“I had a feeling, just a feeling, that this crowd was going to be loud.”
Admittedly, that was hardly risky prophesy on the part of Taylor Swift, the 20 year old country pop megastar at the onset of a near-two hour concert at Rupp Arena last night. The performance was full of abundant positivity, theatricality and, at times, unavoidable dead weight. But Swift made good on her forecast. The sold out crowd of 18,000 treated her like royalty. And Swift reciprocated the love to a lavish degree.
Taylor’s show was, in every sense, a production. She entered the stage (well, actually, she popped up through its floor) dressed as a majorette (as were all seven members of her band) for the show opening You Belong With Me, donned Renaissance regalia for Love Story (as did her band) and confidently patrolled the performance in various shiny, sequined garbs. Her stage set, a multi-level affair, made efficient use of projections and props. At various points, it transformed itself from a fairyland castle to a library to a New York skyline. Coloring the festivities was a team of six dancers that initially helped propel the production but ultimately added to its steadily erratic pace.
Of course, the most audience winning effect were the glances, smiles and looks of amazement that Swift flashed to the crowd. Given that they were generously splashed with remarkable clarity across a massive video screen, the looks ignited the crowd. As such they became a recurrent device that drew increasingly feverish responses as the evening progressed. Ms. Swift, it seemed, was more than ready for her close up.
On one hand, it is hard to fault the general design of a show like this. There were a generous number of children – mostly girls – 10 and under at Rupp last night. In between opening sets by Gloriana and Kellie Pickler, their faces lit up with the sort of genuine, appealing zeal usually reserved for Christmas morning. That alone was a thrill.
As Swift’s performance progressed, the motivational narratives – the sort of confessions best understood between teens – increased, which was also fine. In fact, the concert’s most anthemic moment was also its most effective – a buoyant reading of the title tune to Swift’s multi-platinum 2008 album Fearless, performed with her entire band (save the drummer) in a row, Springsteen-style at the front of the stage.
And for those posing the big question – specifically, whether or not Swift could actually sing (a query enforced by some severely shaky television outings this year) – the answer last night seemed to be an affirmative one. A champion belter, she’s obviously not. And for sheer range and depth, Pickler was the uncontested vocal champ of the night, even though she was visibly distracted by monitor problems during her 35 minute warm-up set. Still, Swift’s singing was honestly serviceable and durable enough to withstand the show’s physical demands.
But like most performances so heavily dependent on props, costumes and theatrical devices, the concert began to sag at the mid way point. The costume changes became longer and more frequent. Or maybe because the the pace slowed, they just seemed that way. By the time the concert, minus encores, began to wind down with Picture to Burn, parents and their weary (or, in some cases, fast asleep) children began to file out.
Still, a hearty bond between artist and audience had been forged. After performing Hey Stephen on the lower arena steps between Rupp sections 15 and 16, Swift took her time walking down to the arena floor, where she sang her breakthrough hit, Tim McGraw (talk about audience/artist adulation) from a second stage. Along the way – and again as she walked through the floor audience back to the main stage, Swift hugged every patron she could get her arms around. The audience awarded her with an ovation that lasted just over five minutes.
So, yes, the Rupp crowd was loud indeed. Chances are, in fact, that if Swift had chosen spend the night standing onstage, with her amazed gaze blown up to Jumbotron proportions, fans not burdened with parental duties would have cheered her on until the roosters crowed.