She also paid touching tribute to those lost in the Manchester Arena attack last year
Where Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ world tour enlisted a retinue of “squad” members like Julia Roberts, Ellen DeGeneres and Cara Delevingne like some kind of celebrity Infinity War, for her ‘Reputation’ jaunt, the focus is stripped back firmly to just her. Just as the album cover shows Swift posing defiantly in front of acres of print coverage, it opens with a video montage of media criticisms of her. ‘Taylor Swift is on top of the world but I’ve heard she’s done some pretty sketchy things to get there,’ says one. ‘I think she holds too many grudges’, quails another.
Of the latter – at Etihad Stadium, Manchester on the first night of the UK leg of this tour – you might conclude they have a point. She’s reportedly burnt enough bridges to keep the scriptwriters of Ryan Murphy’s Feud in work for at least 10 seasons. In further gossip-baiting, tonight is crammed full of snakes – a symbol Swift says she’s reclaimed ever since Kim Kardashian fans deluged her social media with the emoji during their spat in 2016, another nuclear fall-out of her ongoing Kanye fracas which dates back to 2009. Here, she parlays score-settling into enjoyable spectacle. Massive, inflatable cobras rise behind her, a Medusa’s worth of the reptiles slither on the big screens, she holds a jewel-encrusted snake microphone and – in one audacious moment of stagecraft – she performs ‘Bad Blood’ inside a serpent’s ribcage, hovering above the crowd. What she also proves tonight is, beyond the drama window-dressing, she has more flawless pop hits than you can shake one of Katy Perry’s olive branches at.
Opening with the crunchy R&B of ‘…..Ready For It?’, she strides out in a glittery leotard and thigh-length boots, before launching into ‘I Did Something Bad’. As she sings ‘They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one’, she’s held aloft by backing dancers like she’s about to be ritually sacrificed in a Wicker Man. What sparked a brewing Taylor Swift backlash wasn’t so much the transition from best-friend image to the more acidic, meta feel of ‘Reputation’ (which on record could feel like somebody reading their lyrical Burn Book while trying to convince you they’re not a Mean Girl), it’s more that she hasn’t done many interviews to remind people how charming she is. While it proved a divisive comeback single, a rocked-up version of ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ – replete with dancers on a tilted stage – is rewired and presented as a joke she’s in on, and sees her humorously camping it up, before actress Tiffany Haddish appears on screen to expertly handle the “I’m sorry the old Taylor can’t come to the phone now. Why? She’s dead’ mic-drop. Throughout, Taylor heaps praise on the Swifties with sincerity. “Don’t even get me started on what you’re all wearing!”, she beams, reflecting the abundance of cosplay There’s Taylor Swift drag going on, nude bodysuits, and somebody has, in homage, even rocked up as a King of Hearts playing card.
Zipping up and down the length of the stadium in a light-up cage, she’s alights at a stage at the back. “So are you guys up for a dance with me?” she asks, rhetorically, before she’s joined by support acts Charli XCX and Camila Cabello (who, the day after what would have been Prince’s 60th birthday, had mixed ‘Into It’ into ‘Kiss’ in her set) for a joyous version of ‘Shake It Off’, as a blizzard of ticker-tape swirls around the audience, and brightly coloured LED wristbands distributed to the crowd flash.
She’s never swamped by the size of the venue – and the fireworks and pyro never distract from her – impressively, she even makes it feel intimate. After an acoustic version of ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ turns into a 50,000-voiced campfire sing-along, she deftly pays tribute to the 22 people who lost their lives at the Manchester Arena terror attack last year. “Concerts are supposed to be about innocence and about joy and about escaping things that stress us out,” she rallies. “And what happened just over a year ago was an attempt to steal that innocence and steal that joy and steal that escape. And ever since then, you’ve shown such strength and resilience and you’ve shown that you’re never going to let anyone forget about those victims.” As she then sang a stripped-back ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ – just her, a guitar and the backing of the communal choir – it’s an emotional moment gazing around the audience whose demographic mirrors those at that fateful Ariana Grande concert: young children, wielding glowsticks, eyes twinkling with pure joy; accompanied by parents – some of whom were understandably crying.
Videos beforehand show fan reactions to her material and her Taylurking and while it may be easy to cynically scoff (or think of the Scream Queens parody), it’s clear she has a connection with her flock, as she says she recognises audience members (“Like, ‘Cool, I know her profile picture!’). “Sometimes people say I’ve been listening to your music since I was 12 and now they’re like a full adult,” she adds. “I know that’s how time works. I get it. But it blows my mind.” Similarly, when she hits a bum note on the piano-led medley of ‘Long Live’/’New Year’s Day’, she goofily cracks up, revealing the human behind the record-breaking pop star armour, laughing: “Whoops! That wasn’t right at all. Let’s start again”.
After dystopian imagery – more 1984 than 1989 – highlights the message that “And in the death of her reputation, she felt truly alive” (a video to the poem she submitted to Vogue is played in full here) the show culminates in the storming two-pronged attack of ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’, while dancing around a fountain, capping off a pop masterclass. Reputation restored, the old Taylor is back.
Taylor Swift played:
…Ready for It?
I Did Something Bad
Style / Love Story / You Belong With Me
Look What You Made Me Do
King of My Heart
Shake It Off (with Charli XCX and Camila Cabello)
I Knew You Were Trouble
Dancing With Our Hands Tied
Bad Blood / Should’ve Said No
Don’t Blame Me
Long Live / New Year’s Day
Call It What You Want
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together / This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things