August 9, 2023 was the final show this year of Taylor Swift’s tour across the United States. She won’t be back until late 2024 for some recently added shows in Miami, New Orleans and Indianapolis. It wasn’t just a concert; it was a tent show revival held in Los Angeles in the stunning SOFI Stadium.
Given all the noise and posturing surrounding this tour in which government officials proposed legislation and investigations into why there weren’t enough tickets for everyone (demand exceeded supply), it was nice to see the U.S. tour conclude, and watch as the rest of the world acted more reasonably. Most people understand that when demand exceeds supply for a big concert tour, it’s literally musical chairs. Some people get to go, others do not. No amount of peacocking or TikTok postings will change the simple math of there are only so many seats and they are already taken.
There’s a certain formula for big room concerts these days: visuals keyed to the play list run in the background while the act plays. Sometimes there are dancers on stage to add color. Occasionally, the lead singer interacts with the crowd, but usually it is just two hours of a carefully paced set list and done.
Taylor Swift did not put on a concert. She brought two opening bands who played the enormous stage in concert style: Gayle and Haim. They played their hits while the audience found seats, drinks and settled in for the evening. That was the “concert” portion of the evening.
When the clock began to tick down the two and a half minutes until Swift came on, displayed at full scale on the stage’s screens, the room changed from a concert venue to a fully immersive happening. The Beatles would have been jealous of the velocity of noise filling the massive space. This audience, already in full Taylor inspired dress, draped with friendship bracelets, and made up in ways to pay homage to their hero was more than ready. When the clock hit zero and the dancers made their way halfway down the stage to the giant center point of the stage extension the fans were shaking with anticipation.
The dancers, working with large fabric extensions of themselves huddled into the middle of center stage as Taylor ascended from beneath. As she appeared the room felt like a cork had just evacuated a champagne bottle. After months of waiting, and more than two hours on site gathering merchandise and watching the two solid opening acts – Gayle and Haim – it was time. Taylor was here and there began the nearly four hour journey through all the Eras of her career.
Once Taylor’s portion of the show started, you could immediately understand the level of planning which went into the fine details of the staging, lights and effects. This show underlined the difference between artistry and artifice. There was nothing false about what went on. Taylor for the most part was in the middle of the room, moving freely along the massive stage runner which split SOFI nearly in two. She sang her songs and spoke to the audience. While she did, effects went off which enhanced and elevated the crowds’ engagement. Everyone who entered the stadium was given a wrist strap which contained a multicolored light which flashed in accordance with signals sent from cameras positioned throughout. These lights were keyed to create colors which enhanced the mood of nearly every song, and from time-to-time patterns such as a big red heart would appear filling an entire section of the stadium.
The staging elements were not fancy, except for the way in which LED screens made up the floor and background of the staging, making it possible for every space where performers moved to become interactive. It was not the first time that lighting, hydrogen, fire and fireworks, movable stage elements, props and costumes have been used to enhance a show, but this was one of the best executed examples of how to do it perfectly.
Watching the parade of costumed dancers moving downstage when Taylor sang from center stage while a scissor lift moved her seemingly 15 feet into the air, then back down again as beams of light danced around the stage perimeter made the event more visually engaging. It made me think about what was happening here, where music was the lead, and the design elements were meant to add to the experience. It struck me that the $2.4 billion Sphere which is getting ready to open in Las Vegas is likely doomed. What engages a crowd is not perfect sound, SOFI certainly had echoes and noise leak. It’s not becoming insignificant in the face of an all-encompassing screen. What has made this specific tour such a global success is that Taylor Swift figured out how to use social media to build community, then strengthened that community by continuing to put out new music, online posts, photos, and every other facet of keeping her fans unified. Even during this specific performance, there were little cues to let everyone feel like an insider. You would watch Swift singing on the giant screen, then she’d mouth something unrelated to the song and it read like a personal message to each fan in attendance.
The global effect of Taylor Swift’s tour has been staggering. When she comes into a city, it is an economic force which lifts their economies. Hotels are full and fully priced, restaurants and bars do well, clothes are bought, and drinks are sold. It has often been said about how golf tournament attendance moved that Tiger Woods didn’t move the “needle” he was the needle. Taylor Swift is not the needle. She is the magnet which pulls every needle her way, where it sticks until she moves to the next town and repeats the effect.
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