addressed directly to the person who hurt her, which are accompanied by red lighting and dramatic acrobatics from the backing dancers.

The best mash-up by far is “Long Live” (from 2010’s Speak Now) and “New Year’s Day” from reputation; the former is a “love letter to the fans”, a celebration of the bond Swift purports to share with her supporters, the “band of thieves in ripped-up jeans” who take on the “cynics” of the music industry. “New Year’s Day” is a love song, and one of the strongest tracks on reputation, and the two come together well: Swift sits alone at the piano and picks out the notes, sometimes singing, sometimes giving advice and encouragement to the audience. Both songs are preoccupied with looking forward into the unknown (“Promise me this / That you’ll stand by me forever / But if God forbid fate should step in / And force us into a goodbye…” goes hand in hand with “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognise anywhere”) and holding on to what you had in the past regardless of what the future will bring (“Hold on to spinning around […] May these memories break our fall” / “Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you”). After this interlude, though, it’s back to drama: the show closes with a final passive-aggressive blowout, a combination of reputation’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and Red’s “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together”.

There’s something very freeing about failure. When you try so hard to make someone like you, to be who they want you to be, and still you fail, you’re released from that struggle. Now they hate me, I can do whatever the fuck I want and I don’t have to be sorry any more. I did something bad, it felt so good, and I’d do it over and over again; I’m not a bad girl, but I do bad things. I don’t like the role you made me play, and I’m removing myself from the narrative, even if I have to kill myself to do it. This is what reputation – the album, the tour, the era, the two 72-page magazines that you can buy if you want some insider info – is about. It’s about the freedom of removing yourself from the narrative, and crafting your own. Swift has always worked best when she’s doing her own thing – from day one, she positioned herself as an outsider, whether in high school, the music industry, or conventional celebrity culture. Her best songs are about love, and spite. That’s what she’s good at – retaliation. Way back in 2006, in “Picture to Burn”, she was already re-writing the narrative of her own life so she would come out on top: “So go tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy, / That’s fine, I’ll tell mine that you’re gay.”

Nothing has changed since in twelve years, except that now she has more money, more fame, more experience, and some thigh-high boots. She’s the same old Taylor, who has “no time for tears / [because] I’m just sitting here planning my revenge” – but now her revenge is staged on a global scale, a battle of epic proportions among the world’s most famous celebrities; and she seems to have finally learned that happiness is the best revenge. Ignoring the “cynics” and the critics, telling them “call it what you want to”, prioritising “a love that [is] really something”, Swift is back at the absolute top of her game (and it is, undeniably, her game). She still loves her parents, she still loves her fans, and her fans still adore her wholeheartedly. After this tour, she could pull a Tom Riddle and go back into hiding for ten years, and the Swifties would stay loyal; waiting for the day when their wristbands will light up once more, and the Dark Lord calls them to her side.

 

For a low-down on the major Swift drama of the twelve years, check out our handy Controversy Appendix.

 

Nicky is a cultural critic who writes about all kinds of art – from pop culture to theatre – and tweets about Taylor Swift. You can find her at http://nickyjwatkinson.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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