Thursday, July 25, 2024

On Stage and on Screen, Taylor Swift Invites Us All to Revisit Our Own Eras

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Spoilers for Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour below.

Before this weekend, the last time I’d seen Taylor Swift in any meaningful way—e.g. not seeing her transform into a real-life meme at the VMAs; not attempting to decode her movements from behind glass at a football game—was Memorial Day weekend in New Jersey. I arrived at MetLife Stadium that Sunday, drenched in sequins and surrounded by girlfriends, to attend the Eras Tour, the three-hour-plus spectacle that has taken over nearly every crevice of our lives this year: our TikTok feeds, our economy, our craft stores, and now, our movie theaters.

To put it simply, I loved the Eras Tour, and Swift is unbelievably good at what she does. But for weeks after that concert, I tried to untangle why, throughout so much of the night, I had felt distracted, pulled in so many different directions at once. For one, I was distracted by the hordes of concert-goers in Eras-themed costumes. (As we walked with a sea of expertly dressed fans toward the stadium, my friend turned to me and said, “Can you imagine if all of this was for you?” Answer: I really truly couldn’t.) I was distracted by the impossibility of what it must be like to be Swift, to have all of this be for you, and still figure out a way to feel like a normal person. I was distracted by her ability to command an entire stadium—one she sold out three times over—with just her voice and a guitar. I was distracted by the parasocial relationship I knew all of us shared with Swift and the fact that, at the time, we all knew she had recently ended the most serious relationship of her life and was now, on stage in front of 70,000 people, singing love songs she had written about her ex. When she chose “Clean” (instead of “Cornelia Street”!) as the final surprise song at the final Met Life show—“Gone was any trace of you / I think I am finally clean”—her message, intentional or not, was received. Again, I was distracted by our collective knowing—and yet how we really didn’t know anything at all.

So I wasn’t entirely sure what I was in for when I walked into the IMAX theater on New York’s Upper West Side on Saturday night to see the Eras Tour concert film. By then, the movie (is it a movie?) had been out for two days, and the initial spoilers had been reported: the movie (we’ll go with it for simplicity) was about two hours and 45 minutes long, with costume changes and some of Swift’s banter cut for time. There were more devastating edits, too. Several songs off the setlist didn’t make it in: Lover’s “The Archer,” evermore’s “‘tis the damn season” and “no body, no crime,” Speak Now’s “Long Live,” folklore’s “cardigan,” and 1989’s “Wildest Dreams.” (“Long Live” is the soundtrack to the ending credits but gone is the triumphant moment where Swift lines up with her bandmates across the stage to sing her fandom’s anthem.) Any interludes are gone, including Swift reciting part of her song “seven” as if it were a spoken word poem. And, I found out, due to the shots chosen for the movie, you never really get to see the additional light show created by the wristbands every fan wears.

taylor swift performs onstage during night two of taylor swift the eras tour at geha field at arrowhead stadium on july 08, 2023 in kansas city, missouri

Swift performing “Long Live”on July 8, 2023, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Fernando Leon/TAS23//Getty Images

Yet even walking up to the theater this past Saturday, I knew I was about to have a true Swiftie experience. On the sidewalk, I immediately spotted people in their best Swift garb—Eras Tour T-shirts; homemade, themed jackets; sparkly pants; folklore cardigans; reputation snakeskin; so many friendship bracelets. (For the record, it was cold and rainy out, so I wore a plaid shirt, a French braid, and a red lip. If you know you know.)

There was little preamble before the film began, and immediately I was thankful my co-worker had the forethought to buy these tickets, and by that, I mean to see the film in IMAX. The concert footage is stunning and, due to the 97-feet by 76-feet screen, you often feel like you’re on stage right next to Swift. You can see, in extreme detail, the way she replaces complex dance moves with expert face choreography, constantly testing the arch of each eyebrow, punctuating a moment by running her tongue over her teeth, mouthing extra commentary in between lyrics. As someone who didn’t even have that bad of seats for the Eras Tour, I had to admit: This was a much better view.

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Public service announcement: If you have the opportunity to see The Eras Tour movie in IMAX, go. The stage envelops you. You will begin sweating profusely, thinking that you’re a backup dancer who has forgotten the choreography. A nightmare. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

— Erin is in her Eras era (@swiftbunnies) October 14, 2023

Our theater started out a bit timid, most people sitting, nodding their heads, mouthing along, testing out the durability of their seats during the bops. Then when Swift put up her hand heart during “Fearless,” everyone around me did too. We dutifully screamed the fan chant—“1, 2, 3, let’s go, bitch”—during “Delicate.” And by the time Swift started singing “Blank Space,” our pop star’s pull was too strong. Nearly everyone was on their feet, singing, dancing, taking videos of each other. Looking around, I was almost brought to tears witnessing something so wholesome, so communal, so celebratory.

But much like the concert itself, it was a little trippy. In a movie theater—with Swift nowhere remotely near us—we clapped as if she could hear us. When her dancers bowed, we yelped in appreciation, even though none of them were actually there to witness it. It felt rude not to! They were performing for us, weren’t they?

los angeles, california october 11 taylor swift c with dancers and band attend the taylor swift the eras tour concert movie world premiere at amc the grove 14 on october 11, 2023 in los angeles, california photo by john shearergetty images for tas

Swift with her dancers and band at the Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour concert movie world premiere on Oct. 11, 2023, in Los Angeles.

John Shearer//Getty Images

The concert, and therefore the movie, was also mind-bending in another way. In calling it the Eras Tour, I assumed we’d be experiencing all of Swift’s eras, the ones she’s demarcated with differing outfits and hairstyles and even accents. But that’s not the whole truth. In reliving her life, Swift has invited her most dedicated fans to relive their lives. Watching the concert, or a film of it, suddenly I’m 18 and in college again, going through my first giant, soul-crushing break up, questioning if maybe just maybe, Taylor Swift has written the song “All Too Well” just for me. Swift starts the folklore section, and I’m transported back to the day the album came out in July 2020, and my then-boyfriend (now-fiancé) and I packed up all our things, put most of them in a storage unit, and drove to Philadelphia, where we’d live for the next six months, the album on repeat in the car.

As Rob Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone, the Eras Tour is “a journey through her past, starring all the different Taylors she’s ever been, which means all the Taylors that you’ve ever been.” He continues, “Taylor always designs every tour to be the best night of your life. But she designed this one to be the best night of all your lives.”

taylor swift performs onstage during night two of taylor swift the eras tour at geha field at arrowhead stadium on july 08, 2023 in kansas city, missouri

Swift performing at the Eras Tour.

Fernando Leon/TAS23//Getty Images

It’s a brave thing to revisit your former selves. Leaving the concert, my friend told me about being a teenager and living a real-life version of “You Belong With Me,” about the exact moment the song blasted across the field at her high school football game. Leaving the movie, my fiancé remarked to me that, up until now, it’s felt like we’ve been witnessing Swift’s coming-of-age. It’s why no matter the crowd—no matter if they’re sitting in a stadium or an IMAX theater—the feeling of watching everyone dance and sing and smile is the same; it’s the equivalent of everyone raising their hand and saying, “I’ve been there too.” As Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Swift’s message is clear: Those past eras aren’t something to be ashamed of.

Take, for example, those two surprise songs Swift does at every show. For the film version of the concert, Swift had a handful of songs to choose from; the movie was shot over three nights in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium, meaning there were six different songs that could’ve made it to the final cut. The ones Swift ultimately chose feel purposeful. She starts with “Our Song” from her debut album, a track she first wrote for her ninth grade talent show—a musical starting line. She then goes into “You’re on Your Own Kid” off her latest album Midnights, which details all that’s happened since: “From sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes / I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this.” “You’re on Your Own Kid” also features the lyric that inspired millions of fans to trade friendship bracelets at every stop along the tour. Of all her songs, it maybe most directly points to where she is now.

During the film’s credits, Swift includes extra footage of nearly every viral moment from the tour so far. There’s the moment her piano was drowning in rain water, the time her mic went out, when she meowed at a fan mid-song; there’s footage of several costume malfunctions. Even at her most powerful—and if there’s one takeaway I have from seeing the Eras Tour in high-definition, it’s that Swift is as powerful a performer as they come—she’s still in conversation with her fans, telling us, under no uncertain terms, that we’re all stumbling and flying through this era together. Sure, we might not really know her, but the point is that she gives us the chance to know ourselves a bit better, to help make sense of all our eras. At the very end of the show, Swift descends into the bowels of the stage, waving as she goes. She’ll see us at the next one.

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Madison Feller

Madison is the digital deputy editor at ELLE, where she also covers news, politics, and culture. If she’s not online, she’s probably napping or trying not to fall while rock climbing.

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