I’m not here to tell you about how I was robbed of $80 in parking money instead of just the $55 I’d anticipated losing (thank you Bayswater Parking Station). Or to tell you of how I was mistaken for a lady of the night by a curly-haired boy in Kings Cross (‘I just got back from a Taylor Swift concert. Trust me – you don’t want me.’).
No. This is about the music. And the fans. Because the music is made for the fans.
Firstly, a brief story about how I made Ms Swift’s acquaintance.
Just over a year ago, I was driving north on the I-17 to the Grand Canyon. I had stayed in Phoenix the previous night, where I visited my very first Walmart, purchasing two CDs to take with me on my road trip. I’d been told in Charleston, SC, that between Phoenix and the Canyon, there’s nothing on the radio but evangelists. So, I thought I’d re-introduce myself to John Mayor (double CD with Continuum and Heavier Things) and see what all the fuss was about with Taylor Swift (Red).
On that four hour drive, through lack of choice, I listened to Taylor’s album five times over. And by that fifth time, I really began to like it.
Flash forward to earlier this week. Specifically, 4 December 2013. Taylor Swift, live at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney. Capacity 40,000. Concert status: sold out.
I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. From the moment I arrived though, it was clear that I would be one of the older members of the audience – the exceptions being the parent chaperones.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a concert where fans treated the occasion as an excuse to go nuts with their attire. The last two I’ve attended where this happened were ten years ago, to see Evanescence and Marilyn Manson. And at those concerts, people were mainly just wearing black. And a lot of eyeliner. Myself included.
I made a point of photographing, and talking to, some fans who had gone all out with their outfits. Here are two friends who’d hand-made their dresses and wrapped themselves in Christmas lights (powered by battery packs).
Their favourite Taylor songs include “Holy Ground” and “The moment I knew” (a track from the deluxe edition of Red). The girl on the right had seen Taylor the last time she’d come to town – the girl on the left looked stricken when she told me that she’d been overseas at the time.
A few days before the concert, I’d asked some friends what time I should get to the venue if my ticket said it started at 6:30pm. I wasn’t keen on seeing the supporting acts Neon Trees and Guy Sebastian was contemplating having a lazy dinner before dropping by at around 8. They insisted I should get there by 6:30pm at the latest. I heeded their advice and ended up arriving an hour early, thinking that I was much too early.
These girls had arrived at 1pm.
On site was an Enchanted Taylor, in a full-length robin’s egg blue gown, 22 Taylors in their ‘Not a lot going on at the moment’ t-shirts and cat ears. My favourite by far though, was this girl’s get up, an awesome replica of one of Taylor’s early concert outfits.
Last year, Taylor Swift made $57 million. And just as you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies, you don’t become one of the world’s highest earning musicians without a bucketload of endorsements and branded products.
Here I am with a fellow fan posing in front of a poster advertising Taylor’s latest fragrance. We’re holding up a three-block sign that said fan had created.
They had those fragrance posters all through the stadium hallway. Each poster was manned by a girl in a blue Taylor promo shirt, armed with an iPad ready to take your photo and email it to you.
The merch stalls did a roaring trade, and especially after the concert, which reflected positively on everyone’s enjoyment of the show. I resisted the temptation to buy a jersey, and later one of the t-shirts. I wistfully regarded the $300 TS letterman jacket – which is now listed as out of stock on Taylor’s website.
After I’d purchased dinner (red frankfurt hotdog for $5.80 and a bottle of Coke for $5.30), I made my way to my seat in Section A. Behind me was a boy in a Taylor t-shirt, and I couldn’t help but ask him for a photo.
This is Justin. He’s 23 and holding $150 worth of loot – a comparable figure to how much he’d bought at other big arena shows. Justin had also created a sign, one side of which read:
‘It’s got 11,000 likes already,’ he said. And this is the part where I implore you to add to his likes. Because he’s a nice guy, that Justin.
For the sake of painting a complete picture of the concert, I’m obliged to tell you that Neon Trees came on at around 6:30pm and were followed shortly thereafter by Guy Sebastian. Both were good. GSeb’s act included white ninjas.
As for the real show…
The lights went down shortly past 8:30pm. I was very glad that it didn’t start promptly at 8:30pm because at that precise time I was in the loos. I’d made my way there at 8:17pm, on the basis that I didn’t want to have to go while Taylor was on, though in hindsight even then, I really should have gone sooner. I remember hearing screams from outside as I was in the cubicle, and thinking that I was missing the opening. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. And I never did find out why the audience was screaming.
Taylor first appeared to us as a 50 foot tall silhouette behind a red curtain, which fell to reveal her in her Red tour trademark black high-waisted shorts, top, and bowler hat. She kicked things off with “State of Grace”, and as she was finishing, tossed her hat to a young girl in the mosh pit. All 39,999 of us watched as the girl’s face transformed into the very embodiment of hysteria.
Now hatless, Taylor greeted us and told us how much she loves coming to Sydney. ‘Consistency… is hard to find these days,’ she said. ‘But you consistently keep outdoing yourself.’ And to a screaming crowd, Taylor vowed, ‘I promise you, that I will consistently keep coming back.’
Next was “Holy Ground”, which began with Taylor and her dancers beating some very large drums. Her dancers were jerked up to the stage ceiling and down again like marionettes – a pretty amazing sight to behold.
She then launched into her second speech, the first of many about love. She started talking about some of the crazy emotions associated with love, and how she associates these emotions with the colour “Red”.
There was plenty of red on display for her next song, “Lucky one”, a whirl of 40s paparazzi and old Hollywood glamour. Taylor wore a red gown with a plunging neckline and elbow-length gloves.
After that, she swapped the floor-sweeping skirt for a flippy white one and turned down the tempo. She took a seat on what looked like a wooden chest, and clutched a banjo.
‘Looking at you, it occurs to me that you all look like you might be hopeless dreamers,’ she said warmly, and everyone screamed in agreement.
‘I’m kind of a hopeless dreamer myself.’
She told us about how when she was growing up, she didn’t have much of a social life.
‘That’s why I started writing songs. I didn’t have 40,000 people to hang out with on a Wednesday night!’
Taylor talked about how she was picked on as a kid, and how she strove to never intentionally make anyone else feel the way she felt back then.
‘If we can all try to do the same, we could help make the world a little nicer.’
To pause for a moment, I’d like to make a comment about Taylor’s between-song conversations with the audience. While one SMH reviewer thought her “speeches” dragged down the show, I personally thought a great deal of them.
They were as spontaneous as Taylor could make them in speaking on topics she’d covered dozens of times already across her 73-date Red Tour, but seemingly unrehearsed all the same. And because of this, yes, they were occasionally were a little wordy. It struck me though, that there was a certain power in her delivery. Laugh if you will, but it was almost… presidential. And yes, while the majority of the audience were predisposed to her message, she nevertheless held them in her thrall. Given the audience size, that’s no small feat.
But back to the show.
Taylor’s remarks about her childhood led into her banjo-infused “Mean”, complete with that look she gives every time she says, ‘Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing.’
During the costume change that followed, the audience was shown film reel-style clips of Taylor at age 1, then age 2, all the way up to 21. At which point, she burst onstage in a white top and red high-waisted shorts singing “22”.
Something most fans know about Taylor is that in each concert, she tries to make the folks in the cheap seats feel included. That night was no exception. As she sang about being happy, free confused and lonely at the same time, she was carried from one end of the stadium to the other by a group of male dancers. From the small stage at the back, she tied her hair up and strummed her ruby-hued Taylor guitar, launching into an acoustic version of old favourite “You belong with me.”
For her next song, Taylor asked the audience to hold up anything they have that lights up. Everyone obliged, and suddenly the stadium became a reflection of the night sky. Which, of course, because of the light pollution, was actually brighter than the stars above.
In that intimate way of hers, as if she were speaking to just a few people instead of a stadium full of fans, Taylor said that love is her favourite topic to write songs about, and how convenient this was because there’s so much to say about it. That it’s different each time.
‘It’s ever-changing… it looks different every time you look at it.’
At the front of the stadium, pictures of the Eiffel Tower were projected on the screen behind the stage. As a fan of Taylor’s, which I know that you are, you’ll remember that her video clip for “Begin again” is set in Paris.
Taylor made her way through the crowd once more, this time on foot, while doing “Sparks fly”. Appropriately, golden fireworks shot out from the stage and lit up the sky. She high-fived fans and posed for pictures all the way to the main stage.
She disappeared for a costume change before re-emerging for a masquerade ball-themed “I knew you were trouble”. At the song’s climax, her long white and gold dress was ripped off to reveal a fitted black vixen-esque outfit paired with her trademark black boots.
Another brief interval. She then re-emerged, seated at a piano at the highest elevation of the stage, tall gothic-style candlestick holders at either end.
‘The most common question I’m asked is why I write the songs that I do,’ Taylor began. ‘Why I write one song instead of another.’
Taylor said that her writing is driven by the desire to send a particular message to one person, whether it be that she wishes they never broke up, or she still thinks about them, or whatever it may be.
‘It’s like a message in a bottle,’ she added, saying that she never knows if a particular song will get released and whether the intended recipient will get her message or not.
‘It’s either the most cowardly way you can live your life… or the bravest.’
She then began playing “All too well”, a song that her fans have deduced is about her previous relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal.
It was a stirring performance made all the more remarkable by the intensity of emotion she delivered the song with. It would’ve been easy to forget that she has performed the song probably a hundred times before, if you include practice sessions, and yet she looked like what she was singing about happened just last week.
Because Taylor has sung the song many times before, in much the same way, every fan in the audience anticipated the part when she stopped playing and appeared on the verge of tears. She looked out into the encouraging audience and allowed herself a small smile. Then she continued, with the same expression of hurt and anger as before.
“All too well” was a clear highlight for me, the most affecting of her performances. I permitted myself to be moved and to shed the tears that she didn’t. I was grateful that it was dark, but even if it weren’t it didn’t matter. I wasn’t ashamed to feel deeply the emotion of the song – because Taylor teaches us that it’s okay to have lots of feelings!
Then again, you’d have to have something wrong with your hypothalamus or never experienced love and loss if you’re not be moved by these lyrics:
After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own / Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone.
After four minutes of dwelling on lost love, Taylor left then re-appeared barefoot in a flowing white dress for the optimistic “Love story”. She danced gallantly with a costumed male whose face was blown large onscreen and shown to be taking his role of Romeo very seriously indeed.
Next, still barefoot but this time in a black leotard top and skirt of white tulle, Taylor strode carefully along a catwalk that rose up a foot above the mosh pit. She held her arms out and walked as if she were on a tightrope for “Treacherous”.
Then she disappeared and we were treated to an interval of hijinks by dancers dressed in white Alice in Wonderland-like costumes. Which could only mean one thing… it was the big finale, a collision of Lewis Carroll and the Big Top, with Taylor as the circus ringmaster.
We are never ever getting back together. Like, ever.
More golden sparks pierced the sky, and later, of course, red fireworks. Then, a burst of confetti showered down upon the eager audience, with Taylor, on a crane, being lifted through the air and through the fluttering pieces of coloured paper.
It returned her to the stage, where she finished the song and then waved in farewell. Hand on hip, the stage beneath her descended. Taylor’s image lit up the screen behind her, the camera trained on this blonde one woman spectacular, until she was gone from view.
There was no encore, and her fans knew both not to expect one or to ask for one. As has been well-recorded, Taylor’s concerts are carefully scripted to beginning to end, and a big finale means a big finale.
The stadium lights flooded the grounds and turned night into day. The crowd obediently shuffled slowly up the sides of the stadium and to the exits.
‘What’s your name?’
I looked around me for the source of the question and saw Justin looking at me. ‘Sorry?’ I asked.
He repeated himself.
We spoke for a while, then I mentioned that I was waiting for the stadium to empty out a little so I could go search for some confetti to have as a keepsake. But not just any confetti – a red heart. I’d noticed as it was fluttering down during the show that the confetti was heart-shaped – a Taylor special.
Justin peered at the floor around him, then bent down and picked up a piece. He handed it to me. I glanced at my concert program and then into my bag in searching for someplace I could safely store the confetti.
After I’d secured it to the back of my phone inside its clear case, Justin asked if I wanted to join him in moving to the centre of the stadium to search for more confetti.
‘That’s okay,’ I told him. ‘One red heart’s enough for me.’
State of Grace
The Lucky One
You Belong with Me
I Knew You Were Trouble
All Too Well
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
All of the photos in the above gallery were taken by me using a Panasonic Lumix (DMC-TZ30). You’re welcome to use any of the images featured here, but please ask first (I have higher res copies) and credit me!