This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk back in June (you may remember Taylor herself had something to say about it) and I’m choosing to re-run it now to coincide with the arrival of the Reputation Stadium Tour Netflix special. While bits of it are specific to the Manchester show, you’ll hopefully get enough of a general idea to know that it’s worth watching. I mean, I still cried at “Love Story” knowing it was coming, so.
The line that best summed up the European opening night of Taylor Swift’s latest tour had nothing to do with snakes, or tattered reputations, or tabloid melodrama. It came, in fact, from opening act Charli XCX, who chose the intro to cotton-candy sound-of-last-summer “Boys” to shout out the “three incredible, badass women” who’d take turns sharing the stage tonight.
Anointing Taylor Swift as any kind of feminist figurehead rarely ends well, but I’ll say this: when one of the world’s biggest pop stars stops the show two songs in to introduce by name every female dancer and singer sharing the stage with her? You notice. “Squad” may be a word best left in an earlier Swiftian era, but by the time Charli and fellow tour support Camila Cabello join Taylor on a side stage for a colourful “Shake It Off” dance party it’s hard to argue with an overarching theme of women owning their stories, their sexualities and, yes, their reputations.
Despite its serpentine iconography – writ large here tonight, in scale-like costumes and set dressings and huge inflatable vipers – last year’s Reputation was at its heart an album about reclaiming your identity, as well as some cheeky score-settling. From the tour’s opening montage of critical news reports and videos of Taylor-through-the-years, it’s clear that those weighty themes are still playing on the singer’s mind. But blown up to the epic proportions of the singer’s first stadium-sized shows in the UK, and with the knowing winks and mischievous asides available in person, there’s much more fun to be had with them.
Album opener “…Ready For It?” opens proceedings like a sexy battle cry, Swift emerging from a partition in the mammoth stage in a blue sequinned leotard backed by a troupe of male dancers who look like snakeskin-clad centurions. Unlike much of what follows, it’s relatively faithful to the album version – which makes the pitch-perfect reproduction of THAT note in the last bridge even more of a vocal firework.
“I Did Something Bad”, on the other hand, is reworked as scorched-earth soul, backed by a chain gang choir of dancers and building into a Mad Max-esque funeral pyre of a finale. The skittering “Gorgeous” has real sex appeal, and “Look What You Made Me Do” becomes a cartoonish romp, complete with giant animatronic cobra and an on-screen Tiffany Haddish cameo delivering the “…because she’s dead” payload.
As ever, the set draws heavily from the new material: a swaggering “End Game” stripped of its Future and Ed Sheeran cameos; and “Delicate”, introduced as “another song about my feelings” and with a knowing nod to its writer’s English love interest. Even the dreary “King of My Heart” works in this setting, livened up with some gorgeous dancing and six giant standing drums.
But there are some back catalogue treats, too: “Style” with the last album’s 80s influences dialled up into a synth-pop dream, which then gives way to snippets of early fan favourites “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me”. “I Knew You Were Trouble”, a highlight from 2012’s Red, gets reinvented as an acoustic campfire singalong, with Swift a rhinestone cowgirl in her REP tour jacket.
“Dancing With Our Hands Tied” is offered up to the people of Manchester, after a touching tribute to a city which has “shown such incredible resilience” after the “attempt to steal the innocence and joy” of a pop concert that was the Manchester Arena terror attack. Her sincerity as she tells the sell-out crowd that it is an “honour” to play to the city is rewarded by a singalong so loud that the speakers surrounding the Etihad Stadium pitch struggle to keep up.
A bombastic “Bad Blood”, during which Swift returns to the main stage on a skeletal snake-shaped floating platform, is punctuated with the subtlest of country twangs – enough to justify a short segue into “Should’ve Said No”, from the singer’s 2006 self-titled debut. It’s not the last surprise of the evening, though: a piano rendition of (this fan’s) favourite “Long Live”, dedicated to the fans who stuck by her during her short break between albums, is surprisingly intimate given the surroundings, and gives way perfectly to tender Reputation closing track “New Year’s Day”. Stripped of the snakes and the bombast, and with her hair hanging slightly over her face as she plays, Swift delivers a powerful reminder that she’s a phenomenal songwriter first and pop star second.
There’s still room for a showstopping finale though: a “We Are Never Getting Back Together”/“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” mashup, the stage a stately home descending into wreckage by way of water jets and fireworks. A radiant Swift, soaked to the skin, calls time on the party – but with more shows in Manchester, Dublin and London ahead, it’s hard to believe her.
Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour is now streaming on Netflix.