Taylor Swift is flying over our heads in a cage shaped like a giant snake head, singing “Bad Blood.” Sixty thousand of her fans are singing along and waving LED wristbands that flash in unison, blue and red. Roughly half of them are decked out in either official T-Swift merch or homemade T-shirts and jackets bearing lyrics from her latest album, Reputation: “I once was poison ivy, but now I’m your daisy,” “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone,” “I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me.”
Going into Friday night’s show, the first of two Taylor Swift performances at the Rose Bowl, I wasn’t sure I’d see such adulation. To hear my colleagues in the media tell it, Swift’s reign in the pop firmament is over. By her lofty standards, Reputation was a flop, taking a whole 17 weeks to sell two million copies (“longer than Swift’s past three albums combined,” one writer). She’s “losing the charts game to fresher faces with buzzier hits,” according to that arbiter of buzz, .
Her Reputation stadium tour was declared, before it began, to be an even bigger disappointment than the album. “Thousand of Taylor Swift Tickets Remain Unsold—Just Days Before Showtime,” reads one of many.
With all that doom and gloom as a backdrop (and prior to her strong showing at Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards), I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the Rose Bowl full of empty seats and disinterested fans saving their loudest cheers for the old hits. Instead, the stadium is packed to the rafters with Swifties who seem just as enthused to hear Reputation deep cuts as stuff from their heroine’s country days—which are a distant memory as she struts in a glittering black leotard to the thunderous beats of hip-hop-laced new tracks like “…Ready for It?” and “I Did Something Bad.”
Black leotards notwithstanding, reports of the old Taylor’s death have been greatly exaggerated. She still plays two songs on acoustic guitar, unaccompanied by her small army of dancers or the six-piece band that spends most of the show on a catwalk high above the stage, obscured by video screens. And crucially, she still speaks to her audience with the unguarded sincerity most of us reserve for our closest friends and loved ones.
“After the last tour we did, I felt like it was really important for me to figure out what my life would be like and what choices I would make if there wasn’t a spotlight on my life,” she says at one point, referring to the year or so leading up to Reputation’s release, when she took an uncharacteristic break from the publicity merry-go-round. “And that was really, really important for me to do as a human being. But I’m so, so happy to be back on tour with you. I missed you so much.” The crowd obligingly roars its approval.
She talks about the universal human desire for making connections, comparing her experience of “standing up here singing songs I wrote when I was feeling alone and having you know all the words to them” to her fans’ experience of asking someone new to be their friend. “It’s the best feeling in the world when I know that we’ve been through something similar,” she says, placing her hand over her heart. Though she probably gives some version of this same speech every night, her earnestness is palpable.
After this little moment of audience bonding, she goes into a new tune, “Delicate.” It’s a love song, but in this context, the lyrics are addressed not to a boy, but to every single person in the Rose Bowl: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me.”
This is Taylor Swift’s genius. One minute, she’s untouchable, the perfect pop diva. The next, even in a stadium of 60,000, she’s singing just to you.
The first time I saw Swift live, in 2011, she was already hard at work on the second part of this formula. It was the Speak Now tour, when she was still wearing sparkly shift dresses and occasionally playing a banjo. For her finale, she stepped onto a little Juliet balcony that lifted off the stage and, in a remarkable feat of rigging and stagecraft, flew her around the rafters of Staples Center, bringing her within arm’s length of deliriously excited fans in the cheap seats.
Seven years later, that Juliet balcony is now a giant snake’s head, but the idea is the same. Whether physically or emotionally, Swift wants to get as close as possible to her fans. “If you think I can’t see you and you’re in the top rows—I can see you,” she tells the Rose Bowl crowd.
Swift’s talent for making this connection with her audience is so powerful that the negative press that preceded and surrounded Reputation seems only to have brought them closer together. For all the talk of sluggish sales and flopping singles, Swifties love this new album. She plays 14 out of its 15 tracks, and every one is rapturously received—none more so than “Call It What You Want,” which seems to address most directly the backlash she weathered in the wake of highly publicized feuds with Kanye West, Katy Perry, Calvin Harris and seemingly everyone who didn’t have a cameo in the “Bad Blood” video.
“My castle crumbled overnight,” she sings, accompanied by her fans. “I brought a knife to a gun fight/They took the crown, but it’s all right.”
Critics hate when Swift plays the underdog, but her fans eat it up. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve spent the past six months reading over and over again that their queen has lost her touch. This show offers abundant evidence that she hasn’t.
It’s wildly, shamelessly entertaining. The new songs are by turns epic and intimate, but mostly epic. There are fireworks and fireballs and taiko drummers and giant inflatable snakes. (Snakes figure prominently in the tour’s iconography—maybe because Kim Kardashian and others used the snake emoji to throw shade Swift’s way on social media, or because snakes shed their skin and symbolize rebirth, or they’re a, or just because Swift thinks snakes are cool.) Shawn Mendes makes a cameo, and opening acts Charli XCX and Camila Cabello join Swift on a small stage in the middle of the floor for a gleeful version of “Shake It Off.”
For the finale, the Kanye-taunting “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” Swift and her dancers cavort in a working fountain as she sings about “feeling so Gatsby.” She’s turned this alleged disaster of a tour into a victory lap.
Such moments of self-congratulation wouldn’t work unless they were offset by moments of vulnerability, and Swift gives us plenty. Once you get past Reputation’s armor-plated singles, the album is full of songs that skillfully tug at the heartstrings—none more so than its closing track, “New Year’s Day,” which Swift delivers toward the end of her set, alone at a grand piano emblazoned with the Reputation tour logo. “I want your midnights,” she sings, “but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” She mixes it with “Long Live,” a Speak Now song that also spins celebration into nostalgia: “I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you.”
Is it all a bit calculated? Of course it is. But Swift is smart enough to let her fans in on that, too. Early in the show, she still pauses to make that infamous “Who, me?” face, smiling bashfully at the crowd’s cheers like a freshly crowned prom queen. But now, she lets us see her look of surprise turn, for just a second, into a knowing smirk.
It’s a small gesture that, like nearly everything Swift does, the haters gonna hate (hate, hate). But her audience, catching it, just cheers more loudly.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.