I was about eight when my older sister took the aux for the first time on a family holiday and blew my musical world wide open. Car journeys that had hitherto been soundtracked almost exclusively by Keane’s Hopes and Fears, Billy Joel’s River of Dreams, and the Lion King soundtrack were now peppered with songs from Lily Allen’s It’s Not Me, It’s You and Taylor Swift’s Fearless. Transformative doesn’t begin to cover it.
I diligently learned every word on both albums. They formed the best part of my early feminist education. Even if Allen's ‘Not Fair’ went a little over my head, the pop stars’ meticulous lyricism and classic pop hooks taught me that women could be everything — powerful, vengeful, hysterical, quietly upset, anxious, defiant — even (or especially?) when they were in love.
Swift’s music in particular has soundtracked my life ever since. Fearless and Speak Now made me feel less alone in the various afflictions of my teenage years. Reputation makes me feel like I could kick down a door in knee-high Louboutins and is my go-to running album whenever I feel like I’ve been wronged. In the depths of all-consuming pandemic melancholia I would walk along foggy beaches, listening to Folklore and Evermore, pretending I was — as Swift put it — “a forlorn Victorian lady with a candlestick holder”, or perhaps a witch. Recently, as the anxiety of pre-graduation early-twenties directionlessness begins to take hold, I’ve been revisiting 1989 and entertaining the fantasy that maybe I’ll move to New York, which is a pretty romantic place to feel lost anyway.
That is the ultimate strength of Swift’s music: it entertains possibility. Over the course of her almost two-decade-long career, she has been generically and thematically unconstrained: giving herself permission to be whatever kind of woman she wants to be, whatever kind of woman her life has demanded she become. In doing so, she has created a space for her audience to do the same. She skilfully crafts deeply personal narratives within her music that are characteristic of her confessional singer-songwriter country origins. Yet, these narratives have an innate universality: they resound with any individual searching for their own identities or truths or experiencing similar milestones in their own lives.
Swift’s Eras Tour, a three-hour long spectacle exploring each of her 10 studio albums, has brought her talent for shape-shifting to stadiums across the US. The release last week (12 October) of the tour’s concert film — shot in California’s SoFi Stadium during the last leg of the American tour — has provided fans across the world with the opportunity to witness her powerful versatility for themselves.
Indeed, it is Swift’s power — her comfortable, natural, wielding of it — that is the most striking take away from the film. Throughout the show, she has complete command of the stage, the 70,000-strong audience completely enraptured by her presence. The cameras are forced to take her in, to linger for a moment as she strikes formidable poses at the end of each number. She is in complete control, always: towards the beginning of the show, she describes herself as “dangerous” after eliciting ear-splitting screams from each section of the stadium in turn simply by pointing at them. This is followed, however, by a laugh as she kisses her biceps. She doesn’t stay serious for long; she winks, she laughs, she skips. She is powerful in her playfulness: two qualities so frequently presented as
dichotomous, particularly for women.
Involving 16 costume changes — from a lavender sequinned Versace bodysuit, to an embroidered snake catsuit designed by Roberto Cavalli, to an ethereal layered Alberta Ferretti prairie gown — the show’s aesthetics mirror this commitment to being versatile without being acquiescent. Every ‘version’ of Swift exhibited in the show — whether that be the country singer, the pop princess, the serpentine-clad woman full of vengeance, the forlorn lover, or the witch — wields power with confidence.
This notion is reinforced by transformative sets and Mandy Moore’s meticulous choreography. Swift quite literally does it all. She sits at a piano and delivers ‘champagne problems’ quietly and intentionally. She sits across from one of her dancers during ‘tolerate it’ and acts the part of the neglected housewife. In between the 1989 and Midnights eras, she appears to dive into the stage and swim away on the crest of a wave. She performs a phenomenal chair dance during ‘Vigilante S**t’. She uses a neon golf club to destroy a car during ‘Blank Space’. She stands and performs ‘All Too Well’ with such heartbreak visible on her face and anguish distinguishable in her voice that it’s impossible not to be held enraptured. Everything she does is careful and considered: yet the show is endlessly varied, a reclamation of the multifaceted nature of womanhood.
The film itself, directed by Sam Wrench, is not particularly transformative on a cinematic level. It is at times choppy, interrupted by haphazard wide angles and apparently random cuts away to the audience. However, it preserves the Eras live show as a piece of art that showcases a Swift who defies definition; who will not be put in a box. This is most literally represented during ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, when Swift’s backing dancers, dressed in outfits from her most iconic music videos, break free from glass boxes.
The commercial success of the tour and the concert film alone speak to the universality of this messaging. The American tour has grossed an estimated $1bn; moreover, in what economists are terming the ‘Taylor Swift economic model’, it has raised the GDP of local areas hosting shows in a similar effect to tourism, with an overall estimated impact of $5bn for the US economy.
More than this however, the videos of huge diverse crowds of fans screaming their heads off in car parks outside the stadiums is testament to the appeal of the desire to embrace the multifaceted nature of personhood. This is the ultimate message of the show; the concert film has been made so that it can be brought to the group of people who need to see it most. And they will be enchanted.
Illustration by Holly Ward