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Taylor Swift at night one of the MCG Eras Tour shows (image: Graham Denholm / Getty Images)
Taylor Swift at night one of the MCG Eras Tour shows (image: Graham Denholm / Getty Images)

Pop CultureFebruary 17, 2024

Review: Taylor Swift and the extraordinary, eye-popping Eras Tour at the MCG

Taylor Swift at night one of the MCG Eras Tour shows (image: Graham Denholm / Getty Images)
Taylor Swift at night one of the MCG Eras Tour shows (image: Graham Denholm / Getty Images)

She’s become the most powerful force in culture since Michael Jackson’s peak. Duncan Greive watches the world’s biggest star play her biggest-ever show.

There is so much of this brilliant, supremely confident show that melts your mind. Chiefly how does she make it work so well for so many? How can she scale up all this autobiography to fill such a cavernous venue? These songs have largely been consumed through earbuds, often in fragments accompanying disconnected video (at least until very recently), viewed centimetres away from the face. Aside from a few stadium pop workouts, the majority of her set consists of reflective ballads about intimate relationships. 

Taylor Swift is the most powerful pop star in decades, playing her biggest-ever show at the MCG, with most of her fans well beyond the cricket ground’s notoriously epic boundaries. Yet while she’s a speck to me and most everyone here, and playing these deeply personal songs, this enormously long show captured the hearts and minds of more than 90,000 people. It’s an extraordinary feat.

So, in answer to the question: she makes it work in myriad ways. There are all the people who accompany Swift – dancing, playing live, acting out scenes at times. The staging is a huge part of how she fills the space. It’s dominated by a lengthy catwalk cleaved by a baseball diamond and resolving in a T. It’s a technological marvel, endlessly composable, shimmering with light, radiant in kaleidoscopic colour or hypnotic pattern. It raises up in steps or platforms, or descends to devour its occupants, often to signal the end of an era.

Two elements stand out though. Firstly, her quite stunning performance for the screens which are how most of us absorb the show. A lot has rightly been made of the fitness and fortitude needed to perform a set with a runtime equal to Return of the King. But she does it while also giving a near constant, unflinching performance of the songs both sonically and to camera – never missing a mark and delivering the emotional connection which elevates a stadium pop show from good to great. It’s not a small thing, but it is also just a small part of what makes this a shockingly great event.

We came in around 7pm, not long after Sabrina Carpenter – a huge artist in her own right – had finished up, and the lines were maddeningly long. Hundreds of girls and women, all queuing for the men’s toilets – an indication of the demography, sure, but also a one-time thing. The MCG’s bars and concessions and bathrooms were near-deserted for the duration. From the moment she arrived, to the emo stomp of Miss Americana, the crowd were glued in place, most standing throughout. 

It’s an indication of the passion of the crowd that no one wanted to miss even a moment, despite its runtime. A kid in front of me put it aptly: “She’s there. She’s right there. The Taylor Swift.” They might have been 17 years old, but the feeling is not age-bound. There’s something about just how culture-quakingly prominent she is right now that selling out a trio of 100,000-seat stadiums and providing a meaningful uplift in the Superbowl’s audience doesn’t really scratch at just how famous she’s become.

The conceit of the Eras show is a breezy 3-5 songs per album as career retrospective, and an invitation to reappraisal. She noted wryly early on that she’s put out a lot of albums lately, so it was also in part a way of solving for that. But it’s unavoidably an enormous flex too – of her skill and ingenuity and the way that manifests in an enormous and wildly devout fandom. The show also serves to suggest that even albums which didn’t land as well at the time – “Reputation, whatever that is”, as she put it – deserve a second look. That album’s second single, Look What You Made Me Do, is one of a number of songs which got a punchy rearrangement on the night and gleamed as a result.

On Thursday night, before flying over, I saw a small Auckland band named Swallow the Rat play a scorching noisy shoegaze set at Auckland’s Wine Cellar. The room was packed with maybe 50 people. That is much more typical of live music – deeply felt, brilliant, affecting dozens of people. Not a small city. The Eras tour’s scale is so maximalist it feels like some kind of theoretical limit being reached for a pop show – so different from what live music typically delivers as to be a category unto itself.

This tour is on its way to grossing $1bn, and has exploded the sense of what is possible in touring in multiple ways. Its extreme duration, the career-spanning conceit, insatiable demand despite multi-night runs at the biggest stadiums we have, a ballot just to buy merch and a concert film which obliterated the previous category record. When plugged into her “Taylor’s Version” album re-records, which adroitly stared down a powerful music manager and a private equity titan, the creative and business vision is as dazzling as the show.

It also is right at the cusp of being too much – and already will be for many. The sheer volume of opportunities to contribute to the bank of Swift has even those who admire her wincing a little. Announcing a new album at the Grammys elicited a somewhat crushed reaction from other artists, who would maybe appreciate a little oxygen for themselves. On some level it has felt like the world has been on a three-year-plus orgy of appreciation for her, one which has long since spiralled beyond any rationality.

We drove into the city yesterday morning and heard multiple songs on the radio, and there was no other subject up for discussion from the hosts. Vegemite’s billboards were given over to welcoming her, and a friend’s hotel had a friendship bracelet station. If you’re not on board this hype train, or if you just wouldn’t mind a break, this must be insufferable. And yet – has she not earned it? Are you not entertained? The exposure is truly a function of a work ethic and level of commitment to songwriting and performing at a level we’ve only witnessed a few times in the 80-odd year history of pop music. It is definitely a lot; it’s also entirely justified.

I first saw Swift live at Vector Arena on the Speak Now tour, at a time when she was just another arena pop artist with a pair of hit albums and an unusually strong songwriting vision. While nothing like the scale or ambition of Eras, you saw glimpses of what she would become. Mid-show she moved through the crowd to play an acoustic set at the far end of the venue, showing a creative conception of stagecraft and desire to have the whole venue feel her which stood out against the tightly controlled choreography of her cohort. 

She played to 30,000 over three nights – a big run at the time – but around a third of the number who saw her play the cavernous MCG last night. The tour takes in every album (sadly excepting her winsome debut), but gives more time to those which have come out since her last world tour. It means we get deeper sessions with Lover, Evermore and Folklore, which shows the inexplicable singles choices which were made with some of those albums, allowing it to function as a kind of artful revisionism. Cruel Summer – only made a single last summer – is one of the night’s thundering highlights, for example, whereas Me! is nowhere to be seen. This is most apparent with Speak Now, which gets only two songs – Enchanted and Long Live. Neither are singles; both are absolute jewels of her catalogue and get cathartically scream-sung by the whole stadium.

Taylor Swift a long time ago

It’s a little frustrating that the same trick doesn’t happen to Red, which gets a longer run through immediately after. 22, We Are Never Getting Back Together and I Knew You Were Trouble are all pulverising anthems, but they mean we don’t get State of Grace or I Almost Do (though later, during the secret song section, she gives us an acoustic version of the title track that is among the show’s finest moments). 

Still, the pop bangers function as a palate cleanser for All Too Well, the 10 minute revision, a marvel of bitter, penetrating songwriting which sears as dusk gives way to dark. Where some songs are necessarily truncated, Swift lingers over one of the most delirious pop songs ever composed, allowing the whole audience to join that vengeful reverie. From there we run through Folklore, surprisingly anthemic for such an introspective album, with Betty prompting one of the biggest reactions of the night. She edits it beautifully – the Last Great American Dynasty, Tears Ricochet, Cardigan. She talked about how it represented a move into writing about characters versus her own experience, and hearing it tonight drove home how difficult that change is, and how successful it was.

Then it’s time for her two enormous pop records, released almost a decade apart. 1989 signalled her ascent to the very top tier of music, while Midnights – a somewhat patchy album, in truth – arrived at the peak of the post-pandemic fascination with her. 1989 blazes brightest with the one-two of Style running headlong into Blank Space, before the airlight romance of Wildest Dreams. Perfect. 

Midnights cannot help but suffer by direct comparison, but still has undeniable highs – Lavender Haze, Anti-Hero and Mastermind bring energy to a show which is by then three hours old. Finally, it’s an excellent extended workout through Karma, and quite suddenly, after 45 songs, we’re done. It’s almost 11pm, and a crowd of mostly young girls and women heads to the exits in a mostly stunned silence. The Eras Tour feels unrepeatable, a feat of stamina and staging which even someone as ambitious as Swift will struggle to match again. 

As we trudge out to try and figure out a way home, it’s with a sense of having seen a true phenomenon at her absolute apex. As we live lives mediated by technology and often oblivious to the codes and culture which impacts our peers, to have an experience this huge and communal felt even more special. It speaks to Swift’s brain and will that she could pull off an event of such monocultural power at this fragmented moment, and everyone who came walked out exhausted but grateful just to have borne witness to something this vast.

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