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Week-to-Week: The Last Great Swiftian Stadium Tour?
This is me trying to understand where Taylor Swift goes after the career-ranging Eras Tour
I’m traveling for a conference this week, which makes it a perfect time to use my editorial authority to bypass the intended purpose of this newsletter (television) to fulfill my duty as a published Taylor Swift scholar and report from my May pilgrimage to the Eras Tour. A reminder that paid subscribers are diving into our summer schedule, with Caroline Siede’s coverage of Marvel’s Secret Invasion beginning Wednesday.
I wasn’t supposed to be at the Eras Tour. I was among those who were fortunate enough to get a pre-sale code, but unfortunate enough to get blocked out by Ticketmaster’s servers until there were simply no tickets left to buy. And after striking out on the Capital One pre-sale the next day, I was more or less resigned to the idea I would be sitting this one out.
Which was fine, to be honest. Although I am a published Taylor Swift scholar, and have written extensively about her different album releases in the past, I have had the chance to see Taylor in concert twice before, and my investment in her career is really primarily framed through her construction as a pop star. My lack of emotional connection to her music makes me an aberration, and makes it easier to miss out on an experience defined in large part by the intimate ritual of gathering with other Swifties (as Amanda Petrusich wrote about last week at The New Yorker). This isn’t to imply I wouldn’t be singing along, or dancing, or offering an occasional “woo” alongside my patented finger point—it just isn’t the same kind of pilgrimage for me as it is for the bejeweled majority whose outfits I’ve seen on TikTok throughout the tour.
However, after Ticketmaster faced congressional hearings and the wrath of angry Swifties, I was among those whose past investment in Taylor’s concert infrastructure—a research-driven commitment to the Reputation Tour “boost” system and subsequent pre-sale access to the Lover Tour—earned me an unexpected reprieve. I was given the privilege of purchasing tickets as someone the system had been supposed to “boost” due to my Lover Fest tickets, with the caveat that I would be randomly assigned seats within a given price range. And aware that my chances of ever getting decent seats to one of these concerts again are slim, and unpleased with the thought of paying a still large sum for seats I didn’t like, I just chose the highest price range and let the Ticketmaster gods do their thing.
As the photos in this article suggest, this was probably the right decision, as I doubt I’ll ever see a concert from a better position than the one I had attending the third night of the Philadelphia stop on the Eras Tour. However, while I was originally fine missing out on the Eras Tour when I first failed to get tickets, seeing it first hand made me extremely glad the situation worked out as it did. Because after transforming her live show into a 3+ hour career retrospective, I’m not sure what a future Taylor Swift tour looks like.
Taylor Swift has always had a fundamentally regimented career: years before her Midnights album release included literal clockworks, her album releases were remarkably timely, falling at two-year intervals before the break ahead of Reputation’s debut. And her tours were, by and large, developed with the same surgical precision. Each time she released a new album, she delivered arena and then stadium show setlists heavily reliant on new material, playing the majority of the album she was touring at the time. While acoustic covers have always given her the ability to extend further into her back catalog, and special guests have added some flair in big cities, the central appeal in the stadium era has been seeing a massively produced ode to a particular album, with a sprinkling of her past hits.
Returning to touring following COVID, however, forced Swift to reconsider this approach given how unregimented her output became over the pandemic. She didn’t just move past Lover with another new album—as I noted would be disruptive to her pattern back in early 2020—after that limited run stadium effort was postponed and then canceled; she recorded two full albums in quarantine, and then another for a “post-COVID” world, creating four full albums of material that she’s never toured before. And just to add to the situation, she simultaneously began the process of releasing the re-recorded versions of her first six albums, meaning technically there were six distinct album cycles floating in the ether when the Eras Tour was announced in November of last year.
From the time it was announced, though, it was clear that the Eras Tour was being designed to bring order to potential chaos: her social media posts framed it as “a journey through the musical eras of my career (past & present),” consciously acknowledging that she would be confronting the task of crafting a stadium tour differently than in the past. And yet, I don’t know if any of us could have predicted that this wouldn’t just mean a “Greatest Hits” tour in a traditional sense: adding an hour to her average show length, Swift has instead crafted a show that foregrounds the four albums she’s released since reputation, giving each their moment in the sun while also performing the catalog hits that have found renewed life through Taylor’s Versions.
The result is really the apex of Taylor Swift as a touring artist, as she effortlessly weaves together the different eras of her career into one holistic statement of pop stardom. In truth, when the tour was announced, I expected there to be more of an effort to signify the changes between eras, telling more of the “story” of her career and its various moves and countermoves. But Swift’s signature as a touring artist is her command of her identity: regardless of how much her music has mined her vulnerabilities and suggested a degree of intimacy between her and her audience, when she stepped into that arena or stadium she was fully in control of the audience’s perception of her. There’s an affect to Tour Taylor that is hard not to find a little funny, her stage banter calibrated to within an inch of its life but in ways that clearly communicate her own Type A personality as opposed to a constructed identity of someone else’s making. And so it’s not shocking that the “journey” of the Eras tour is guided by a version of Taylor that operates with precision, less a rambling storyteller and more a museum curator.
The nature of the Eras Tour makes for a curatorial challenge, though, which Swift approaches in two distinct ways. When it comes to her four new albums, Swift speaks directly to her distinct ability to sell actual albums in an economy increasingly driven by singles: she may not be able to play entire records like she has on past tours, but she still understands that album tracks nonetheless resonate with her fans in ways they might not with other artists. Accordingly, the Lover section notably snubs lead single “Me!” for “Cruel Summer,” a fan-favorite track that frankly should have been the lead single (and now is becoming a single belatedly). Since Folklore and Evermore ultimately only generated one single each, those sets see Taylor weaving together a somewhat unexpected assortment of songs, embracing the disconnected storytelling voice she developed when recording them. And although Midnights’ recency doesn’t carry the same sense of reflection, and its place at the end of the show means that there’s less room for tonal variation, Swift’s choices there nonetheless offer her vision of what best reflects the album and her connection to it.
Elsewhere, however, Swift’s approach becomes more muddled. While I didn’t necessarily expect her to deliver a retelling of her career in chronological order, the choice to leave out Taylor Swift entirely was a surprise, as was performing only a single song from Speak Now. And yet her choice from that album, “Enchanted,” is one of only two album tracks she performs outside of the four newest records, with every other song from her first six albums sticking to the hit singles that concretized her claim to pop stardom beginning with Fearless and continuing through Red, 1989, and Reputation. Of those singles, only one—”22” from Red—hasn’t been a part of her touring repertoire since its debut. And while Taylor has often breathed new life into her past catalog through mashups or remixes on past tours, the performances here are more or less true to the Taylor’s Version pattern of recreating the past versus trying to reinvent it.
I understand this impulse, to be clear. With each new touring cycle, new generations of fans who were too young or uninitiated during past tours arrive anew, and expect to hear certain songs. But with Red in particular, it’s an approach that flattens her career instead of highlighting the complexity that the Taylor’s Version project has underlined. When Phoebe Bridgers joined for her leg as an opening act, the set added “Nothing New,” but before that Swift was only singing the 10-minute “All Too Well” among her plethora of “From The Vault” tracks, leaving the rest for her two acoustic “secret song” slots as the tour progresses. The Taylor’s Version project pushed her fans to dig deeper into her catalog, developing new and evolving connections with album tracks and unreleased songs, but her approach to this material is largely unchanged beyond the embrace of “All Too Well” in its chart-topping 10-minute version (which frankly had already happened on the reputation tour, with her acoustic performance of the song making it into the Netflix concert film).
And so there’s something slightly deflating about feeling the rush of adrenaline at Taylor understanding the power of the “Cruel Summer” bridge to set the tone for the night, but then reverting to a more basic view of her career when it comes to the era that produced her biggest hits. Does some of this come from the privileged position of having seen the 1989 and reputation tours, thus experiencing a sense of deja vu from these sections? Absolutely. But it’s a missed opportunity for Taylor to approach the concept of the Eras Tour as a deeper dive into what those eras represented, matching the more impressionistic—if still calculated—approach she took when developing setlists for the albums she’s never toured before.
Again, this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy these sections of the concert: there is an immense power to being in a stadium of 70,000 people singing and dancing along that doesn’t just dissolve because you sang and danced along to the same songs back in 2015 and 2018. And as my photos demonstrate, I had close to a front row seat to the spectacle, and her production values continue to evolve alongside her confidence in her identity as the world’s biggest pop star. But beyond the fact that I had hoped for deeper cuts from Red, 1989, and reputation, I also found myself left with a somewhat existential question that defined my experience: what, exactly, does this do to Taylor Swift’s future as a touring artist?
After having exploded her setlists to Springsteenian proportions, what does she do the next time she releases an album? Does she go back to what she did before, sprinkling in a collection of past singles alongside the new record? Now that she has committed to the historical record a carefully curated statement of her career as an artist, surely to be recorded and released for posterity on the streaming service of her choice, will future stadium tours still feel the same gravitational pull of the hit singles that defined those earlier eras? Is it even possible for Taylor Swift to tour without playing “Love Story?” She announced the Eras Tour as a journey into her “past and present,” but its comprehensiveness clouds her future in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I imagined a version of the tour that was similarly retrospective but not quite so exhaustive.
Does Taylor Swift ever want to tour like this again? She notably didn’t intend to do a full-scale stadium tour with Lover back in 2019, and although the lucrative nature of the Eras Tour offers a strong financial incentive, it’s not as though she needs to keep touring in order to make a living. Her social media posts throughout the tour are breathless in their joy at performing these songs live and connecting with her fans, but the aforementioned affect makes it hard to parse how much this is something she sees as a part of her next era. We saw in Miss Americana how much touring and being in the public spotlight impacted her mental health. We read the reports about how her public life led to her breakup from Joe Alwyn. Does all the self-reflection that went into re-recording her past albums and funneling them into this self-portrait really add up to “let’s keep going?”
Maybe! It’s not like Taylor Swift of all people doesn’t have the capacity to do whatever she desires, and sell it as a calculated and carefully considered part of who she is. The speed and efficiency at which she spun the controversy around Matty Healy into “Karma f. Ice Spice” should show you that she is able to sell any version of herself and her life she desires. But as I spent an hour trying to get out of the parking lot and five hours driving back from Philadelphia since she for some reason skipped D.C., I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Eras Tour was the end of an era, and the next time Taylor Swift releases new material she may be thinking about her place in the world differently after having enshrined her previous conception of self with such aplomb.
For the sake of transparency, these were $449 seats, almost precisely $500 each once fees were taken into account. Once I get an accountant, I’ll have to ask them if this newsletter means I can claim them as a business expense.
While I’m not going to begrudge Taylor singing a song about her relationship with her mother—”The Best Day”—on Mother’s Day, I will say that getting two Fearless songs during the acoustic section when I am a post-Red Taylor convert was something of a personal attack, even if I generally do like “Hey Stephen.” But I got “State of Grace” for the reputation tour, so I suppose I was due for a disappointment.
After there was so much discourse about how Evermore was the forgotten album of her recent eras, compared to folklore’s awards run and Disney+ documentary, I think everyone was surprised to see it largely get even standing with Lover, with “Champagne Problems” getting the night’s big piano ballad moment. (For the record, “Right Where You Left Me” was at the top of my secret song wishlist).
I was wondering how much impact the TikTokification of the music industry would impact how she navigated the setlist, and I certainly feel like “Enchanted” being so prominently featured is a byproduct of its viral success. Was that viral success enough for my single most inspired TikTok to be properly respected by the SwiftTok algorithm? It was not. Still mad, tbh.
As noted, Midnights being last sort of traps her in a distinct vibe away from ballads, but I couldn’t help but imagine how an actual tour for the album would’ve given the bridge of “You’re On Your Own, Kid” its moment of catharsis. Jealous of whichever tour stop gets it as a secret song.
In terms of opening acts, Philly had Gracie Abrams and the distinct textually rich experience of Phoebe Bridgers with Matty Healy on guitar. It was definitely interesting to see how Swift’s “girl power” narrative—although not really explicitly embraced to the same degree as on the reputation tour—nonetheless extends to her all-female opener lineup. Bridgers’ set was great, and embraced well by the crowd, although obviously not with the same fervor as what came later in the evening.
The last stadium tour I went to was Lady Gaga’s Chromatica Ball, which reinforced how singular Swift’s tours are: whereas it felt like every person in that stadium was in sync with Swift’s newer material, the album tracks Gaga played from Chromatica got tepid responses from much of the lower deck crowd around me. When not a single person popped for the transition from “Chromatica II” into “911?” The disrespect was palpable.