The effortless effort of the Eras Tour
Taylor Swift works hard — and so do her fans
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If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I’m happiest when I’m doing homework. Which is how I found myself memorizing all the lyrics to a Taylor Swift concert I didn’t have tickets to yet. Though I would’ve considered myself an above-average student of Swift’s work, attending the “Tay-gating” karaoke party outside of her Soldier Field concert humbled me. It turns out I didn’t know the verses of “Champagne Problems” and “Ready for It?” as well as I thought I did — at least not compared to Swiftie standards. And if I were lucky enough to get a chance to actually attend her record-smashing Eras Tour (as I’d failed to do in Chicago), I was damn well going to put in the work to do it right.
In true millennial fashion, work is what eventually got me inside that stadium too. After coming up short with Ticketmaster’s mysterious last-minute ticket drop process for most of Swift’s midwestern shows, I pitched her publicist on the idea of covering the Eras Tour for my brand new Substack celebrating and examining what I’ve dubbed “Girl Culture.” (Welcome to that very Substack!) Remarkably, she said yes — at least after another journalist dropped out last minute. So less than 48 hours before our concert, my sister and I deliriously scrambled to pull together an impromptu road trip from our parents’ house in St. Louis to a Holiday Inn in Kansas City for one of the most chaotic, exhilarating, surreal weekends of my life.
If your social media feeds are anything like mine, the Eras Tour has become a sort of alluring Holy Grail of summer concert spectaculars this year. We are the moths to the flame, Taylor’s holding the matches. And in practice the almost three-and-a-half-hour extravaganza somehow manages to surpass the hype. Across sets celebrating nine of her 10 studio albums, Swift serves up elaborate costume changes, stadium-shaking dance numbers, intimate ballads, and dreamlike visual spectacle that makes the Eras Tour feel as much like a fully staged Broadway production as it does a concert.
It's a greatest hits tour on steroids — a savvy way for Swift to celebrate the four albums and now three re-records she’s released since she last toured five years ago. Not to mention, it’s also a brilliant way to get fans to tap into the “declare your allegiance” appeal that fuels Hogwarts House sorting and Twilight boyfriend debates. (Personally, I’m a 1989/Speak Now/Lover girl, with a Team Jacob rising.)
Given Swift’s knack for conversationally connecting with her fans, it probably sounds naive to claim I’m the ideal audience for this kind of T.Swift retrospective spectacular. But it certainly felt like it. I’m the same age as Taylor, so I’ve almost inadvertently grown up with her music as a backdrop of my life. (There’s a special bond that happens when a pop hit called “22” comes out the year you and your friends all turn 22.) But it wasn’t until the end of last year that I took a true deep-dive into the depths of her discography and the evolution of her songwriting. That means I’ve got baked-in nostalgia for old hits like “You Belong With Me” and “Style,” but also the fresh eyes of someone appreciating Swift’s career in a new light too.
Even with all my prep work, however, I couldn’t have fathomed what it would feel like to actually be inside that packed Kansas City stadium, which was buzzing with extra excitement from the release of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) the day before. From the moment a pre-show countdown clock appeared on screen, the crowd was the single loudest thing I’ve ever heard at any event anywhere.
Though I figured Swift was just buttering us up when she told our audience we had a special energy, my friend who attended both KC shows told me that our crowd was actually noticeably louder. (Maybe the previous night’s footage of Taylor Lautner’s backflip had revved us all up.) By the time Swift launched into her new-for-that-weekend rendition of the fan-favorite Speak Now track “Long Live,” the crowd was as ebullient as her new purple-tiered Nicole + Felicia gown.
Indeed, even for someone like me, who tends to be more of an analytical observer than an active participator, it was hard not to get completely swept up in the energy of the evening. Particularly once the sun set and our light-up bracelets began to illuminate the stadium, I found myself giving into the feel-good singalong joy more earnestly than I have maybe… ever? Like the best performing artists, Swift knows how to create a space that’s both permissive and supportive — an ethos her fans seem to take it upon themselves to maintain. (Unsurprisingly, the vibes in the women’s restroom line were impeccable.)
Yet even as I embraced the fun of it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of work. For one thing, I’ve realized it’s a lot of work to attend a stadium concert — especially this one, which has people crossing state lines and battling the resale market just to get in. The logistics alone require plans and back-up plans and fail-safe contingencies. In our case, the traffic around Arrowhead Stadium was so bad that my sister and I eventually had to abandon our Uber and speed-walk the final mile to the venue, afraid we’d miss the start of the show. (Thankfully, we made it, as did the cheerful Arkansans who joined our pilgrimage.)
Swift’s also in that rare pantheon of artists whose fans take dressing up and singing along as artforms unto themselves. I don’t think I saw a single person there not decked out in some kind of Taylor-themed ensemble. (My sister evoked Midnights, while I went with a 1989 World Tour-inspired sequined jacket.) And even the deep-cut tracks on Swift’s quieter albums had nearly the entire stadium singing along. (I’m pleased to report that my hours of practice paid off and I was word-perfect on “Champagne Problems.”) If the over-the-top enthusiasm of die-hard Swifties isn’t something I can always relate to, the idea of devoting hours of work to have three hours of fun is something that I absolutely can. And so, I suspect, can Taylor.
Even more than her catchy songwriting, what’s always impressed me most about Swift is her intentionality and her work ethic. More so than maybe any other artist working today, she’s committed to reshaping her public persona for each new album cycle “era,” right down to her haircut and street style. But the piece of the puzzle I’d been missing in all of this is just how much Swift’s tours are an integral part of each album’s artistic life too — from the whimsical fantasia of her Speak Now World Tour to the slick edge of the 1989 World Tour, both of which I watched online to prepare for my first live Swift experience.
While some artists tour to support their albums, Swift almost seems like she creates albums in order to bring them to life visually. (I have zero doubt she’s going to write a musical one day.) As she told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, part of the reason she was able to write so many albums during the pandemic is because so much of her creative brain space was freed up from planning, designing, and performing her tours. And after seeing the Eras Tour, I get it.
It's not just the mind-boggling physical stamina it takes to perform non-stop for three hours multiple nights each weekend, it’s the mental energy it takes to craft an elaborately theatrical, emotionally resonant show that plays equally well from every seat in a 76,000-seat stadium. For her era-spanning retrospective, Swift eschews a simple chronological overview of her career in favor of a more eclectic setlist that hops around in time — the better to showcase the underappreciated diversity of her music.
The sparkly country-pop joy of the Fearless set gives way to the melancholy mysticism of Evermore, which is then overtaken by the pulsating synthesizers of Reputation. Along the way, Swift gets to flit between her various pop star personas too, never letting the energy of the evening waver even as she dashes off for a quick change. (I don’t think she’s ever offstage for more than five minutes at a time.)
As I felt watching Beyoncé’s Homecoming concert film and Jennifer Lopez’s Super Bowl doc Half Time, it’s remarkable just how much effort our auteurist female pop stars put into performances that are ultimately designed to look completely effortless. You can’t shake the feeling that these women could probably get away with doing less and still be successful. But it’s the fact that they’re driven to do it anyway that makes them so singular as performers, and so beloved by their fanbases. It’s perhaps the central irony of girl culture that all that work taking place on both sides of the stage is sometimes written off as something that’s simply fun and frothy and frivolous.
Indeed, one of the most endearing moments of the night was when Swift messed up not once but twice on her first surprise song “Last Kiss,” the rare misstep in an otherwise sleekly paced evening. While she had a speech prepared for the first mistake, the second one seemed to genuinely catch her off guard, and I’ve never found her more relatable than in the moments of internal panic that accompanied her third try at getting the song right. (She did; I captured the second and final attempts below.)
Of course, that’s part of Swift’s appeal too, the way she can harness her self-deprecating, girl-next-door charisma so that she seems as much like a fan playing a pop star as a pop star in her own right; a quality that separates her from performers who aim for otherworldliness. For as much as Swift commands the spotlight, the Eras Tour often feels less like watching a solo act than participating in a giant communal celebration of 17 years of music — not a million miles off from that singalong outside Solider Field (only with a much better sound system).
There was friendship bracelet trading and confused drunk girl bonding and lots and lots of singing and chanting. (Lest I’ve made myself sound like too much of a Taylor novice, please know I was the only one in my section who did the “Sydney” chant during “Blank Space.”) I understand now why fans want to go to more than one show, not only because there’s so much to take in, but because there’s a communal vibe to the experience that’s just as addictive. We’d all put in a lot of work to make it to that stadium — no one more so than Taylor — but for three hours it was just enchanting to be there.
[I’ll be posting more photos and video from the concert on my Instagram @caroline_siede]
Next time on Girl Culture: The summer of Barbie