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Even at the Rose Bowl, Taylor Swift forges an intimate bond with fans

Shawn Mendes joins Taylor Swift to perform "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back" at the Rose Bowl on Friday night.

As another school year draws to a close, it has to cross Taylor Swift’s mind that, on the road to being one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, she sacrificed the formal education that most of her peers have experienced.

When you become a professional songwriter at 14, sign a recording contract at 15 and release your debut album at 16, an age when most teens’ biggest issue is who they’ll attend the prom with, some things inevitably go by the wayside.

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For Swift, it was college. But as she demonstrated Friday at the first of her two nights at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on just the fourth stop of her new Reputation tour, if there are any colleges or universities that award degrees in human connection, she’s at the front of the line for a PhD.

Swift gave a master class in the constructive use of the modern technology that’s allowed her to establish and nurture an exceptionally powerful connection with a massive audience. She’s as effortless welcoming well-wishers backstage one-on-one as she is straight-talking to an audience of 60,000 people live or tweeting and Instagramming to a virtual community of millions.

With her Reputation tour, named for the juggernaut album released late last year, she works that connection on multiple fronts. Upon entering, concertgoers are handed white bracelets that light up at various points during the show, similar to what she did three years ago on her tour for the album “1989.”

Taylor Swift brought her Reputation tour to the Rose Bowl on Friday, the first of two nights at the stadium.
Taylor Swift brought her Reputation tour to the Rose Bowl on Friday, the first of two nights at the stadium. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes the bracelets pulsed in sync with a song, while other times they emanated different colors or created patterns around the stadium, allowing attendees to feel like participants, even collaborators, rather than passive observers.

The Reputation tour stage itself is a thing of wonder: a 110-foot-tall structure resembling a skyscraper in progress, with six crane-like contraptions stretching up above a wedge-like screen that functions as video display and framing device.

The intensity of the connection so many fans have with Swift and her music — and, crucially, with one another — also was evident in the ensembles they wore. Mothers and daughters, high school and college posses, boyfriends and girlfriends all paraded around in Swift-related outfits.

When she sang “Love Story,” in which she brazenly altered the tragic aspect of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to comport with her 17-year-old notions of romance, she tacitly empowered young admirers not to be shackled by traditions or expectations of the past, but to feel free to write their own happy endings in life.

A few minutes before English singer-songwriter Charli XCX started the evening, which also featured a vibrant set from Miami-based pop star Camila Cabello, Swift told The Times backstage: “This has definitely been my most cathartic album. After I finished it, it was like” — she exhaled heavily — “now I can write regular songs again.”

During the show, she followed the hard-bitten “Look What You Made Me Do” with “Gorgeous,” in which she turned physical attraction to a romantic partner into a celebration of her bond with fans: “You’re so gorgeous,” she sang on the song’s central hook.

The stage setup for Taylor Swift's Reputation tour stop Friday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The stage setup for Taylor Swift's Reputation tour stop Friday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. (Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times)

The show is tightly structured for the most part, featuring elaborate production numbers that rely on video projection, eye-popping lighting and pyrotechnics, choreography and precisely coordinated interaction among the star, band, singers and dancers.

Swift’s hyper-publicized comings and goings have led to expressions of frustration, anger and disillusionment in many of her newer songs. “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” she sang with a certain degree of sadness in “Look What You Made Me Do.”

“If he drops my name, then I owe him nothin’/ And if he spends my change, then he had it comin’,” she confessed in “I Did Something Bad.”

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She has, however, built in a free-form moment for a solo acoustic spot in which she’s been spotlighting different songs each night. On Friday, it was a stripped-down rendition of “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” which she used to explain how all her songs, however intricately they wind up sounding on record, “they all begin with me and a single instrument.”

The takeaway for at least one concertgoer?

Stay in school, kids. But don’t rule out the possibility that if the inspiration and drive are strong enough, there are other definitions of “higher education.”

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