Taylor Swift‘s Eras Tour is a three-hour stadium show with many climatic moments. The ability to generate and release tension is indicative of Swift’s nature as a narrative storyteller; each song has its own arch that builds to a central moment that often makes the listener question the original premise of the song before reeling them back in for a final addictive chorus.
Even “Shake It Off”, one of Swift’s least complex songs lyrically, is self-aware in its accessibility, with an irreverent bridge that reframes the song as a joke, spoofing the contemporary perception of Swift as a “serial dater.” (In the spoken word bridge, Swift says, “My ex-man brought his new girlfriend / She’s like ‘Oh my God, like, I’m just gonna shake it.'”) In the live setting, this self-aware jab necessary to anchor the recording becomes serious and conversational- an exchange in which Swift and the audience unironically commiserate over the cattiness of dislikable people. Swift uses the potential for virality to preserve a quality that is pure and genuine in the live setting.
The Eras Tour is the perfect method for Swift to make this case for her entire catalog. Although all of Swift’s live performances bear this grounded nature, a tour dedicated to paying homage to her past work becomes a statement about the consistency of this intangible quality, which has relied on Swift’s shapeshifting personas to buoy it in a market that relies on tangible selling points. When reduced to its base elements, Swift’s music still pays homage to the country storytellers who inspired her during her formative years, such as Shania Twain, the Chicks, and George Strait.
However, the backward-looking nature of the “eras” concept doesn’t stop Swift from looking towards the future. On “My Tears Ricochet”, included during the set of the concert dedicated to Swift’s 2020 album, Folklore, Swift mourns the irreconcilable disagreement between herself and her former record label president, Scott Borchetta, who signed her at the beginning of her career but betrayed her by selling her back catalog to a rival in 2019.
During this performance, Swift clarifies her central superpower as a pop star. Pop is a genre biased towards emotions that humans want to feel, such as happiness and euphoria. Ballads on blockbuster albums are often deadweight. Although Swift’s pop breakthrough, 1989, features lyrics that bear more similarities than differences to their radio-ready counterparts, her ability to embrace heartbreak in an authentic way has cleared a space in the mainstream for stars with dark personas, such as Billie Eilish and Lorde.
The success of the Eras Tour comes from Swift’s ability to unite her blockbuster hits and ballads under one roof. These songs are tied together through trademark witty lyricism and the fact that Swift’s most heartbreaking songs are buoyed by the sense of joy that comes from the catharsis of writing them. A live setting magnifies that experience tens of thousands of times when a stadium reflects a feeling back to the avatar who originally channeled it.
The live version of “My Tears Ricochet” is adorned with many of Swift’s trademark flourishes. Similar to Swift’s last few tours, at the Eras Tour, each audience member receives a light-up bracelet that pulses to the beat of the music. During the climax of “My Tears Ricochet”, a white wave sweeps across the audience, reflecting the transcendent moment when the height of grief passes through a person. During this moment, Swift, dressed in a white robe, processes alongside her dancers, clad in black robes, from the outer to the main stage. Their solemn dance reflects the tragedy of the song as they transition into the following number when the permanence of its heartbreak becomes clear.
Although the Eras Tour is an homage to each of Swift’s carefully curated personas, it also reminds us that Swift uses honesty about her shortcomings to sell those personas. Magnified, those personal struggles symbolize many things in life that cannot be preserved: failed relationships, youthful innocence, or even the most extensive tour of the century, which will one day end. The Eras Tour may immortalize Swift as a shapeshifting pop star, but its nostalgia is also a method of accepting the passage of time, as each of her albums takes up a short window in a three-hour show. No era can last forever.
In the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Swift advocates for the plight of women and girls in the music industry whose success is limited by sexist beauty standards. At several Eras Tour shows, Swift welcomed opening act Phoebe Bridgers back onto the stage during the portion dedicated to Swift’s album Red, which features a collaboration between these two singers. On “Nothing New”, Swift preemptively grieves the moment when a new superstar may outshine her: “I know someday I’m gonna meet her, it’s a fever dream / The kind of radiance you only have at 17.”
The Eras Tour becomes the antidote to this self-doubt by allowing Swift to reincarnate her younger self in the portion of the show dedicated to her breakout country-pop album Fearless. Ten albums into her career, most of the show, which includes songs from nine out of ten albums, feels like a significant reach backward. Swift’s ability to access her younger self reveals her flexibility as a public figure, even though the reanimation of her teenage self satisfies the concerns of “Nothing New”, and placates a public that always wants someone younger and newer.
Constance Grady of Vox wrote, “Taylor Swift is as famous as she is in part because she is very good at letting us project different ideas onto her.” Swift practices this skill during the Eras Tour by letting the audience project memories of her own self back onto her. By paying equal attention to each “era” featured in the show (Sorry, debut!), Swift allows the audience to access the memories associated with each record. “Come back to high school with me!” Swift proclaims at the beginning of the Fearless set. But she’s really inviting each audience member to take their own trip down memory lane.
The Eras Tour is the ultimate marketing flex. Swift advertises her existence, and because her marketing tactics have succeeded over the years, each one demarcated by an “era”, most of the work is already done. The process of computing which qualities draw a given fan to Swift is completed internally as fans comb through the list of already-purchased Swift products in their minds and decide which ones they most want to see in concert.
Naming the tour after a specific album, as Swift has done in the past, would have missed a great opportunity. Because she has oversaturated the market, releasing four albums of new material and two re-recorded albums since her last tour, a new gimmick would have diluted Swift’s cultural omnipotence. With a tidal wave of brewing demand, she didn’t need to create a new version of herself to pack stadiums.
“Champagne Problems” makes Swift’s nature as a confessional songwriter clear, even though the track is fiction. Performed during the evermore portion of the show at a mossy piano, the ballad of a failed marriage proposal proves that Swift never needed to confess anything to do her craft well. In the early stages of her career, Swift not only penned the autobiographical tales she continues to write today but left nuggets in physical album booklets that linked each song to a celebrity subject. (Perhaps the most famous: the phrase “MAPLE LATTLES” encoded in the lyrics of “All Too Well” linked it to Jake Gyllenhaal.)
Although this marketing tactic made Swift the subject of public discussion, it diverted attention from the fact that Swift’s songs are successful pieces of art. The gravity of “Champagne Problems” becomes its own confession even more weighty than salacious gossip because its fictitious nature allows its sadness to take center stage. Additionally, the deafening roar of the audience that lasted longer than the song itself reveals that fans chiefly appreciate Swift’s ability to emote. Joni Mitchell, an inspiration of Swift, once said, “What did I confess to, being sad? Have you never been sad?” On the Eras Tour, Swift carries on Mitchell’s legacy by proving emotion doesn’t need to be twisted into confessional details to forge a connection.
After the release of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) in July, Swift added “Long Live” to the Eras Tour setlist. A song about achieving fame alongside her band at the beginning of her career, in the live setting, “Long Live” becomes a humble plea where Swift asks to be remembered by the audience, saying, “If you have children someday when they point to the pictures, please tell them my name.” The irony of asking 100,000 people to remember her after the demand for the Eras Tour crashed Ticketmaster points out that the pomp and circumstance of Swift’s enterprise are channeled around simple human desires.
Swift’s everywoman appeal becomes stronger the more famous she gets because increased fame allows her to make a stronger argument for the persistence of base human emotions in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Everyone wants to be loved and remembered. Hearing Swift admit this is the ultimate reassurance that celebrities are “just like us,” while also an example of a self-perpetuating brand. Each era in its time preserved Swift’s place in the spotlight, which made her confessions more salacious, which in turn amplified the spotlight, ad infinitum. While the Eras Tour celebrates units of time, it preserves something immortal.
Like “Shake It Off”, a spoken-word section of “Look What You Made Me Do” takes on new meaning in the live setting. Swift’s proclamation of her old self as dead is both an affirmation and a contradiction to the mission of the Eras Tour. When taken literally, this line undercuts what the tour advertises: the idea that your old selves can live forever. However, the line also proves Swift’s communicative powers, as it becomes a vessel for audience members to exorcize their past selves.
Without prompting from Swift, fans took it upon themselves to dress up as the singer’s past selves when attending the concert. After the 5th August concert at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California (the show this writer attended), there were many audience members dressed as Swift from the 2021 Grammys, with handmade petals starting to fall from their flowery dresses. At this point in the night, everyone is too tired to notice that they have inadvertently reenacted not only Swift’s memorable appearances but the concept of the Eras Tour itself, where personas are shed like layers of skin. It’s fun to entertain them, but ultimately, they are futile attempts at recreating the past. Instead, the version of yourself who will never die is the one that will wait in a Ticketmaster queue for six hours.