Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of the Reputation Tour here.

How Does Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ Fit in with The Current Political Climate?

Like an alchemist, Taylor Swift turns stray thoughts and abject emotions into global cultural touchstones—and into piles and piles of cold, hard cash. What do her fans get out of it?

It’s about 7:15 PM in suburban Lanham, Maryland. Golden hour sun shimmers behind gossamer clouds. On the long trek from a $35-plus parking lot toward FedEx Field, we wend our way through gaggles of teenagers, mother-daughter dyads holding hands, and the occasional heterosexual couple whose male counterpart must be earning copious relationship points for his attendance. When we approach the gates, an olfactory wall of chicken finger aroma might, depending on how much you like chicken fingers, stop you in your tracks or guide you forward like a ravenous zombie. An interminable-looking line surrounds the Rep Tour merch tent, where you can purchase an iPhone case for $50 or a crop top for $70. Two policemen in army fatigues, assault rifles slung casually across their chests, chat as wave upon wave of tank-topped, jean-shorted devotees stream across their line of sight. It’s Wednesday night in America, and for some reason, all of us—young and old, more diverse in race and gender presentation than I’d expected—have gathered inside a massive football stadium to indulge in a collective, semi-religious ritual.

What are we all doing here? For one, we’ve overpaid and driven far to witness one of the world’s largest pop stars march another leg on her crusade for global domination. Some of us might be genuine fans; among those visibly in that category, my favorites are a pair of waist-high twins wearing tutus, Converse high tops, big scrunchies, and knotted t-shirts with “T Swift 13” on the back and “#mybirthday #firstconcert” on the front. Others are clear attachés: these are the partners and family members who, like a guy I met in the hotdog line, spent four hours refreshing TaylorSwift.com (while watching sports on another device, he notes) in order to get his girlfriend the best possible tickets. Some, like me, are curious skeptics, conflicted admirers, dabblers in the fandom who nonetheless acknowledge the many reasons Swift deserves criticism. So here we all are, anticipating the pop star’s entrance with varying degrees of excitement and hesitation.

As the sun sets, pop sensation Charli XCX pogos across the stage in a white sports bra and light-pink vinyl jacket-shorts combo, though she loses the jacket a few songs in. Charli’s act reflects little choreographic forethought; even when projected onto the stadium’s four jumbotrons, she looks like a girl at the party who’s just slightly more stylish and a slightly more agile dancer than your average attendee. Her songs, many of which she’s written or co-written, including Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and her own “Boom Clap”, have become iconic though, so the sloppiness projects an earned cockiness rather than an artistic limitation.

Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello follows, delivering an A+ performance combining powerful, pitch-perfect vocals (including the occasional Mariah Carey-esque whistle note) with dynamic choreography, all executed flawlessly. Performing just before Swift, Cabello seems like the kind of burgeoning pop star who could one day unseat her headliner. Perhaps Swift admires her; perhaps she’s keeping her competitors close. In any case, Cabello makes herself a tough act to follow. Both openers drum up crowd enthusiasm with speeches about “Girl Power On This Tour” and adulations for Swift herself.

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital

As we await the Queen’s entrance during soundcheck, FedEx Field turns into a slightly modified Hunger Games scenario. It’s almost 90 degrees and water bottles cost $6 cash. “Free” water can be found at fountains generating a trickle of liquid insufficient to hydrate an adult-sized body. If, like me, you’re a millennial who never carries cash, you are basically screwed, because lines for vendors who take credit cards swell to chaotic volumes and the ATMs (I checked three) are out of cash. Prone to fainting when hydration and blood sugar run low, I find myself deliberating whether to summon Katniss-level instincts toward self-preservation or to admit defeat and leave. There’s a 7 Eleven five miles from here, I recall, that would sell me a hot dog for $2 rather than $7, and I have a water bottle in my car that, of course, security would not allow me to carry in. But once you’ve jumped through the geographic and financial hoops required to attend the Reputation Tour, it feels impossible to leave. Five miles away seems like a distant, foreign country.

I’m washing my hands in the restroom when the four-count, drum-machine-and-synth intro to “… Ready For It?” booms through the stadium and, like my fellow soundcheck stragglers, I pivot at once and race back to my seat. How is Taylor going to make her entrance? In full dominatrix mode, it turns out, clad in a sequined bodysuit and thigh-high lace-up boots, stomping and thrusting her way through sharp choreography, causing me to wonder whether I’m watching a more disciplined body-double for the Taylor we once celebrated for awkwardly dancing at awards shows. Backup dancers flock behind her; grittily filtered images of her face loom across the four jumbotrons; the song runs more or less as it does on the album. It’s basically like the music video, just starring a three-dimensional Taylor rather than two. I worry that the show will be boring.

But during the second number, “I Did Something Bad“, a moment materializes that reminds me why most of us have ended up here, rubbing shoulders too closely to one another in this heat. The realization arrives just after the bridge, right before the drop, in a drawn-out version of the three-beat pause we hear on the record between the repeated phrase “So light me up” and the refrain, “They say I did something bad / So why’s it feel so good”? Live, Taylor and her band expand this pause, the camera zooms in on her face, and the polished, S&M-inspired professionalism that’s characterized the show so far crumbles. Her focused expression disappears and she breaks into a signature T-Swift goofy grin: slightly buck-toothed, panting visibly, gaze panning across the stadium she’s filled, eyes narrowing on her admirers with a flash of conspiratorial mischief. This grin speaks volumes; without uttering a word, Taylor is saying to us, “You guys, I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe we’ve made this together. It’s me, the awkward girl sharing cat pictures on Tumblr, the girl so many of you relate to, and I’m the star of this show that you’re here watching. What?!” The beat drops, and she resumes the pantomime, perhaps a little looser than before but still hitting her marks. The band jams out during the outro, rewriting its pristine source material into an almost bluesy breakdown. This is what I came for. We are no longer being performed to; we’ve been invited in.

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital

Swift remains both popular and an object of critical fascination because she embodies a mess of contradictions, a mess that congealed for me in that post-bridge moment from “I Did Something Bad”. She’s treacly but talented, shallow but relatably complicated at times. Her songs don’t reach for profundity—they’re mostly about past boyfriends and her own fame—but they’ve become talismans of hope, positivity, and community for young fans who might need those things very badly. In her music as well as her public persona, Swift rotates almost hypnotically between both ends of a much-debated spectrum that positions authenticity on one end and artifice on the other.

Such critiques could be leveled at other pop stars, such as Britney Spears—my generation’s closest peer to Taylor Swift—Beyoncé, or Katy Perry. What distinguishes Swift, however, is her coming-of-age right alongside social media: her first album, Taylor Swift (Big Machine, 2006), was released the same year Twitter went live. This timing forced her to co-manage her art and her public persona in a newly transparent media environment, leaving her at times vulnerable to high-profile slip-ups, but also empowering her to connect with true fans. As Joe Coscarelli observed in the New York Times, Swift’s chosen platform has become Tumblr, which enables under-the-radar interactions with regular users. As someone who’s followed Swiftie blogs on Tumblr for years, I’ve witnessed Swift personally cheering girls on as they experience life’s milestones, surprising fans with thoughtfully selected Christmas presents, and responding to their responses to her albums. Beyoncé, by contrast, remains mostly aloof on social media, releasing highly produced content at sporadic intervals.