By Carson Mlnarik
In the latter half of the evening at Newark's Prudential Center on Saturday, August 24, Taylor Swift takes a few steps forward, then a few steps back. She gently slings an acoustic guitar over her shoulder after shrugging into a sparkly purple suit jacket. She's taking slow, strong strides from center stage along a luminous 70-foot catwalk toward the front edge where her mic stand rests. It's a timed walk she has to nail before the song begins. Can she make it?
The Lover singer is in the middle of rehearsals for her 2019 VMAs performance, which she'll begin with a vibrant recreation of "You Need to Calm Down" backed by characters from its colorful video and a rainbow mountainscape on a ginormous 36-by-164 foot screen. Then she'll grab that guitar and jacket for her new single "Lover" amid a pastel flower bed rendered via the stage's 897 video LED tiles. Swift has to accomplish all this in just a few beats.
Oh yeah, and she's opening the show. In two days. But no pressure.
The performance is already the bow on top of a busy release week for her seventh album. She arrived in Newark on Saturday evening after a pit stop in Chelsea, where she took photos with fans who waited hours in line for her Stella McCartney pop-up shop. Back here onstage, her dancers and drag-queen friends, including A'keria C. Davenport and her doppelgänger Jade Jolie, do a few runs without Swift as the crew solidifies angles and camera paths. Their routines are polished by the time Taylor hits the stage in full costume and unmistakable red lipstick. In true Taylor form, she's thorough in her oversight of every technical, physical, and creative aspect of the rehearsal.
It comes as no surprise that her opening number runs like a well-oiled machine on show night, from its intricate props, augmented reality and pyrotechnic effects, and an all-star appearance from her BFF Todrick Hall. Yet even in the face of grandeur, Swift maintains the lyrical depth, candidness, and attention to detail that's amassed her large following — her soft-pink guitar is emblazoned with a glittery "Lover" in script. The crowd's cheers rivaled the sound system.
"I can say most of the audience [were] Taylor fans," Jorge, who was in the fan pit near the stage for the show, told MTV News. "I [recognized] the number 13 on their hands and symbols of the new era like butterflies and very colorful clothes."
Swift knows spectacle. Only 48 hours before, she was watching fireworks shoot off with every opening beat of "Calm Down" for the first time, applauding with her dancers and crew as sparks echoed through the trusses. Still, it was her performance of "Lover" — the track's live debut, and the first time Swift has brandished a guitar on the VMAs stage — that marked one of the most intimate moments of the evening.
"The first notes of the guitar made me shiver and cry," Jorge said. "I had many emotions at the time."
Her signature camera look was as meticulously rehearsed as her flourishes during the song's untethered bridge, and the energy was undeniable, especially among fans in the pit. But Swift presented with infectious intimacy, inspiring as many tender moments from the A-list crowd as she did for viewers at home.
"Everything was so stunning, it felt like I was there," Hayley, a fan who watched with her husband at home, told MTV News. "The crowd was so energetic at the show, so it made the performance even more special."
Swift's joyous pro-LGBTQ+ romp went on to take home both Video for Good and Video of the Year at the ceremony. She used her speech for the latter to call out the White House for failing to respond to her Equality Act petition at the time of airing. Of course, the Trump administration got back to her the next day. This must be what it looks like to be at the top of your game.
Days before, back in an empty Prudential Center, Swift makes a few quick changes, practicing her microphone pass and wardrobe change before launching into a final run. Would she get to the mic by the time the triumphant first chords of "Lover" echo through the arena?
Of course she did.