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Review: Taylor Swift sticks to the script; it reads, 'thrill fans'

MusicEntertainmentTaylor SwiftMusic IndustryStaples CenterSara BareillesCirque du Soleil

As still as a statue, Taylor Swift stood before her 15,000 adoring fans at the Staples Center on Monday night, absorbing the screams of an electrified crowd. Glowsticks and multi-colored LEDs glistened all around. Cameras flashed. She'd already performed "State of Grace," her majestic ode to "the golden age of something good and right and real," and had traversed the catwalk that led from her main stage to a second one in the middle of the arena.

She stared straight ahead, Aphrodite in red lipstick and high-waisted shorts. The jumbo screens above focused in close-up on her face.

Her people, a majority of them young girls celebrating (to put it mildly) with their mothers, bellowed with glee. Swift didn't flinch, but she seemed to glow. Her eyes may have even Disney-twinkled a few times. She slowly turned her head to the right: an entire half of the Staples Center freaked. She blinked and smiled vaguely. Washes of noise. She looked to the left, and was greeted with equal insanity.

PHOTOS: Taylor Swift's Red Tour at Staples Center

In the first of four nights at Staples, and date No. 51 in support of her multi-platinum recent album "Red," Swift, 23, over the next two hours held this crowd, delivering a seamless, well-choreographed mega-production featuring virtual carousels, music boxes sprung to life, newspapermen in trench coats recording her every move, showers of sparks and heart-shaped confetti pouring down.

Through songs including "The Lucky One," "Holy Ground" and her megahit "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," she played banjo, electric and acoustic guitars, piano and drum. Each transition, each maneuver, spun with the consistent beauty of a ballet dancer in full pirouette, a blur of grace made more so by the volume of appreciation that accompanied it.

Not once did the veneer crack. Nobody missed a beat. The equivalent of a touring Cirque du Soleil production, the concert moved with fluidity, even if it was too massive an undertaking to offer much true spontaneity.

But Swift has never been too skilled in spontaneity, a truth that seemed evident in her well-rehearsed between-song banter. After "State of Grace," she focused on "Red," and offered hits from throughout her discography in more or less the same order and staging as she'd done them 50 times before. This being Los Angeles, though, Swift had a few surprises: guests Cher Lloyd and Sara Bareilles each duetted with Swift over the course of the night.

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The superstar offered assuring messages, comforting, apolitical and safe for school and work, while illustrating her increasing stylistic breadth. "I Knew You Were Trouble" showcased the distance the young singer, who rose from Nashville to become a country superstar before crossing over with more pop-oriented material, has traveled. With a dubstep-suggestive bass-drop, she indicted a former boyfriend amid a dance-pop rhythm.

The tender "Begin Again" offered an honest glimpse into the magic of new love. "Everything Has Changed," which she performed with co-writer and opening act Ed Sheeran at a stage on the far side of the arena, was a lovely little song about — what else? — love.

But at Swift's most tedious, her vivid red shifted to pink and then turned beige. The fact a major sponsor of this tour is a greeting card company, American Greetings, is telling. There's an art, after all, to charismatically conveying basic, foundational messages through song in ways that resonate, and at times Swift felt more like a cipher than an artist, offering manufactured messages to eager consumers.

She was so measured as to seem unreal, more a symbol than human. Her biggest hurdle was that steely, sexless veneer. She sang about the heart but not the pelvis, offered a world in which a kiss is the purest embodiment of physical love.

With so many gigs in the past, her performance, too, at times felt like it was running itself. After she ascended a staircase to a grand piano, she introduced her ballad "All Too Well" quietly and with a tone of sadness, channeling with words that felt not only rehearsed but hollow. A pregnant pause to compose herself seemed cloying, like a reaction shot in a made-for-TV movie. Which isn't to say that the song's emotion was empty, but that she was overacting.

Swift could learn something from opener Sheeran, a young British singer-songwriter whose charisma is absolutely infectious. Though he did similar banter as his show at the Wiltern last year, it never felt like shtick or condescension. Swift, on the other hand, interacted more like a princess talking to her subjects than a musician connecting with kindred spirits.

But this is an adult male talking — demographically the least relevant voice in the history of pop music in, like, forever. Swift certainly isn't IMing me (well, except on "Mean," perhaps). As such, to ignore the voluminous thrills on Monday is to be deaf to the full-throttle joy of seeing young people experience live music for the first time. All of us remember that Big Bang, that ignition, that epiphany of hearing songs you know by heart performed by your favorite singer.

The sound of music connecting on such an enthusiastic scale is tough to argue with. It mattered on Monday night. Young lives were changed. Those seeking danger or rawness were in the wrong room.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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MusicEntertainmentTaylor SwiftMusic IndustryStaples CenterSara BareillesCirque du Soleil
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