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22 June 2024

Taylor Swift’s Eras tour conquers London

At Wembley Stadium, the pop star presented a kaleidoscopic, whiplash-inducing spectacle that passed by in a blur.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Taylor Swift had performed 103 shows in 36 cities before her Eras tour came to Wembley Stadium in London on 21 June. Already on the round for a year, three months and four days, Swift’s three-and-a-half hour set list includes more than 40 songs from her 11 albums, or “eras” (and since the tour started, she has played almost 200 “surprise” songs not on the official list). The tour has sold more than 4.3 million tickets worldwide, generating over $1bn in sales. It’s also been made into a concert film that took $267m at the US box office.

The sheer scale of the event is difficult to comprehend, not just in the abstract but in person. The tour’s first UK dates in Edinburgh saw the city overrun by hundreds of thousands fans. Every bar blared her music and offered free cocktails, every shop contained a sad sign in the window: “Sorry, we are sold out of Taylor Swift merch :( ”. On every corner, you’d see them: girls in sparkly dresses and tour sweatshirts. Even women in ordinary-seeming outfits carried coded messages. The lumpy cable-knit cardigan bought from her official store, the sweater embroidered with her birth year (and album title) 1989, the shirts emblazoned with fragments of lyrics (“crying at the gym” or “pathological people pleaser”). On the way to the venue, closed down streets were trodden by a parade of white cowboy boots. Even a city as big as London can feel overwhelmed by the fandom. At Wembley, the 90,000 fans danced to obscure hits on Olympic Way on the way to the stadium.

But none of this compares to the immensity of the event on stage: a kaleidoscopic, whiplash-inducing spectacle that passes by in a blur, and isn’t anywhere near as exhausting as it should be. Swift rises through the stage surrounded by dancers to a fragment from her euphoric, love-struck album Lover, and after the roar of the crowd has subsided ever so slightly, she introduces herself with a knowingly understated, “Oh, hi!” before launching into one of her most popular pop hits, “Cruel Summer”, a rush of blood to the head with a scream-along bridge. (“Does anyone here happen to know the words?” she asks. “Prove it!”) It’s the kind of indestructible, irresistible song that most artists would save for the encore, but Swift tosses it out early, with a wink.

It sets the bar high for the remaining hours, which careen wildly between genres and tones from her earliest sweet country ballads of first heartbreak to the snarling hip-hop-inspired revenge bangers of Reputation; and from the bulletproof Max Martin-produced pop that topped charts in the early 2010s to the intricate, defiantly mellow indie of her pandemic albums Folklore and Evermore. (This makes for some startling transitions: the sparkling final notes of the twee and tweenage love song “Enchanted” segues into the growling bass of one of her most confrontational, rap-adjacent songs, “Ready for It…?”.) There are pyrotechnics, light displays, confetti explosions; Swift disappears and reappears on stage in clouds of silks or explosions of colour, seamlessly changing between glittering bodysuits, floaty dresses and a now famous one-legged black catsuit adorned with a shining red snake.

The clever conceit of the Eras tour is that it appeals to all of Swift’s wide fanbase, who advocate for their favourite albums fiercely. Still, there are collective highlights: “Cruel Summer” has caused responses from crowds that register on the Richter scale (really). Heard live, the furious energy of Reputation’s “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Ready for It” are impossible to deny. Her most perfect pop songs, 1989’s “Style” and “Wildest Dreams”, sound even sleeker and more timeless than they did a decade ago. Her oldest songs, such as “Fearless” and “You Belong with Me”, generate intense bursts of emotion because of just how long the crowd have been singing them: the countless 30-something women who sang the lyrics “Been here all along/So why can’t you see/You belong with me?” alone in their teenage bedrooms. The extended, ten-minute-long version of the song that is often considered her masterpiece, “All Too Well”, retains all its emotional complexity, autumn leaves fluttering down from the sky on cue. The exhilarating glitter explosion of “Karma” is a suitably climactic final song. And the introduction of her 11th album, The Tortured Poets Department, adds a tricksy, meta element, as she performs songs written during the first leg of the tour itself, including “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart”, in which she brags about “hitting my marks” despite being “miserable… and no one even knows!” (She performs this after being forced, sulkily, into a glittery tuxedo by her dancers.)

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Swift proves herself not just an inexhaustible performer but a talented actress, as she moves from yearning to rageful to exultant and back, and feigns surprise and awe, night after night, at the intensity of the crowd’s reactions. She seeks out the cameras that rotate around her stages with practised ease. She is most comfortable in a posture of high camp, whether flashing faux-coy smiles, luxuriating in overdramatic eyerolls, or throwing herself into theatrical Wicked Witch of the West arm movements.

The risk of a concert this slick, this precisely choreographed, this watched and rewatched, with its concrete setlist of songs that are so deeply familiar to its audience, is a loss of spontaneity and intimacy. Swift is something of a type-A performer, and perhaps inevitably for a tour of this scope, this show is more about perfection than messy human interaction. The polished, synthetic production style of her most familiar songs makes them ideal stadium-fillers, and they are reproduced strikingly faithfully here: efficient cuts aside, Swift rarely reworks her material into anything novel.

Instead, she finds one concentrated space for surprise and connection: the “acoustic set”, or two surprise songs she sings on acoustic guitar and piano each night, often mixing different songs together. At Wembley, she played on piano “The Black Dog” – from her most recent album, and set in a pub in Vauxhall – for the first time, blending it with Red’s “Come Back… Be Here” (“I guess you’re in London today, and I don’t wanna need you this way”) and Midnights’ “Maroon”. On guitar, she mixed “Hits Different” with fan favourite, the rarely performed live “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, known for its much-loved bridge (“I chose these songs because they are two of my favourite bridges I’ve ever written,” she told the crowd. “I’m going to try to put together my two favourite bridges and create a megabridge”). It’s a special moment for thousands in the stadium: when the concert ended, it was this that countless voices could be heard reliving.

After a production so successful and so expansive, its hard to imagine where Taylor Swift can go next. The Eras tour has the feeling of a greatest hits tour, usually reserved for artists at the end of long careers. You get the sense that her audience would bankrupt themselves to watch her sing anything she liked. But having found a way to celebrate each phase of her back catalogue with the fans who each hold a different one dear, how could she ever put on a standard album tour again? It’s possible that in decades to come, music writers will look back at the Eras tour as the peak of Swift mania, the moment the pop star reached the height of her powers. But hers is a crown she won’t give up easily. As she sang at the end of the night on “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart”, with the stadium echoing her words back to her: “Try and come for my job.”

Taylor Swift plays Wembley Stadium in London on 22 and 23 June and 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20 August.

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine