The best revenge Taylor Swift could have against media sniping, celebrity ex-boyfriends and Kanye West-style haters would be that, after Justin Bieber and a generation of boy bands have fallen into oblivion, she makes the transition from teen prodigy to grown-up star.
Now 23, Swift was the girlish, sincere center of the Cirque du Pop extravaganza that is her RED tour, which kept thousands of girls up long past their bedtimes at a sold-out AmericanAirlines Arena Wednesday night. The show was filled with color-coded accents: glittery red shoes and microphone, red guitar, red dresses, red piano and bright red lipstick on Swift’s pale, enigmatic face.
“I write songs about my feelings,” she told the screaming crowd after taking the stage with State of Grace and Holy Ground, two of 12 songs from her latest album, Red, which dominated the show. “Heartbreak, frustration, miscommunication – ugh. But those emotions are the ones that teach us who we’re gonna be. They teach you to grow up. And in my mind, those emotions are red,” she said.
Her tween-to-teen female fan base takes those kinds of lessons to heart. Swift seems to have made an astute transition from the adolescent dreams and trials of her breakout 2008 mega-hit Fearless to her new identity of self-determined young woman. She resolutely rejected no-good boyfriends on I Knew You Were Trouble, done as a gothic fantasy, and made a joyful pop-dance declaration of self in 22, with dancers carrying her through the ecstatic crowd. There were only two songs from Fearless in her set: her underdog-girl-gets-boy hit You Belong to Me, revamped as a Motown-style girl-group number with four back-up singers, and Love Story.
Swift no longer acts the shy, awestruck girl in concert, but she still came across as sincere and open in a way that made her the modest but adored mistress of a girl-power mega church. The arena was filled with girls in red T-shirts, costumes, bows, headbands and other gear modeled on Swift videos plus glow sticks and electric lights on bobbing signs that filled the arena with light.
Their anthem was Mean, which hits a 9-year-old struggling with bullying or a 19-year-old facing peer pressure with equal force. “I used to think when you grew up there’d be no more mean kids,” Swift said. “Then I realized there’s always gonna be someone who picks on you.” She launched it alone with a banjo, backed by an ardent chorus of thousands.
Swift is not a powerhouse vocalist, and her voice, still girlish, breathy and ever so faintly nasal, occasionally got lost in the mix. But she showed herself a confidently expressive singer with none of the off-key uncertainty that has sometimes marred her performances.
In the course of the show, she played electric, acoustic and 12-string guitar, banjo and piano. In reflective ballads like Begin Again, which she did in an acoustic segment on a small platform in the middle of the audience, and the quietly wrenching All Too Well, accompanying herself on piano, she was genuinely powerful.
How she balances that creative and confessional talent with the circus-like pop extravagance of the finale, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, remains to be seen. But Swift may well yet turn out to be an artist with enough talent and substance to survive her hype.