Taylor Swift looked down from her partially-elevated stage. Moments before, her planned stunt — to have a portion of the catwalk rise up into the air of Washington, D.C.'s Nationals Park in what she called her “helicopter thingy” — had fallen short.
She was already shaken up. During a quick costume adjustment, the man who hopped up on the stage to hook her acoustic guitar had done something wrong, and she couldn’t hear the guitar in her earpieces. And now the “helicopter thingy” was broken.
As her ascent into the sky began, the lift stalled. There was a kind of jerking motion, and then it stopped moving. She'd risen enough that the camera, which hung from the ceiling in the kind of suspension that’s often used to show quarterbacks lining up for the hike, lost her face in that moment, but then it caught her face.
She was angry.
“Is it broken? Is it broken?” she asked off to the side, her mic barely picking up what she was saying before someone in the sound booth had the good sense to shut it off.
It was broken.
Taylor Swift was a couple dozen feet up in the air in front of 45,000 fans, and she was furious. As much training and coaching as Swift has been through, she’s never been great at hiding her emotions; her surprised faces, and little smirks are always caught on camera. And here on her first of two nights in D.C. in front of sold out crowds, her emotions displayed on two three-story tall displays on either side of the stage, there was a flicker of rage in her eyes.
For the first eight songs of the night, Taylor had been flawless. The teens around me screamed with ecstatic joy over every bit of friend and love advice she doled out (and there were many), and questioned: "How could she be so gorgeous?”
Since the Red tour, Taylor had made a conscious decision to upgrade her wardrobe. She wore sparkly crop tops, sparkly blazers, and a skirt filled with tube lights. On the lift in the center of the stadium, she wore a white crop top with jewels around the neckline and high-waisted shorts.
The crowd was pumped. In typical Taylor fashion, she had just brought out a “special guest” to play with her, Lorde. The big-haired teen was decked out in a flare-legged black jumpsuit with rhinestones around the collar. She performed her hit song “Royals,” and the two walked back down the catwalk with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. It was a beautiful depiction of female friendship. Taylor laughed as Lorde neared their parting point at midstage; it was the last time she looked truly happy.
Pop music is a superficial business. It has been for decades. Bill Haley — who sang “Rock Around the Clock,” one of the first rock songs to hit the pop charts—never became a huge name because he was a bit pudgy and a bit balding. In his place came Elvis, a young spry man with the dance moves of a twister and the vocals to match. He was more attractive, and easier to sell. That, ultimately, is what matters in popular music, because it is how popular music is defined. If you sell, you’re pop. If you don’t, you’re not.
Taylor Swift sells. She sold 1.287 million copies of her newest album 1989 in a single week. That made this one of only 19 different albums to sell a million albums in a week since 1991. She alone has three of them. There’s almost no one in American music today more popular than Taylor Swift. Her worldwide tour for this album sold out in seconds. In Washington D.C., a city she has played 6 different times, she had to add a second night for the first time. It, too, sold out. 90,000 people shelled out cash to see her perform this album in this stadium on this night. And she knew it.
From an only-slightly elevated position she admitted with a smirk. “Maybe you didn’t pay money to watch me spin around in a helicopter thingy,” she said, “maybe you came here to hear some songs.”
Taylor is well-known for two things on tour: Bringing out magical surprise guests, and monologues. A Taylor Swift concert is part sing-along, part dance party, and part slumber party confessional.
The memorable monologue for this tour was supposed to come before Taylor performed “Clean,” a deep cut from 1989 about learning to be okay with yourself. The monologue before this song was epic. It was supposed to be about learning to love yourself, about looking in the mirror and trying to believe that you don’t have to be as good as someone else’s Facebook feed photos make them look. I know this because I watched the video of Taylor giving this monologue in Manchester a few weeks ago, and it is a beautiful speech. The hair raised on my arms while I watched.
But last night, in the Nationals Park, the speech was different. Taylor was trying to dispense the "love yourself" advice to the thousands of teens in her audience, but her mind was elsewhere. It was like listening to a person whose eyes are on her phone while she's talking. She stumbled over her words.
Midway through, she broke it off. “I’m hearing in my ear that I may be stuck up here forever,” she laughed, and then, in an attempt to recover: “I guess I’ll just be stuck with all of you in Washington D.C. forever.”
The crowd screamed.
Here was America’s reigning pop princess, stuck on a stupid lift, shaken up, and steaming about it.
The spell was broken.
Pop concerts usually cast a spell. A trance-like state that one enters where everyone wears the same wristband that is magically synchronized to blink different colors depending on the song and the beat. How does it happen? You don’t know! You don’t care! It just works, and you love it. Pop concerts are a place where stars rise from beneath the stage. Fireworks go off. Confetti shoots out of canons. A star stands under a spotlight and tells you that you’re her friend and you believe her.
Pop music is a constructed art form. Sure, someone has to sing the song, and sure those songs can change people’s lives and make them feel things, but it’s an art form based on its ability to sell, and to hide that beneath a veneer of shiny, sparkly, bubblegum pink. Think, for example, about how a pop song is made. It takes an army to build a pop song. A producer lays down some beats. A songwriter finds a hook for them. A demo is recorded and sent out to an artist for approval. She chooses to perform the song. The rest of the lyrics are written. Then the pop star goes to the studio to re-record the vocals. It has to be mixed, packaged, marketed, publicized, and sold.
Pop music isn’t Beyoncé looking at Jay-Z in the kitchen and thinking “Damn, you got me crazy in love,” and then hightailing it to the studio to record a hook for one of the best songs of the decade. It's all an elaborate construction project.
This, of course, is one of the great criticisms of pop music — that it is so perfectly constructed that it must not, cannot be art. But there certainly is an art to writing a good pop song, and an art to giving the people what they want. That’s where pop music comes from ultimately.
What we love about pop music is that it’s upbeat. It’s fun and shiny and perfect. Madonna dropped into a world of rock and roll and hair metal and just took over. Britney Spears emerged into a music market that had previously supported Hole and Garbage and Sleater-Kinney, and replaced all that rage with sweet, sweet bubblegum pop. Of course it was a lie. Of course she wasn’t really that happy. Of course her life wasn’t perfect. But quiet down, I’m trying to listen to the radio because it makes me feel like summer with the windows down and everything being right in the world.
A pop show is a fantasy. Before Taylor's show, a video played in which Taylor Swift was being interviewed and asked if she could see any concert in the 1980s, whose would she want to see. Unsurprisingly, she said Madonna. “People remember which Madonna tour they went to,” Swift says in the video, ”they say like “I went to the Blonde Ambition tour…”
Behind me a teen said to her friend, “That’s exactly what this is like. I’m going to be like 'I was at 1989’ and people will be so jealous.”
The teen was right. Taylor Swift has the star power of Madonna, and casts a spell in her shows. Come to my concert, she seems to say, and I will speak truth about boys to you. I will show you videos of my friends, and bring out a magical guest. I, Taylor Swift, will let you into my world and show you just how grand it is… for just one single night.
The veneer on top of popular music is what makes it so appealing, but we want to pretend it doesn’t exist. Like a pair of Spanx under a dress — we don't want to think about the underpinning, we just want to bask in the glory that it creates.
Part of the reason Taylor Swift is such an incredible, powerful star is that she has a very, very thick veneer. Her internet presence is unbelievably curated. In paparazzi photos, she's never up to any trouble — just dressed to the nines. When she posts casual photos of herself they are always a way to enter her life as a perfect, gleaming presentation of fame. She never curses on camera. She's never seen holding a glass of alcohol. When she sings about sex, it's never explicit — just sweet and coy. She is poised. She is self-deprecating. She is fun. She is the best friend we all wish we had.
Taylor Swift's veneer is so thick — all of her chirpy little anecdotes and surprised faces — that she makes you believe she doesn’t have a veneer at all! That Disney was right and princesses are real and Taylor Swift is a living, breathing one.
But that's also what makes it difficult for her to be a pop star.
Last night, in front of tens of thousands of people in Washington D.C., Taylor Swift's veneer cracked just a little bit. She was angry. Her concert — which is perfectly choreographed, built, and scripted — wasn't going as planned. She was stuck.
“Can I get my keyboard up here?” she asked, a little too brusquely, her frustration bubbling up. Someone brought it. She made a couple of jokes, pulled it together, and played a remix of one of her oldest songs, “Love Story.”
When she turned from the keyboard, unbuckled her harness with a little “fuck it” shrug, and turned to walk around on the catwalk, the helicopter thingy lowered. There it was, back in the place it was supposed to be.
“You have no idea how relieved I am,” she told us.
But she didn’t look relieved, and she had every right to be upset. For a few minutes on that elevated platform, she was obviously scouring her mind for solutions. The whole show had been choreographed to use the catwalk — at some point in every song, she walked down it. How could she do the show without it? It was obvious that she didn’t know. There must not have been a backup plan — how would you change the entire second half of a set? And the fear she must have felt in those moments stayed with her as she moved on to her other songs.
For a little while, even Taylor Swift couldn’t just shake it off.
She recovered, of course. By the time she sang “Bad Blood” with flashing orange lights and fender guitar, she had transformed back into the gleaming, pop star we wanted. She was back, but I don’t know that the crowd entirely was. I certainly wasn’t.
She finished with “Shake it Off,” complete with a sparkly pink crop top and matching skirt, purple suited back-up dancers, and explosive pyrotechnics. That performance — with everyone screaming and dancing and feeling full of pure joy and falling confetti — was what all pop stars want their best moments to be.
It’s a shame that the entire concert didn’t feel that way. But in that moment on that broken stage with fire behind her eyes, she showed us what it really means to be a pop star — for better and for worse.
- You absolutely have to hear this cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’
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- Taylor Swift's feud with the music industry shouldn't end here
- 1% country life, 3% bragging, and 75% dudes: a look at this week’s Top 40 songs
- Amy Winehouse and the plight of female geniuses
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.