I'm 28 yrs old. I'm cool. I will not freak out. I will remain calm. I am an adult.
That was what I tweeted a few days ago in Washington DC, hours before I walked into Nationals Park to see Taylor Swift perform her 1989 World Tour.
I did not remain calm. I lost my freaking mind.
And it was glorious.
On my walk back to my hotel (I flew from Orlando to see her because I could not wait until October to see her in Tampa) I knew I had to put what I'd just experienced into an article.
Just as Taylor seems to need to unleash her most intense feelings in song, I feel the same overwhelming need to unpack my observations with words.
Something was swirling that I had to get out, but I couldn't untangle it right away. I was so buzzed from the evening that all my thoughts were in a knot of exclamation points and heart emojis. Something told me Huffington Post wouldn't be interested in publishing that.
So I took the next few days to reflect.
I thought of the intersection I was driving through when I first heard "Tim McGraw" on the radio. By the time "I said that's a lie" had made it to my ears I was hooked, and for the past nine years I've bought every song she's released (and I mean, every song; according to iTunes I own 112 songs from 23 albums).
I've seen two of her other tours before this one, and have always been in awe of the production and her stage presence. It's no surprise to me why she was selling out stadiums in her first headlining tour.
But something about the 1989 show was different. Special. I couldn't put my finger on it right away. Was it because the reception of this album has elevated her to another level? Was I buzzing off being close to such a huge global star?
I thought about it. But no, it wasn't that.
Halfway through the show I still couldn't put my finger on it but I knew there was something I needed to write about, something I needed to express. And then, technical difficulties began to chisel the insight into form.
Suddenly Taylor had to stop the regularly scheduled and rehearsed programming to tell her audio guys that the guitar sound wasn't registering in her earpiece. She played a couple chords and asked us how it sounded. A few songs later a contraption that was supposed to lift her up wasn't working due to rain. She was stuck in a harness on the end of a catwalk, forced to continue the show utterly alone, in one tiny circle surrounded by metal bars.
Watching the way she handled those technical difficulties was the difference between seeing a really talented newcomer and a professional. A master. A rockstar. And not the kind of rockstar who rolls out of bed "cool" without even trying. The kind of rockstar who has been working for more than a decade to perfect her show, her sound, and her art. The kind of rockstar who makes trying hard seem really cool.
Her shows have always been known for their theatrical elements, and as a lover of theater this is something I've always appreciated and looked forward to. This tour still has incredible sights and artistic storytelling elements, but what astounded me was that for the first time it was obvious to me that she is the kind of rockstar who doesn't have to have the spectacle. The kind who could blow people away with just her voice, her instruments, and her personality.
Her live vocal power blew me away this time around, and the emotional range in which she performs highlights new lyrics, new moments in the songs that you might not have noticed before. You hear her intention in the live show, and it heightens the listening experience of the album going forward.
She owned the stage in a way I've never seen a young woman do in my life. And it was flat out empowering.
Oddly the technical difficulties felt like a treat, because we got rare insight into how she works out problems. We got a glimpse of the pro, the hard worker, the person who's rehearsed for months and paid attention for years to understand what makes a great show.
At one point when she was stuck on the contraption she literally stopped singing a song while the music continued to tell a crew member walking by where to put her keyboard for the next song, and jumped right back into the correct lyrics. She appeared as cool as a cucumber and charming as ever, but because I'm a highly ambitious person myself and have given speeches on stages, I could tell that mentally she was reworking the whole show in her head, trying to figure out how she was going to make this work.
She was, indeed, lightning on her feet. But this time we got to see it. And it was magical.
In almost any art form the goal is to work so hard and practice so much that the final product appears effortless. The greatest art or athleticism does indeed appear effortless, but sometimes what I think that does to our subconscious, myself included, is give a misrepresentation of the true work behind something great. It can make us feel like you either "have it or you don't," or that overnight success is how the world works. It can be easy to forget about the work, the rejection, the trial and error, the practice, the rehearsal, the years and years and years, the failure, often the tears, and the team of other talented people required to truly become a pro in any industry.
When Taylor performs, however, her attitude is not "look at me, aren't I the best singer and performer and most amazing artist you've ever seen in your life?" She could have this attitude if she wanted. She is on the proverbial top right now.
But what the technical difficulties revealed is that she truly sees the show, the spectacle, the performance, as a gift. It was incredibly apparent to me that she desperately wants to make sure every single person in the audience gets more than their money's worth in that experience. I could see the flicker of worry on her face during each technical difficulty, and it was so obviously not one born out of ego. She was not worried that she would look bad. She was worried her fans would not get the show they paid for. It was like the feeling you might get if you were wrapping a Christmas present for someone only to find out it had unexpectedly broken. You're not worried about how it makes you look, you're just sad they won't get the experience you were hoping to give them.
At one point Taylor literally expressed that she was worried that we would not be happy because we had paid to see this production and there was this huge failing element. But she shook it off and told us that whether she had to take her guitar in a parking lot we were going to have a concert. In other words, she charmed the socks off of all of us and she could have done the whole show in that mini cage and everyone would have still been smitten.
But luckily she was able to get out and go back to the main-stage; she laughed in relief: "Oh good. I was pretending I had a plan but I really didn't have a plan," she joked.
She then went on to play a beautiful rendition of "Clean" and then laughed to herself at the irony that she was singing about rain being a good thing right after the rain had broken a part of her stage. She laughed to herself almost a little self-consciously, worried for a second that no one got this improvisation and moved on with an "anyway." But I found it to be utterly charming and it felt like a gift to get a glimpse into the mind of this professional woman.
The show went on to include incredible elements that I won't go into detail about here because there are plenty of those reviews already out there; and if you have tickets to a future show and love the element of surprise that Taylor works so hard to build into her shows like I do then you probably don't want to know too much ahead of time anyway.
I will say that the spectacle of the show is not to distract from a lack of talent, as some say about spectacle in any art form. It was obvious to me, especially in the masterful rock versions of some of her old songs, that she could carry a show without any spectacle.
The spectacle is not a distraction. It's a gift. It's an emotional experience for the audience, a way to heighten the whole thing to levels many in the audience probably have never experienced before. It is the Disneyland of concert experiences and I was like a five year old riding the carousel for the first time.
The 1989 World Tour is brimming with attention to detail, imagination, unbridled enthusiasm, childlike wonder, a team of talented artists and crew members, and a deep concern about creating an experience that brings people joy.
This year I've been so fascinated by the concept of a tour and tour life that I follow most of the people involved in the tour on social media: the band members, the backup singers, and some of the dancers. And what I've noticed is they're all masterful in their craft. Mark Villaver never stops dancing. Amos Heller talks about his instrument with the joy of someone who's playing it for the first time. Her musical director David Cook can be seen on the screen as the camera pans over to the band at the end of the show, waving from a dark corner in the background, his own masterful jazz album Scenic Design at the forefront of my own morning playlist.
The collective artistic choices that have gone into this show are unlike anything I've ever seen, and walking away I could only feel grateful. Taylor has created a culture of unbridled enthusiasm, and, as an enthusiast myself, it was the first time I gave myself permission to go all out. I usually hold back, afraid of my enthusiasm making me appear younger or unprofessional; worried people will not take me seriously. But as Taylor has said in interviews, while sometimes the idea of "cool" is supposed to require acting unimpressed, the atmosphere of her tour and fan-base is one where "cool" is exactly the opposite. We were all given permission to lose our minds with excitement and I can honestly say I've never felt more unashamed about my enthusiasm in my life.
In a world that often feels like a constant stream of mass injustice, mass tragedy, and mass horror, it was renewing to experience that kind of joy en masse, if only for a few hours. It was more than just fun and, for me anyway, it was the opposite of escape. I felt renewed, ready to go back to the real world to do my own work, to perform on my own stage, to give my all, to work out all the technical difficulties, and to try to spread joy with whatever talent I might have.
I saw Taylor on a Monday night. She was playing again on Tuesday night at the same stadium and since my hotel was nearby I did a lap around Nationals Park before I had to fly home, a few hours before the second show. It was a treat to hear the sound check, but what I was really there for was to experience the atmosphere of anticipation, the costumes, the happiness, one more time.
I walked past the tour trucks and tutus feeling grateful for the memories I could already feel following me around, secretly wondering if the tour needed a writer on staff or someone to pick up the confetti each night. Part of me wanted to stowaway on one of those trucks and somehow be a part of the team in charge of creating this experience for people around the world.
So, I guess what I'm really trying to say with all this is, Taylor, you hiring? I can't sing or dance or play an instrument or lift more than 30 lbs. But I can write words real good. I use all the letters.
Seriously though, thank you to Taylor, her masterful band, her powerful backup singers, her talented dancers, her strong crew, and all the other artists and pros that go into bringing this tour around the world. It's something special, and I'm really grateful that I got to experience it.
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