Bridgestone Arena was jam-packed on Thursday night for the first of the final three shows of the North America leg of Taylor Swift’s Red Tour. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a crowd so youthful — primarily girls age 7 to 15 who had apparently spent the school week crafting homemade signs with Christmas lights that said “RED.” Between those, the LED glow sticks for sale and a couple of sneaky e-cig hits, the audience-provided light show kind of reminded us of Opryland’s late, great Chaos.
We arrived early in the set of first opener Casey James, a former American Idol contestant who provided pretty much the only indication that country music was in any way involved in the night. He was competent and dull, and we were most struck by his pedal steel player, wondering if he ever dreamed he’d be playing for tens of thousands of children. James did, however, give a shout-out to his “merch tent,” and we admire that kind of hustle.
Ed Sheeran, woof. We hear that he is nice enough, like, as a human being, but you could never tell it from his stage show. Don’t tell the kids, though, because their "RED" signs had been amended to "ED," and they were screaming for the guy throughout his entire performance. Intensely overlong (like six minutes each!) Barenaked Ladies-style rap-singing over tracks and sometimes an acoustic guitar (that he was literally just slapping at one point), the charmless, gormless Sheeran mumbled his way through too many songs in a relatively unintelligible English accent. He tried a few times to interact with the crowd and give call-and-response directions, but they just could not understand him and it did not go over as epically as probably hoped. We think one of the lyrics was “pastries are tasty.” We are also pretty sure he said “fucking” at one point. Dude, kids!
We did, however, kind of enjoy his “No Diggity” cover (which he recently did at Mercy Lounge with Passenger), as all people born in the 1980s are obliged to do.
The headliner. Taylor Swift. The ponytailed girl in front of us was so excited that she was bouncing around like a bunny on speed. The giant screen indicating “RED” was raised, and there were floating drummers. Floating drummers! And then, the Swiftian silhouette and curtain drop. It was “State of Grace,” and man, Taylor Swift immediately looked directly into the camera, causing her face to be projected behind her in a full-on stare like Big Brother. There were sparks, and it smelled like the Fourth of July. When the song was over, she held for applause for exactly 20 seconds.
Look, we get it. It’s music for kids. It’s emotions for beginners. We love that kind of stuff, and every generation of girls needs its hands held as it enters the weird world of adolescent sexuality. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a necessary part of pop culture. But Taylor Swift, for whatever reason (actually, “hot” but not “slutty” is the reason) is given accolades from the wider adult world, and it’s weird. David Cassidy didn’t spend his career winning armfuls of Grammys. The romantic life of Debbie Gibson did not leak out of Tiger Beat and into Time.
And Swift is very aware that she’s talking to kids a lot of the time. During her between-song banter with the crowd (which went on forever ever ever), she said things like “When I was writing songs and thinking about feelings,” and “I compare things to things, in analogies,” and “These are what I call the crazy emotions.” She said that colors can also represent emotions (hence “Red”), as if that weren’t a fundamental concept in all human societies. She said “We’re never going to figure out love.” She was like the narrator of a “Learning 2 Feel” CD-ROM.
The rest of her stage banter was straight-up whining. A perpetual underdog in her mind’s eye (who also mentioned it was her seventh time at Bridgestone), she talked about how she used to think it would be so cool to grow up and no one would be mean, but people are just meaner! And that papers build you up just to knock you down! (See this paragraph for further info on that one.) At least pretend to be a little less #haters and a little more #blessed in front of the 17,000 who just paid handsomely to listen to your journal entries about breakups. Listen, we were seated near a kid with cancer, and she looked mad bored during your paparazzi ramble, you dig?
We said “banter,” but you know, that implies a back-and-forth. “Interludes” is more apt a word. She talked at the crowd, not with them, and minus a few high-fives, there was little interaction. A T-shirt thrown upon her levitating platform went unacknowledged, because even looking at it would distract from the choreography. And oh, is it ever choreographed. Why walk when you can saunter? Why toss your hair back when you can languidly run your hands through it, eyes closed and mouth slightly open? Unlike more R&B acts where the choreography is nonstop dance, Swift’s moves pretty much stick to pretending to walk on a tightrope and slowly raising her hand over her head like a showgirl.
At one point, she sat on a treasure chest while playing a banjo and gawkily aw-shucks’d her way through a story about wanting to be famous when she was a kid.
As far as the show itself, the production ranged from impressive (floating drummers!) to creepy (nightmarish French clowns!). There was a '60s girl-group vibe for “You Belong to Me,” a carousel set for “Mean,” the backup dancers who were dressed like hipsters for “22” looked straight out of 1995 and made us want to listen to “No Diggity” again, and “The Lucky One” was '50s Hollywood. Sheeran joined her in the center platform for “Everything Has Changed,” then Swift talked about breakups some more, and then special guest star Luke Bryan came out to perform “I Don’t Want This Night to End.”
Really, the show production kind of goes off the rails in the final third of the concert. You’d think “gay Phantom of the Opera” would be a redundant phrase, but it’s the only accurate way to describe how those poor dancers were dressed for “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The dancers are always pros in shows of this caliber, and Swift’s team was no exception, impressively darting around doing ballerina shit in the middle of a music box set. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the final number that ended with a confetti-heart bang, saw the dancers gussied up into a vaguely Alice in Wonderland-themed circus, complete with jesters and stilt-walkers.
Swift’s costume? The Ringmaster. What else?