At the half point of a sold out dance-pop blitzkrieg last night at Rupp Arena that encouraged everyone to party like it was 1989, Taylor Swift addressed a crowd of 18,000 as only a true pop mogul could – from atop a platform runaway that rose and tipped upward like the bow of a ship so the singer could address the upper decks eye-to-eye.
It was a moment that was visually quite arresting, regardless of how one viewed the often formulaic music that dominated the nearly two hour show surrounding it. Here was a former teen sensation whose stardom and bankability should have dwindled years ago. But last night, at age 25, she was a bigger deal than ever, a performer with a shrewd business sense that reached into every crevice of the production, making her arguably the most popular and image savvy female performer to rule the pop marketplace since Madonna.
The ballyhoo about Swift’s current tour is that it, like her quadruple platinum album 1989 (a reference to her birth year; it was actually released in 2014), jettisons the country-pop formulas that first brought her to stardom. Truth to tell, the country accents have been gone for years. Last night’s show simply underscored the transformation by ditching the bulk of her back catalogue. With the exception of perhaps four songs, the entire program was devoted to music from 1989 – from the show-opening parade of Welcome to New York (a curious intro when you’re expecting a greeting in Lexington) to the pop celebration of the mega-hit Shake It Off, which was saved for the end of the night.
Unlike her previous three Rupp outings, which treated then-current songs like re-enactments of music videos, Swift streamlined her current show into a more dance-friendly setting to suit the groove of the 1989 music.
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There was some choreographed sexual tension at times, like when a pack of shirtless male dancers backed Swift’s chanteuse posing during I Knew You Were Trouble (one of the few older songs that made the cut for the setlist) and the singer’s curious brandishing of a golf club like a riding crop during Blank Space. This was still pretty tame stuff, though, especially when contrasted to live displays by contemporaries like Miley Cyrus or even Katy Perry. Last night’s audience was heavily female and loaded with kids, which shifted any suggestion of sexual politics to good old fashioned romantic confession.
Throughout the evening, Swift would sing one or two tunes, pop down through a trap door in the stage to change costumes and let video screens come to life with pre-recorded chat from star gal pals like Lena Dunham and Selena Gomez to fill the transition time.
Some of the songs were undeniably infectious, as displayed by the massive pop hooks that fortified Style. Others seemed a little lead-footed in the groove department (I Wish You Would) and came off as generic backdrops for the dancing. Two of the non-1989 tunes – Love Story and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – even received sonic facelifts to make them more welcoming to the show’s party environment.
The half-hour opening set by Aussie pop-folk star Vance Joy was, in contrast, a lesson in simplicity - a sampler of seven songs with acoustic leanings, cleverly syncopated grooves and earnest though unremarkable singing. The efficiently melodic Fire and the Flood was the highlight with a cover of the Sam Smith hit Stay With Me serving as an unimaginative bid for a level of pop familiarity his own songs refreshingly lacked.
But the night clearly belonged to CEO Swift, whose command of the proceedings extended to one of the show’s most novel props – wrist bracelets given to audience patrons that would light up with various colors and blink in dramatic accordance with the music. But the bracelets’ effects were triggered by the tech crew, allowing the gadgetry to glow in unison.
It was a clever but somewhat creepy idea, when you think about it. The audience was encouraged to let loose and join the dance party around them. But it was ultimately Swift who would control when her fans would, quite literally, lighten up.
(Click here for a full gallery of Rich Copley's photos from the concert.)