What Made Taylor Swift’s Concert Unbelievable
At her epic opening show, the pop star played 44 songs and conjured actual magic.
Updated at 11:24 a.m. ET on March 19, 2023
GLENDALE, Ariz.—Breaking: Taylor Swift is not simply a voice in our ears or an abstract concept to argue over at parties, but a flesh-and-blood being with a taste for sparkling pajamas and the stamina of a ram. All concerts are conjurings, turning the audience’s idea of a performer into a real thing, but last night’s kickoff of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour in Glendale, Arizona, heightened the amazement with Houdini-escapes-handcuffs physicality. After years of having their inner lives shaped by Swift’s highly mediated virtual output, more than 70,000 individuals can now attest to the vibrancy of Taylor Swift the person. Somehow, seeing her up close made her seem more superhuman.
Every aspect of the night felt shaped by the Ticketmaster-breaking reality that she has not shared air with masses of mortals since touring in 2018, and that she released six albums in the interim (four original, two rerecorded). The emotional brew was excess and gratitude, cut with nostalgia for time lost, and made chaotic by physical circumstances. The structure was unwieldy yet urgent: 44 (yes, 44) songs over more than three hours. Swift created the vibe of an ecstatic cram session, like an epic outing with a far-flung bestie visiting for one night only. “So, uh, is it just me or do we have a lot of things to catch up on?” Swift asked early on, sitting behind a piano whose mossy encrusting gave it the look of long-submerged treasure and helped underscore her point.
Going into the night, fans speculated about how Swift would bring her perfectionism to bear on the tricky question of which songs to perform. Maybe she would swirl her albums together into a sleek playlist, reframing a now-sprawling catalog around some thematic through line. But she instead decided to segment the night by album, leaving the big lessons of her trajectory to emerge from the juxtapositions already present in it. And really, any expectations of a focused fireside chat fell away at the beginning of the set, when the onstage clock struck midnight (though really it was only 8 p.m.).
No space on earth could’ve handled the hype released at that moment. Her opening pick was unexpected: a woozy, truncated “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a somewhat deep cut from 2019’s Lover (key refrain: “It’s been a long time coming”). Then came the hugely awaited live debut of the fan favorite “Cruel Summer,” a track emblematic of Lover’s careening, happy-go-lucky maximalism. Overlapping waves of sound—fans wailing like emergency sirens, the thump and bump of Swift’s live band and backing tracks—ricocheted around the Super Bowl venue into an awful din. Everyone was singing along but no one, at least where I was sitting, could hear Swift. She was facing a physics problem: How do you tell a story in a literal echo chamber?
The answer was for Swift to slow down and take control as she always has, with her words. With each break to address the audience, Swift’s knack for focusing emotions and maneuvering them helped coalesce a mood. In those overwhelming first few minutes, her first statement was relatable: “I don’t know how to process all of this.” Soon she explained that the concept of the show was to “adventure” through her first 17 years of music, album by album—in unstated, and thereby suspenseful, order. Then came the night’s first true gut punch, the ballads “Lover” and “The Archer.” For the latter, Swift stood alone, listing her vulnerabilities to a pulsing beat, until pyrotechnic sparks fell in a curtain behind her. This was where we all wanted to be: feeling one-on-one intimacy but with spectacular three-dimensionality.
The turning of one “era” to the next was like the turning of a pop-up-book page, revealing new colors, architecture, and story lines. Swift’s art direction remains intuitive and unfussy, but the detail work is sharp, helping to re-enchant familiar imagery. For the segment devoted to the cozy Folklore, she lazed, catlike, on the slanted roof of a cabin whose frame glowed with what seemed to be starlight. The requisite giant snakes of Reputation, her 2017 armored tank of an album, hung amid stark, vertically imposing scaffolding. By contrast, the urban wonderland of 1989 was horizontal, with the stage becoming a fashion runway for Swift’s lively dancers to stomp across in crisscrossing patterns. On a night this long, little visual surprises went far. At one point, she induced gasps by seeming to dive into the stage and then swim to the other side, as if it were a pond.
The ordering of the eras, and of the songs within eras, also kept the suspense high. Swift’s beloved 2010 album, Speak Now, emerged for only the keening “Enchanted,” sung by Swift in a ball gown amid a field of flowers. Her self-titled debut also appeared just once, in a humble, piano-bound performance of her first single, “Tim McGraw.” By contrast, the 2020 album Evermore—seen by some as a glorified B-sides collection—got five tracks with lavish set changes. After spending the past few years letting her work speak for itself while the audience litigated its meaning and merits, she was finally asserting a point of view about her own catalog. Evermore, she said, is “an album I absolutely love, despite what some of you say on TikTok.” She cast a hilariously suspicious gaze across the enormous room. “I see it—I see all of it.”
Her facial expressions were often just as potent, making up for the sonic detail that the stadium’s acoustics swallowed. With her older lyrics achieving the cultural familiarity of folktales, Swift was game for theatrical reinterpretation. Giving fans the “Delicate” performance they’d agitated for on social media, Swift went comedic, delivering “You can make me a drink” as an impatient command, not a come-on. For the 2010 Fearless section, she acted charmingly blasé as she strapped on her guitar, invited us “back to high school,” and made half-hearted cheerleading gestures. These early songs were still great, but, she seemed to say with a wink, she’d grown a lot since writing them. The most stunning performances, however, were dead serious, conveying icy resentment in glistening eyes and a sternly set jaw, as on “Champagne Problems,” “My Tears Ricochet,” and the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”
Oh yeah, that’s right—that giant set list made time for a 10-minute song. When she donned a glittering robe and began strumming that wounded ballad, it was the prestige of a magic show. The audience could at last wrap their heads around the fact that she was really going for it, not just with this song but with this whole marathon-revue concept she’d been dreaming up for years. Late in the night, she broke from the era-by-era format with an acoustic moment—one whose featured song, she said, would change every night of the tour. For this opening show, she picked Folklore’s “Mirrorball,” clarifying her mission statement: “I’m still trying everything / To keep you looking at me.”
She succeeded in keeping us looking, though it must be said that by the time the culminating Midnights era rolled around, the crowd—at least those who’d survived—had moved from excitement to awestruck submission. Around me, seats where people had screamed at throat-scorching frequencies at the beginning of the night were now empty. Small children who’d been brought to the show were napping in the arms of their chaperones. I felt the sort of happy daze that often precedes deep sleep. The concert had been unbelievable, but so was the fact that this one human woman planned to do it again the next night, and for many after.