Lydia Burgham reflects on over a decade of being a Taylor Swift fan, and reviews her Reputation Tour show at Mt Smart Stadium.
I just turned 21. And the one constant throughout my young adult life has been my adoration for a certain blonde haired pop star who sings about her feelings. Taylor Swift’s Fearless was one of the first CDs I ever owned, way back when 11-year-old me begged my parents for a radio and began becoming obsessed with music. I found solace in Swift’s heartfelt and honest lyricism, where she turned negative experiences with her suitors into works of art.
Her early work is fantastical, steeped with daydreams and fairytales. Fearless’s follow-up, Speak Now, cemented my obsession further. It branched out from boys and sundresses and country songs towards complex ballads and anti-bullying anthems. It was exactly what 13-year-old-me needed. The record is Swift’s only completely solo project, and the lyrics are some of her most underrated work. She named dropped John Mayer on ‘Dear John’ with swipes of dagger-sharp lines like “I’m shining like fireworks/over your sad empty town”. How’s that for a metaphor?
I saw Taylor Swift live for the first time when I was 14. It was my first concert. It was the Speak Now World Tour and came to Auckland on 16 March 2012. I had no idea what I was in for as the lights went down. From the moment the first note hit my eardrums I was entranced. The show was a theatrical spectacle and I was overwhelmed that it was actually her singing in front of me. It was, looking back, a definite turning point in my life. Her music influenced the way I consumed art, and I began to actively seek meaning and personality in what I chose to watch and listen to.
As high school dragged on, I well and truly became a Swiftie. My 15th birthday cake had her Red album cover on it. I made friends online all over New Zealand who shared my obsession – many of whom are now close, real-life pals. I went to the Red tour when I was sixteen with my cousin and dressed up in a sparkly red tutu my Nana sewed for me. It was just as enchanting as the first time, despite being shadowed by my disappointment in not meeting her. I had, like any Swiftie, daydreamed about what meeting her would be like. I wanted to thank her for all of the positivity she added to my life, and a tweet just did not seem like enough.
Over the next few years, Swift was, unfortunately, like many female musicians, whittled down to the men who surrounded her career. She was a product of her ex-boyfriends, critics said. Or, she only became famous because Kayne West interrupted her at the VMAs. As a devoted fan, I saw something in her that outsiders seemed to miss. I saw her selflessness and her desire to connect with as many of her supporters as possible.
At every single one of her concerts, without fail, Swift has her team hand-pick enthusiastic fans to meet her after the show. Paid meet and greets are never on her radar. From the accounts of New Zealand fans that have met her, she treats her fans like her friends. On the commencement of her 1989 album promotion, she invited fans over to her houses (plural) to preview the album. She stalked fans on Tumblr and sent them Christmas presents the same year. I’ve been one of the lucky fans to have her interact with me on Tumblr, although we didn’t quite get to the Christmas gift stage of our online friendship.
It wasn’t just the music I stayed for, it was who Swift was as a person. Her generosity and the way she incorporated kindness into her career is something I hold a deep admiration for. But, as a feminist, I was conflicted with her radio silence around political events. When she finally spoke out about feminism and gender inequality in 2014, I was relieved, but I found she was unable to shake off her privileged perspective a lot of the time. She sidelined herself from the 2016 election events and the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the potential for political influence she has in the US. Just recently, Swift ended that silence, choosing to encourage fans to vote in the midterm elections and endorsing Democrat candidates. It was a move that was long overdue, but not without its merits. I breathed a sigh of relief, and am grateful that she decided to speak up.
Yesterday, five years since she last graced the stage in Auckland, Swift captivated an audience of fans young and old on a rainy Friday night. For those who have never experienced a Taylor Swift concert, the best way to articulate its form is to say that it is a theatrical, mega-production that somehow also strips down to raw intimate moments. The people her shows attract are enthusiastic, united by this strange magic of joy and vulnerability. They dress up, they dance, they scream, and give their all. The rain does not dampen a Taylor Swift show, in fact, the artist celebrates them with a giddy enthusiasm – calling them magical.
She opened with a firework backed performance of ‘Ready For It’, never missing a perfectly choreographed beat. Her first speech to the crowd called the support act Kiwi pop duo Broods “extraordinary”, and highlighted how special it was that they were playing a hometown show. Prior to Swift’s entrance, Broods had played the coveted second support act slot, usually filled by pop powerhouse Charli XCX. It was a gesture that may be overlooked by most, but in the context of Swift’s star power, the move is above and beyond.
She had the crowd aching for more with the commencement of every song, and thanks to seamless transitions, the waits were minimal. She doned lavish costumes and sung alongside gigantic snakes – taking the Kimye drama and using it as a prop for her success. The light up bracelets added to the incredible visuals, particularly the rainbow-themed lights for ‘Shake It Off’.
Where the concert shone, and what also sets Swift’s shows apart from others, was the vulnerable moments. The intimacy of her singing with her acoustic guitar or behind a piano was reminiscent of her early career. It was a reminder that despite the success, despite the pedestals of celebrity, Swift remains integral to her singer-songwriter origins. Stripped back performances of ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ and ‘Call It What You Want’ were setlist highlights. Just as quickly as she flipped to vulnerable, she flew back to the main stage, smoothly transitioning to a full-stage showstopper of her more pop hits like ‘Bad Blood’.
Stopping to speak to the crowd before her performance of ‘Delicate’, Swift explained in her own words the meaning behind her latest record. She said she was fascinated by the moment when people began to care about what people thought of them. Her own definition of living in spite of her reputation was feeling real feelings – and knowing that any other opinion someone may have doesn’t equate to a feeling of authenticity.
Reputation was her album that pronounced that she no longer cares about what people think of her. It was also a message I needed to hear at 20. Throughout my ten years of being a devoted fan, her albums have served as therapy, as guiding hands through misunderstood teenage years and my many young adult equivalents of heartbreak and unrequited love. Conceptually, Taylor’s records have always bookmarked passages in her life, and fans like myself clung on to the revelations of her secluded personal life – not because we had a desire to know everything, but because we wanted to learn her lessons too.
There may not be an artist in this lifetime who quite manages to connect to thousands of people on a rainy night as well as Taylor Swift can – and that’s the reputation she will be remembered for.