An entire universe of pop-culture observers has expected Taylor Swift to be perfect for a while now, and that makes complete sense. The 28-year-old’s eight-year, record-breaking, record industry-changing run from her self-titled 2006 country-music debut to 2014’s pop-music gem 1989 has felt flawless at nearly every turn. Her current tour sold almost 398,000 tickets in its first five venues and boasted sales of $54 million (the entire run could potentially top the $400 million mark, according to Billboard).
But here’s an obvious truth: Swift has never been completely flawless. On Tuesday night in Tampa — in front of what felt like a sold-out Raymond James Stadium — some of Swift’s shortcomings were obvious. For starters, she sweats.
[Editor's note: it has come to our attention that this bit of humor equating Taylor sweating to her to not being flawless is not so easy to interpret for some, so here's a little clarity: it's a joke.]
The first signs of perspiration emerged after she shimmied and shook through the pyro-laden spectacle of “I Did Something Bad,” and by the time Swift took a breather before a solo acoustic take on “Invisible” the droplets on her forehead had almost developed into a minor case of diaphoresis.
“I keep thinking that it’s raindrops, but it’s just... sweat,” Swift divulged, matter-of-factly, to about 60,000 of her closest friends. “So that’s an overshare for you.”
Swift — whose bangs were also ruined when she got to an 808-and-oversized-drum-driven take on “King Of My Heart” — would be drenched in the wet stuff by the time set-closer “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” rolled around, but she let the 23-song, two-hour show tell the rest of the story of what’s happened between her last Tampa visit (a 2015 Halloween spectacular) and Tuesday night’s show in support of her 2017 skin-shedding album reputation.
To get non-Swifties up to speed, 2016 saw some drama unfold when Kim Kardashian-West questionably released a small portion of a phone call between Swift and Kanye West who called the pop-singer to discuss the lyrics to his song, “Famous,” in which he says some unsavory things about Swift. You can get get fully caught up, depending on your tolerance for internet drama and hashtag warfare, via Cosmopolitan — because where the fuck else would you read that kind of bullshit?.
The shade was a shame, and in a way it was a stain on what was until then a relatively spotless existence for Swift. The difficult time, however, resulted in a new album that was more unveiled than anything Swift had released before.
“We are not the opinion of people who don’t know us or care about you,” she told Raymond James Stadium during that 2015 tour stop. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for yourself, according to reputation.
The album found Swift working with familiar names (Jack Antonoff, Swedish pop hitmakers Max Martin and Johan Schuster) who appeared in the credits for 1989, but most of reputation’s 15 tracks are darker, moodier, more sexual and, well, even cooler than anything Swift had done before. Not easy to digest on first listen, repeated spins of reputation allow the listener to almost feel the betrayal and hurt that accumulates during a decade in the public eye. At times the recording is overwhelming. Played out live on a main stage that is 110 feet tall (plus two B-stages towards the center of the field), reputation is a behemoth thanks in no small part to catwalks that are extensions of the larger-than-IMAX video screens, giant inflatable snakes that rise and fall on all three stages, fireworks, pyro and an army of dancers that at times appeared right out of Game of Thrones. The live camera angles and cinematography of video vignettes made the stadium show feel like a real-life concert documentary.
While detailed examinations of the spectacle that is the reputation tour are prime examples of expert-level pop-fandom, no amount of internet research can prepare fans for the feels that accompany grandiose, blood-red set opener “...Ready For It?” or the anthemic power of a pastel-pink medley of “Style,” “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” Backup singers sounded like a choir on the ground-shaking “Don’t Blame Me.” Another medley — “Bad Blood” and “Should’ve Said No,” for which the arena looked like the inside of a red-and-white disco ball — was masterful in the way it worked banjo plinks from Swift’s self-titled debut into the big beats of the 1989 highlight (credit musical director David Cook, who clearly meshes well with the direction Swift has laid out). A mid-set, candy-colored take on 2015 set-closer “Shake It Off” was accented by the opulent innocence of watching openers Camila Cabello and Charli XCX join Swift’s troupe on the B-stage, but the night’s heroine was less of a circus ringmaster and best when she batted her eyes, vogued and popped while playing the role of confident commander on songs like “Blank Space” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Swift’s evolution as a person and artist (or abandonment of the cumulative “reputation” she brought to this tour) was evident, and nearly tangible, during the show. In the past, Swift has been criticized for not doing enough as far as social justice goes, but the critiques seem to come from an online chorus of complainers who expect the world of entertainment’s pillars of pop excellence right here, right now and immediately. Swift has recently supported the student-led gun reform movement March for Our Lives. On Tuesday, before “Invisible,” she shared the story of a fan who told her that he listened to that song in the days before he finally came out.
“It honors me to ever have any part in that journey for anyone,” Swift told a crowd of all-ages. “He asked me to play this song because when he was a teenager going through that, living his life in a different part of the country, I was a teenager who wrote this song for my first album.”
Critics who would brush Swift off as disingenuous or calculating should’ve been in the crowd to watch her become visibly emotional in the moments leading up to a solo piano medley of “Long Live” and “New Year’s Day,” where she explained that the Tampa show fell on the one-year anniversary of the day she emerged victorious after a lawsuit against former radio host David Mueller.
“On this exact date a year ago, I was not playing a sold-out stadium in Tampa. I was in a courtroom in Denver, Colorado. And, honestly, I was there for a sexual assault case,” she said as she explained that a verdict in her favor signaled that the jury believed her and not him. “I guess I just think about all the people who weren’t believed, and the people who haven’t been believed and the people who are afraid to speak up because they think that they won’t be believed. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry to anyone that was not believed because I don’t know what kind of a turn my life would’ve taken if people would not have believed me when I said what happened to me.”
Fans spill their hearts out to Swift online and in meet-and-greets before and after the shows. In a way, Swift sets herself up to carry the burdens of followers who have fallen in love with her music and astonishingly approachable persona. She has a gift that truly allows her to reach into the hearts of fans in the upper deck just by saying that she sees them.
“Stadiums are very, very big places to play, but you have light up bracelets on your wrists. If you’re in the top deck, last row — I can see you,” she said. “You look great. I can see when you’re dancing, I can see when you’re singing, I can see when you’re moving, and it’s the nicest feeling, feeling connected to you guys.”
Sure, there is a certain level of privilege that comes with growing up Taylor Swift. It’s a gift to have supportive parents. Being believed in a sexual assault case is still not the case for countless women across the country. But Swift works incredibly hard, has not taken her fortune lightly, and does not take her fanbase for granted, either (who else at her level is crazy enough to literally let fans into her home?).
“This is my 21st show in Tampa — that’s tour speak for ‘I really like you guys.’” she said before a strong take on “Gorgeous.” That adoration shows, and it likely does on every show of this North American tour, which runs through October 6 before heading to Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Every cue was executed to a T, which a testament to countless hours of practice and dedication to the vision Swift and her team have laid out (by contrast, I once frustratingly watched Kanye — a different artist altogether — stumble through a grossly undersold Amalie Arena in November of 2013).
And for as big as the show was, it still felt like the next one could grow even bigger and better. There’s no doubt that many of those candid conversations she has with fans, and growing up in general, will have an effect on the way Swift empathizes will people. She’s promised a new album in before she turns 30, and there’s no telling where this creative shift towards addressing even deeper, more complex feelings will lead. Swift’s current success seems to blind people to the idea that she likely has a long and winding career ahead of her. She addressed that, in a roundabout way, while talking about her sexual assault case on stage.
“So I guess that I just wanted to say that we have so, so much further to go,” she said when addressing the way women are treated in the world, “and I am so grateful to you guys for being there for me.”
There’s still a lot more to come from Swift, and as some of her youngest fans were carried out of the stadium in their fathers’ arms after the show, you couldn’t help but feel happy for anyone who gets to stay on this journey with the songwriter. Swift is not flawless. She has never been and may never be be perfect. But she does approach her art fearlessly, and there’s no doubt that we’ll be watching her re-define her reputation for years and years to come.
Look at more photos from the show — and listen to a playlist of songs from the set here.
...Ready for It?
I Did Something Bad
Style > Love Story > You Belong With Me (medley)
Look What You Made Me Do
King Of My Heart
Shake It Off
Dancing With Our Hands Tied (acoustic)
Bad Blood > Should’ve Said No (medley)
Don’t Blame Me
Long Live > New Year’s Day (medley, solo piano)
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together > This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (medley)