Megastar Taylor Swift began a three-night run in Houston on Friday, April 22, the first of three monstrously sold-out shows inside the cavernous NRG Stadium, or as it's known this weekend, "NRG Stadium (Taylor's Version)."
She's the first artist to play three straight shows inside the stadium. The crowd was estimated at 62,690.
Earlier this week, Swift merch trucks arrived on site, quickly mobbed by fans and families who couldn't afford tickets to the shows proper or wanted to get first crack at the wares before they went up for sale in the concourses. You will be seeing this merch for the rest of the year. The shirts. The bracelets. The branded everything.
This 52-date tour comes with all the religiosity and thrill of a big tent revival. It's a traveling affirmation of her legacy, running through the past two decades of her discography, with accompanying costume changes. If she ever hits her Vegas Residency Era, they might build a hotel and casino for the occasion.
Imagine revisiting all of your personal eras over the course of three hours every night. It's not quite a greatest hits show, but a greatest weird vibes tour. It's been constructed with enough flashbacks and callbacks to tell a cohesive story. Each of those cuts is there for a specific reason, and Swifties can deduce the why and how for each song's inclusion.
Some acts find it hard to rectify their past personas, preferring to throw them in the mental and physical junk drawers, but Swift's had an open diary of a career. She's made it okay to look back with a touch of anger to find a common thread because she's been methodical enough to leave plenty of connective tissue.
Swift's tour is easily the biggest of the post-COVID era, with demand and thirst for tickets reaching biblical levels of frustration and triumph. In the long term, it may change how concert tickets are sold now that the government has seen enough. In the short term, millions of credit scores will take a hit.
There is no past analog for what Swift currently holds in her hands. Her only true, current-day peer is Beyoncé regarding the devotion and mania she's commanded. Even Beyoncé seems to have backed away from the kind of exposure that Swift enjoys for queenly applause and cathartic, culture-defining tours. Beyoncé doesn't have eras as much as she has had a veritable planetary reign since the first George W. Bush administration.
Plop Swift in the '80s, and she would be the equivalent of Madonna and Michael Jackson combined, with a dash of Stevie Nicks, Carole King, and Siouxsie Sioux thrown in for zest. Lately, she's been closer to her namesake, James Taylor, in introspection and wordplay.
On Friday night, the streets around NRG were closed except for roving multigenerational bands of sequined dresses, handcrafted jackets, and the occasional dad already in earplugs, ears girded for screams. Every sequined dress in the Gulf Coast area was at NRG Stadium on Friday and will be in residency until Sunday. Houston Texans head coach Demeco Ryans and his squad will be breathing in glitter dust all Texans season long inside NRG Stadium, no doubt.
Just before 8 pm, Swift hit the stage and embarked on a three-hour tour through the various eras of her career in a non-linear format, preferring to tell her story in vignettes of pop fire of multiple hues. Compartmentalizing a nearly 20-year career is no tall order, especially for a 33-year-old alone at the top of a mountain.
Luckily, she's the master of recasting even the messier bits as lessons, not misfires. As she's begun to diversify her creative output and get more pastoral with her last three albums, it's hard not to see an era-spanning tour like this as a polite form of setting some of those former faces on a shelf for the next decade.
Showcasing her "Lover" era -- centered around the 2019 album -- allowed the material that never made it to tour (thanks to COVID) to get its long-awaited live due. The "Lover Tour" was one of the most significant pandemic-era casualties of the music world, a surefire hit with a solid set of new songs to showcase. "The Man" and "You Need to Calm Down" finally got the stage set adulation they deserved.
The "Fearless" era is the glue of sorts to this whole thing, as it's where a great deal of the crowd will be stepping inside NRG this weekend, fully invested in Swift as she teetered over from country to power-pop. A song like "You Belong With Me" can exist on several plains, which speaks to Swift's songwriting prowess. Later in the wildcard portion of the set, she played a wizened and poisonous take on "You're Not Sorry" alone on the piano.
It was on the "Evermore" and "Folklore" portions of the night where things got interesting, with Swift casting herself as a very Stevie witchy woodland fairy, swathed in soft-goth finery surrounded by a dramatic, moss-covered set design. She seemed to be the most comfortable in a flowing cream-colored dress and ballet flats than any other part of the night, acting out the emotions of the characters she conjured across those two albums. "Tolerate It" came with Swift and a male dancer in an emotional chess match at a kitchen table.
The "Reputation"-era material has aged incredibly well for an album that at the time confused everyone but Swifties, who completely bought into the cryptic industrial pop collection. During this era, Swift was finally able to respond to what had been a hellacious set of years in the tabloids with the proportional amount of venom in from her glittered fangs.
The catharsis of Swift returning to the touring stage was laid bare during "Look What You Made Me Do" for both the artist and the audience. Swift commented on the pandemic's influence on her relationship with her fans and career. Fans had been waiting to sing these songs at a concert for five years, and she had spent just as long working back to the stage.
Looking back at the "1989" era in a new context alongside the collected other eras, the songs acquire a sly bitterness that went unnoticed the first time. "1989" was a monster of a shout-laden pop album, a party thrown in defiance of haters. All Swift had to do was reorder these songs during a three-hour to show off new colors we hadn't seen before. "Wildest Dreams" remains a modern torch song stunner.
Throughout the night, Swift would always return to the tools of her trade, the piano or the guitar, to give songs on the setlist the emphasis she thought they deserved. Even her most playful hits began as an idea on a guitar. Imagine a solo Swift acoustic tour, with our heroine captivating an 80,000-seat stadium.
By the time we got to the final leg of the night — the current "Midnights" era — both "Lavender Haze" and "Anti-Hero" felt like summations of the night. Swift made an excellent after-hours album for ruminating to, combining her newfound character-driven songwriting style with a lo-fi skitter that throbs and rumbles inside a stadium.
Being able to intellectually redesign and recast even the messiest pieces of your past as an artist is something we've only seen the likes of Dylan and Bowie having the latitude to do. Most artists stay in the same gear for decades out of financial necessity. There's a long game shaping up. Whatever era awaits us after this or the next Swift persona we've yet to meet will be in great company.
"Strategy," sings Swift, "sets the scene for the tale."
Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince
You Need to Calm Down
You Belong With Me
'tis the damn season
...Ready for It?
Don't Blame Me
Look What You Made Me Do
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
I Knew You Were Trouble
All Too Well
the last great American dynasty
my tears ricochet
Shake It Off
You’re Not Sorry (Taylor’s Version)