Step inside the Taylor Swift biodome on a Tuesday night in July, and the only thing that can follow you in is the heat. Drop your anxieties about our crumbling empire in that little plastic dish near the metal detector, then just keep walking. Once you enter this portable Disney World, the sound of screaming children is a good thing.
Or maybe it was a portable Las Vegas. Swift’s grand visit to Maryland’s FedEx Field on Tuesday featured a gurgling stone fountain, a piano with a faux granite finish and an arsenal of giant inflatable snakes. As for the singer herself, she spent her evening striding around in dark capes and sequined hoods, flashing sunshine smiles to kids in the nosebleeds — as if Glinda the Good Witch had just cleaned up at a Stevie Nicks yard sale and was now headlining the biggest slumber party on the East Coast.
This is how a massive pop concert is supposed to look in 2018, right? And this is how massive pop hits are supposed to sound? Most of Swift’s performance pulled from her latest album, “Reputation,” the singer’s most pronounced effort to dominate pop’s most typical center via big blasts of electronic bass and too much hip-hop pantomime. Onstage, that meant Swift only ever sounded as great as a typical pop star could hope to sound. The night’s most telling metaphor seemed to materialize straight away when she appeared onstage in silhouette, then rode out into the light on a conveyor belt.
Still, this woman has always known how to set her emotional interiority to astonishingly capacious melodies, and when tens of thousands of young voices are singing along — to “Style,” or “Love Story,” or “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” — the outside world can feel very far away.
And during her stage-banter soliloquies, the real world felt nonexistent. Swift was chatty, but she did not mention any of her loved ones, or her cat, or those pesky white supremacist supporters who she has never publicly disavowed. Instead, she laser-focused on “you guys” and how crazy it is that “you guys” grew up on her songs, and how great it is that “you guys” followed a country star into popland, and how, in the end, she really owes it all to “you guys.” It was as if her music’s sole function was to express her indebtedness to those who paid to come listen to it.
It made for two hours of relentless gratitude and zero surprises — an exercise in expectation-fulfillment that suddenly felt profound during “New Year’s Day,” a new piano ballad that attempts to square the noise of last night with the quiet of the years ahead. “I want your midnights,” goes the song’s terrific hook. “But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.”
Singing those beautiful words from behind her ugly piano, Swift’s greater proposition never seemed more clear. The biodome is not only air-locked. It is time-locked, too. This music is trying to make the unknowable future feel as resolved as the past. The only thing left to decide is whether that leaves you feeling enchanted or insane.