The line for the ice cream stand may have been longer than the line for the bar at the packed-to-the-rafters Verizon Center on Saturday night, and the audience a little higher-pitched than your standard stadium crowd, but don’t let that fool you: Taylor Swift turned in a rock-solid, musically adventurous performance, and she would like you to know that she’s no longer the doe-eyed, sugar-sweet tween-pop princess you thought you knew.
Or that, JK, she *totally* still is. (LOL!) I mean, maybe? Whatever.
In 2011, Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Maerz described the pop-country starlet as “always kinda shocked about something.” And in 2012, Kristen Wiig impersonated Swift on “Saturday Night Live” by donning a blond wig, tiptoeing into a scene with her hands over her mouth in astonishment, then silently scampering away again. The “Red” tour, though — a showcase for Swift’s critically and commercially successful, post-breakup-angsty 2012 album of the same name — is all about gleefully defacing that young, dewy Taylor Swift of the past. Except, of course, in those moments when it’s about immortalizing her.
The surprising new Swift that showed up to play Saturday was — at first — a smirking, vamping, barb-throwing version who knew full well that she held all 14,000 fans in the palm of her hand. After opening with “State of Grace,” she stood still and silent before a shrieking audience, then lifted her chin regally and turned her fedora-topped head to the left — and the entire section under her benevolent gaze went wild. She turned to the right. Same reaction. Swift asked the audience who was at their first Taylor Swift show; for first-timers, she offered, “I’m Taylor. It’s nice to meet you. I write a lot of songs about my feelings.” Faux-patronizingly, as a stories-high reproduction of her smug, pursed lips lit up the giant screen behind her, she added, “I’m told I have a lot of feelings.”
The sending-up of Old Taylor Swift continued with a cartoonishly sexy Betty Boop-ified rendition of Swift’s achingly sincere 2009 teenage love letter “You Belong With Me,” and on into her startling, well-worth-the-risk performance of “I Knew You Were Trouble,” when a white fairy-tale-princess dress was abruptly zipped away to unveil a black-lace leotard and knee-high boots just as throaty dubstep wobbles and EDM-festival lighting descended. And a short, pointed interlude about finally growing up only to realize that “people don’t outgrow meanness” gave way to a newly indignant rendition of “Mean,” her 2011 anti-bullying anthem. (Be warned, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. No more boyfriend jokes.)
For every act of defiance, though, there was a moment designed to recall Swift’s vintage banjo-strumming-babysitter-next-door persona — from the guitar-assisted performance of 2010’s heartbreakingly earnest “Never Grow Up” and the reassurance that “you guys could all be my best friends” to the charming, barefoot-in-the-castle take on 2008’s “Love Story,” which she performed in a gauzy white prom-ready gown. With a breathy giggle, she even thanked the audience for showing up to hear her sing her feelings.
So which one’s the real Taylor Swift these days? Well, maybe both. This weekend, Swift proved she’s a gifted, still-maturing artist not so astounded at her own fame anymore but instead shrewdly taking control of her worldwide celebrity. One day she’ll likely have to grow out of the squeaky-clean-teen act unambiguously, but Saturday night, she put on a masterful, in-between-phases show just by taking the stage and, you know, feeling 22.
Fetters is a freelance writer.