Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
If you're ever looking for a good time, bring a couple of grown men to a Taylor Swift concert. "Emotionally overwhelming," is how one friend -- an esteemed forty-something rock critic -- described the scene inside Newark's Prudential Center. And that was kind of an understatement. The first thing I thought when I stepped inside the cavernous arena filled with approximately 18,000 manic young women was that the Romans would have approved. When not packed with pop star acolytes, the arena hosts New Jersey Devil's games, which seems about right because a Taylor Swift show is kind of the teenage girl version of a really good hockey match: a visceral expression of primal anguish morphing into ecstatic joy and back again all in the space of a few hours. The general vibe in the arena might have been a few octaves higher than on game day but it was no less intense. These girls came to play.
The friend I brought with me -- a giant Taylor fan but an adult and, you know, a man -- expressed a certain amount of concern at the intensity in the air. Didn't it feel kind of ... anxious? I explained that he was simply sensing by osmosis what it's like to be a teenage girl. This night had no doubt been marked in (digitized) red pen with emoticon hearts and confetti on the iCals of many of these young women as the one moment perhaps for months where all the uncertainty and general terror about who they are and who they are becoming would be transformed into purposeful glee. Or to quote Taylor, the night they would feel "happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way."
That line is from, "22," which was among the standout performances of the night -Taylor in red jeans and a letter jacket, carried through the crowd on the shoulders of her dancers, transforming the entire arena into an all-demographics-included pep rally. From the thrilling campiness of the wind-up doll dancers to the drama of the 1950s cigarette girl number, the entire show felt like exactly what you'd expect if you gave a 23-year-old girl millions of dollars to plan a show for her friends. I mean that as a complement.
Anyone who is still wondering why music people take Swift seriously should imagine Ryan Adams covering "Our Song" or Joni Mitchell doing "Dear John." The question -- is this girl a real songwriter? -- has been asked and answered. But what's so remarkable about Swift's brand of pop stardom is her ability to be both a giant multimedia industry unto herself and a legitimately relatable human being. The only other artist the rock boys and I could come up with who mass markets sincerity on this level is Bruce Springsteen. And so far as I know, Bruce's mom isn't part of his arsenal, but Taylor's is. Before the show began, a ripple went around the arena like an on-the-ground wave. From down the aisle we saw a tall blonde making her way through the throngs, dispensing hugs as young women crumpled around her. Was Justin Bieber in the house? No. It was Andrea Swift, Taylor's mother, who is apparently as much an emotional touchstone to Swift fans as the singer herself. "She said she liked our shirts," cooed one of the two girls sitting next to me in disbelief, after Mama Swift embraced her and whispered in her ear. The girl’s friend just sobbed, wiping tears on the hem of her T-shirt decorated with Swift lyrics written in different colored Sharpie.
Recently a parody of "22" called "32" made the rounds on YouTube. The clip isn't mean-spirited, it just aims to get at a truth Swift couldn't possibly write about since she hasn't yet experienced it: What happens when ten years have gone by and you're still confused and lonely but not necessary in the best way? (Sample lyrics: "I have wrinkles and acne at the same time ... had goals when I was younger now I don't give a hoot.") When you first feel them, heartbreak and loneliness have a shiny clarity -- there's a sharpness to that kind of pain that makes it seem exciting the first few times around. But that acuity dulls with time. It's a testament to Swift’s influence that women 10 years older are essentially hitting the ball back across the net to her, saying, "Yeah okay, but what about the next chapter?"
For a few minutes onstage the other night I got a glimpse of what Swift’s answer to that question might look like. The singer, alone at the piano in a dramatic gown, performed "All Too Well," off Red. Like many of her songs this one is about the way broken love stays with you. "You call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel in the name of being honest." But she gave this performance something extra. Instead of her signature redemptive joy, she showed an unhinged ferocity as she pounded on the keys, head tipped back, throat exposed, long blonde hair flowing. "It was rare I was there I remember it all too well," she sang as the camera closed in on her face, and suddenly the arena was filled with the image of Taylor, lips still perfectly painted, blue eyes wide and filled with tears.