It’s hard to dispute Taylor Swift’s power in the musical world right now. Riding high from all the conquering eighties throwback of fifth album 1989, which cemented her transition from deeply personal country pop with a girl-next-door charm to stadium-filling bubblegum electronica, she forced a u-turn from Apple Music over royalties in recent weeks, lifting her even further in the adoring eyes of her legions of fans (known as Swifties) and earning the respect of her peers and savvy financial types. Her recent singles are running amok across the Bilboard 100 in the US; last time such dominance was seen was when a denim clad Bruce Springsteen was churning out hit after hit thirty years ago.
|Taylor Swift, at British Summer Time 2015|
Her headlining show (part of the British Summer Time festival, and continuously referred to as a party in Hyde Park, London by the star) is the conclusion of a brief sojourn into Europe, where until three years ago, she had made nary a dent, in sharp contrast to her already large audience in her native homeland. Fourth album Red changed all that, and Swift’s meteoric ascent in the last three years, particularly across the rest of the world, is cemented here to a 65,000 sell-out crowd that only previous night’s headliners The Who have matched this summer. The atmosphere, under a sweltering summer’s day in the capital, is set to party, with masses of revellers (mostly teenage and female in large groups or accompanied by parents) crammed in, clutching homemade signs proclaiming their love for the Nashville singer, wearing custom t-shirts, and all on the verge of hyper-ventilating or crying or both. And she’s not even on stage yet.
She appears shortly after eight, following Fine Young Cannibals’ She Drives Me Crazy over the PA, to the OMD-indebted synth stabs of album opener Welcome to New York, surrounded by dancers, onto a set that draws heavy influence from Singing in the Rain, with lampposts suspended from the ceilings, to delirious screams. What follows is one hundred and thirty five minutes of solid entertainment, sometimes brilliant, not entirely original and on occasions, tiresomely nauseating and disappointing. It’s a contradictory show that suggests Swift may still not be fully sold on what she wants live performances to be.
Never being one for the charts, I discovered Swift through a series of collaborations with British rockers Def Leppard on the Crossroads programme in America (and their version together of Love Story is worth a listen if you’ve got a spare few minutes, ably reminding you that Leppard were purveyors of some fine cheese metal ballads in their heyday). Swift is well respected for her musical talent and her artistry in songwriting as well as performance – so to see her prancing down the catwalk to minimalistic electro-hit Blank Space and deferring vocal duties on multiple occasions to the backing track is both confusing and annoying: the former due to the fact that she’s going through no real dance moves of her own at that moment, the latter because when she does sing, she has a fine powerful voice that is by turns playful, arresting and emotional. It isn’t the first time and nor will it be the last that Swift defers to the recorded vocal, and it’s a shame – her elevation to pop mainstream has seen her cram the typical live show elements of elaborate staging, extensive dance and multiple costume changes to extreme levels. Thank God that she has the songs, or Hyde Park would have simply been witnessing an extended hi-tech fashion parade of old musical costumes amidst a spot of half-naked male dancing
And what songs. 1989 was one of the stronger mainstream hits of 2014, and backing track or not, there are very few dud tracks on it. Aptly named The 1989 World Tour, Swift drops its hits, its album tracks and its deluxe version numbers one after the other – over three-quarters of the set is drawn from it, but the crowd greets every track like an old friend, with mass adoration, hand waving and tears. How You Get the Girl and All You Had To Do Was Stay signal sing-alongs – her dancers move doors around the stage and down the long walkway that juts out into the middle of the crowd for escape song I Know Places. The staging itself is elaborate, verging between the musical-inspired – newest hit Bad Blood is accompanied by a West Side Story-esque wire frame and glass set up – and the ridiculous – Swift produces a piano that she’s knowingly aware of looking like some bastardised Star Wars craft and a figment of Matt Bellamy’s feverish dreams at one point. Her band is well tuned and fairly tight – they play the songs and they play them well, though there is, surprisingly for such a well-oiled machine, the odd flubbed intro and missed cue. Swift doesn’t chastise or get moody though – she simply gives a wry roll of the eye and flashes a disarmingly charming smile. She’s not a perfectionist, and that’s a quality that can serve well in the live music quarter.
|Taylor Swift, at British Summer Time 2015|
Songs don’t necessarily stay the same either – a slow, sleazy electro-stomp through I Knew You Were Trouble is accompanied by gyrating men with bulging biceps, exuding an inherent, almost commercialised sexualisation of camp that Freddie Mercury would be proud of but seems almost tame in comparison to other big pop shows . And therein lies another weakness – there are no game-changing elements to this performance that sets it apart from the rest. The half-naked male dancer is pop show cliché. So is musical-inspired elaborate staging. So is routines requiring a backing track. Swift borrows all, and then some, without much variation upon it. A spectacle it is, but Rihanna and Beyonce have been here before, for years too (Lady Gaga too, although her stripped down approach with Tony Bennett is winning plaudits). The redeeming grace note is that Swift, more often than not, appears to be entirely aware of the implausibility of it all and subverts it on occasion – but more often than not, it goes over the crowd’s head and its down to her personal charms to sway the rest.
At one point, she takes to the walkway (which elevates and spins round slowly over the screaming fans) and here again, it’s a show of two halves. No longer dancing, she delivers backing-less, superb vocals and shows off her musical skills, with an acoustic You Are in Love (complete with crowd chant) and keyboard-heavy makeover over of original hit Love Story strong points of the night. The true highlight of this little section is a gorgeous, somewhat emotionally desperate take on album closer Clean, a genuinely-affecting ballad that is accompanied by visuals of a woman turning into petals and water. It is starkly affecting and creates a real sense of emotion to the performance.
But it is preceded and followed by Swift’s monologues and musings on life. Most artists do this, whatever the show, but they usually keep it fairly short and snappy and appeal to the fans. Instead, the crowd is treated to four different sermons, coming in at a combined thirty five minutes. Whilst one – about being your own worst critic, and struggles with depression – is brimming with a genuine emotion, the rest ring somewhat hollow. Swift meanders on her love life and her musical success, but it feels far too scripted to be arresting. Her crowd lap it up – Swift is one of the leading lights of fan interaction, forming genuine friendships that she appears to treasure as much as the young women she connects with online over social media – but you get the distinct impression that she could read a grocery list and they would react the same way, or the receipt from a shop at B&Q.
Another gripe is the video inserts that accompany the changing of staging. Against a stark white background, celebrity pals such as Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham and the Haim sisters pay tribute to Swift. Whilst some testimony is amusingly candid (Dunham and model Cara Delevigne have a knowing awareness to what these inserts are), they are most likely meant to humanise Swift and broaden her appeal further – instead, they come off as self-congratulatory and a little sickening. Swift has never been one to flaunt her own ego excessively in the way of other pop stars, but by publishing these plaudits from other A-listers, she feels somewhat complicit to boosting it. It is underpinned by the hit Style too – famous friends, including tennis player Serena Williams and the aforementioned Delevigne walk the runway, the latter waiving a Union Jack, and it all feels a little too much like a taunting boast. Perhaps a montage of the common people, her fans from the crowd passing testimony, might have helped create a better connection – or perhaps not even at all. Swift is still at heart in possession of the cherub-like girl-next-door charm she traded on when younger, and at times it positively radiates and dazzles, but too often she feels like she is undermining her own generous warmth and showmanship with this.
|Taylor Swift and friends, at British Summer Time 2015|
Bad Blood is followed by a crashing hard-rock take on international breakthrough We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together that easily stakes a claim to the highlight of the show. Dirty riffs, played by Swift on an electric guitar, matched with an angered edgy vocal, it again gives a chance to showcase her vocal and musical skills – but the background visual is indebted to the video for The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and the smack of nothing truly new in its staging rings out again. A piano led mash-up of Enchanted and Wildest Dreams leads in the finale, a frantic, tingling take on Out of the Woods, possibly 1989’s strongest track, and lead-single party starter Shake It Off, during which Swift and her troupe of dancers return to dance (harnessed, thanks to Health and Safety restrictions) along the raised walkway again. It triggers a previously-unfelt release of tension in the crowd and leads to much dancing, the giant screens either side of the stage showing the beaming expressions of fans as the camera passes over them. The vocal for Woods again pulls on the heartstrings and there’s backing again for the final number, but the crowd obviously don’t car – there is euphoria and delirium as she makes her final exit and the lights go down. Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire starts pouring out of the PA as the fans slowly disperse, teenage girls yammering excitedly to one another. Swift certainly has put on an impressive visual spectacle tonight and her fans will be well-sated – but less backing, less pedestal raising, less talking and more originality could have helped elevate it to a consistent greatness befitting her charm and musicianship.