ARLINGTON Taylor Swift couldn’t stop looking at the crowd.
Part of the reason was undoubtedly scale: Swift said, from the stage Saturday night, that some 55,000 people had piled into Cowboys Stadium, making this stop on her nine-month “Red” tour a sell-out (not unlike her previous gig at the House Jerry Built in 2011).
But there was something else at work, too. She was near the end of her almost two-hour set, seated at a piano and performing All Too Well, a track from last year’s multiplatinum Red. It is a song, like so much of the 23-year-old superstar’s catalog, chronicling the dissolution of romance, the end of the love affair. (“I write lots of songs about feelings,” Swift observed early on, “and 55,000 of you have opted in to hear me sing about my feelings.”)
Yet instead of investing lines like “And I know it’s long gone/And that magic’s not here no more/And I might be okay/But I’m not fine at all” with the weight and emotion likely intended, Swift kept casting glances outward, into the sea of eager, shrieking bodies, clad in shirts bearing her likeness, waving glow sticks and clutching posters. She did it so frequently it became distracting — what was she looking for?
Exactly what the young woman is searching for remains an open question, and certainly not one she seems keen on answering with her current tour (or, arguably, Red, her fourth studio album). Swift has built a formidable, awards-bedecked career as a songwriter of exposed nerves and 21st-century savvy, appearing to share everything with an audience primed for whatever she reveals.
While she first made an impression as a country artist, she has steadily migrated toward the bright plastic promise of pop.
And it’s those newer songs — buoyant confections like the show-opening State of Grace or I Knew You Were Trouble, austere backward glances like Begin Again — that stand in stark contrast to what was one of Saturday’s most human moments. Having retreated to a stage at the opposite end of the floor, Swift, holding an acoustic guitar, took a run at her first big hit, Our Song, an effervescent piece of work that sounds as fresh, innocent and hopeful as the cynical Mean sounds angry, bitter and thin-skinned.
Obviously, Swift can’t remain a teenager forever, but it’s startling how, in just five short years, she has moved from wide-eyed, wistful folk-pop to arena-dominating, hater-crushing juggernaut. Seeing the two sides of her artistic personality in such proximity gave unexpected depth to what was otherwise a fairly routine extravaganza. (Another winning moment was her Motown-inspired makeover of You Belong With Me, complete with shoop-shoop vocal harmonies and endearing dance steps that would bring a smile to Diana Ross’ face.)
The staging itself was a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from other, similar large-scale efforts — dancers bounding through the air a la Pink, raised platforms hovering over the crowd a la Carrie Underwood, bursts of sparks and steam a la anyone who has mounted an arena tour in the past two years — and Swift’s sizable band, roughly a dozen folks, was mostly consigned to the fringes.
Multiple costume changes were deployed, and through it all, the slick video packages unfolding on the high-def screens, including the four-sided beast hanging at midfield, kept the pace lively. Swift’s vocals, thankfully live, were nevertheless often thin, and threatened to vanish entirely whenever choreography was incorporated.
It’s fair to say that few who made the pilgrimage to Arlington (although Swift repeatedly said “Dallas”) were expecting any insight into Taylor Swift — indeed, expecting nothing beyond a good time. And that Swift provided for the faithful, between the trips through the crowd, the confetti shower during We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together to close things out and the rambling stage chatter.
But looking deeper, probing for substance beneath all the style, remains no less frustrating, particularly as Swift continues to achieve success and demand to be taken seriously as a songwriter and performer. What is it that drives her? So far, chasing true love has seemed to be her sole creative focus.
Just as she peers out from the stage into the vast darkness, searching for answers, so, too, do we stare back into the glittering, glamorous glare and ask: Why can’t we stop looking at Taylor Swift?