August 11, 2013 9:49 am
BY MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
What was Taylor Swift thinking playing the hometown of the rude guy who hijacked her acceptance speech at an award show that one time and looked so crushed he had to spend a year apologizing to her on talk shows, and when that didn’t work, he wore a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone the next year?
But wait. That was four years ago and Swift, a teenage country singer turned glamorous pop superstar, is newly branded as a righteous defender of being yourself in the face of adversity and is never, ever, ever, ever getting back together with Chicago’s Kanye West at an awards show podium to be humiliated that way. Like, ever.
Well, something like that. At her triumphant show at Soldier Field Saturday, Swift articulated the benefits of staying true to yourself, staying away from people who tear you down, and drawing strength from what she repeatedly called “the crazy emotions.” She paused before several songs to deliver long perfunctory speeches about these topics to her audience of mostly Generation Z females, as well as instructing them to vote for her for the upcoming VMA award. Representatives in the concourse were pressing the flesh for votes before the show too.
(Are times that bad? Unsolicited advice for Taylor: Hire a couple of precinct captains from Chicago and you’ll never lose an election again!)
For the record, there was music, dancers, and fireworks too during the nearly two-hour, 16-song show, but these elements provided convenient frames for Swift’s continued speeches about her self-professed struggle against misfortune, despite a video montage designed to show the 22-year-old has enjoyed a pretty fortuitous life as a professional singer since her tween years. “Crazy emotions make you stronger … they make you better,” she told her fans. Later in the show, in a break in a song, she turned to the video camera on cue so the stadium of fans could witness actual tears streaming down her face.
Emotional authenticity was the sales pitch, a strange one for a mega-production that cranked methodically along through light cues, wardrobe changes, video bumpers and choreography.
Swift’s natural magnetism provided the largest-scale asset of the evening. Unlike other stadium circuit stars of her time— Beyonce, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber — Swift doesn’t appear needing to prove herself as a dancer or high-flying aerialist. Instead, her confidence came through simpler gestures: flashing a mega-watt smile and commanding the stage with natural poise. Her vocals, while sounding brash against the pre-recorded backing tracks, is similarly unfussy. She is not a singer interested in catapulting her voice through octave runs or similar vocal machinery, but instead performs best as a vocal cheerleader who connects with her audience on more neutral ground. Even while high-fiving her audience as she jostled her way from one end of Solder Field to the other (buffered from real connection by her beefy security team, of course) Swift managed to get out all the lyrics of “Sparks Fly,” and not break a sweat in the process.
The grand-slam hits of “Red” (Big Machine), her latest and most accessible album, are why she is playing Soldier Field. The songs have enough bite for her young audience to dig into on their own, which they obliged on “Red,” “22,” “We are Never, Ever Getting Back Together,” classic bubblegum kiss-offs to the opposite sex. She also rotated through guitars, and a banjo, for a five-song set on a smaller stage. Opener Ed Sheeran joined her for “Everything Has Changed,” a song co-written song by both singers.
Swift was less convincing when circling back to rambling about the psychology of emotions, a delivery that ironically sounded rigid and memorized.
No matter. The real mirror-shattering moment was during “I Knew You Were Trouble,” a safe slice of electro-rock that allowed Swift to go through a catharsis that involved switching from a white to black outfit, whipping her hair, etc. Until soon after, she returned in sparkly red and all was all right in the world once again.