On her Reputation tour, Taylor Swift is more snake charmer than snake

You can try to hate her, to resist her winding melodies, but, at a show this good, it’s impossible. The music itself is her best revenge.

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Taylor Swift’s sixth album, Reputation, is stuffed with more vague allusions to her future revenge than a hammy production of Sweeney Todd. “All I think about is karma [...] Maybe I’ll get mine but you’ll all get yours”, she sings on “Look What You Made Me Do”. “I keep him forever,” she sings of a new lover on “...Ready For It”, and, just when you think she might have put revenge aside for a moment, adds, “Like a vendetta”. She never tells us what that revenge might be, but she constantly assures us it’s forever: she will have her vengeance, in this life or the next.

It would be an understatement to say that Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour leans in to this vindictive aesthetic. Comically large and evil-looking snake puppets adorn the stadium like something out of Aladdin: The Musical. (Jafar!? Is that you?) Dancers writhe in serpent-decked leathers. When gunshot sound effects go off in “I Did Something Bad”, fireworks shoot from the roof of the stadium, and giant balls of fire burst above the stage. Swift herself drips with attitude, all arched eyebrows and wicked smiles. It’s a thrilling spectacle: deliberately, delightfully camp. The whole affair crackles with delicious, petty drama. 

A big pop star rebrand poses a challenge when a live show comes around. Taylor Swift’s fans are fiercely in love with her, and most of them adore her early music: the sweet, innocent narratives at play in “Our Song”, “Back To December” and “All Too Well”. It would be easy for Swift to pretend she never said the “old Taylor” is “dead”, and run through her back catalogue of hits. But at Wembley, she played all 15 tracks from Reputation in full (some fans may have been disappointed that the surprise acoustic song on her set list, usually saved for a different old classic, was last night “So It Goes”, the only song from the new album not usually played on this tour). Instead, she gestures to her back catalogue through medleys: “Style”, “Love Story”, and “You Belong With Me” are weaved together, “Bad Blood” includes some verses from a track from her very first album, “Should’ve Said No”, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is mixed in with the bratty, raucous closer “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”.

Swift sets herself the difficult task of making the different Taylors, and their different sounds, tesselate, but she makes it look easy. It works best during the set’s piano ballad: a merging of Reputation’s country-adjacent closer “New Year’s Day”, and an old favourite, “Long Live”, usually considered to be a love letter from Taylor to her fans, featuring the line “I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you”. Around the stadium, fans held up signs reading “PROUD”, two fans held up signs reading “I had the time of my life fighting SNAKES with you”. During the ballad, there was a three minute-long ovation that left Swift in tears. 

Here, tweaks to the lyrics felt poignant. “I had the time of my life... with you,” Swift sang to the crowd, eliding the fighting dragons phrase. It would have been obvious to ramp up the one part of the song that most fits with Swift’s latest incarnation, instead she removed it completely. It felt like a nod to the idea that, behind all the pomp and ceremony, and the 20-foot-high snake statues, the same Taylor Swift who sings her “diary entries” to ride-or-die fans each night remains. “My reputation’s never been worse,” she sings on “Delicate”, with a smile. “So you must like me for me.”

It’s true that the backdrop to this show is Taylor Swift’s damaged reputation: over the last few years, even the most committed Taylor Swift fans have had to grapple with a number of public spats between Swift and Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in which Swift has come off looking the worst — like a villain playing the victim.

I love Swift’s music, but I went into the Reputation tour feeling sceptical. I left feeling that regardless of whether you think she’s not a snake, Taylor Swift is a snake charmer: you can try to hate her, to resist her winding melodies, but, at a show this good, it’s impossible. The music itself is her best revenge. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.