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Live Review: Taylor Swift - The Eras Tour @ MCG, Melbourne

17 February 2024 | 8:41 am | Christopher Lewis

'The Eras Tour' is, first and foremost, Taylor Swift’s victory lap. But at three and a half hours long to her largest-ever audience at the MCG, it’s a victory marathon.

Taylor Swift @ the MCG

Taylor Swift @ the MCG (Credit: TAS Rights Management)

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It’s strange that for such a seismic cultural moment centred around a simple music concert; the performance might have been its least interesting aspect. Taylor Swift is a veteran performer, schooled in a bruising Nashville country scene, which doesn’t take too kindly to pretenders. She continued to hone her prodigious skill whilst growing up before all of us on the world stage, playing countless arena tours that forged her as the battle-hardened master of her craft we know today. Bruce Springsteen, one of the few other artists of the last fifty years who have captured the Kerouacian romanticised soul of America, and the man who popularised the 3.5-hour mega set would certainly tip his hat to her.

Even the Swift sceptics, the few who have rolled their eyes at the unending hype Australia has endured since this tour’s announcement in June last year, would graciously concede to their Swiftie friend, “I’m sure it will be a good gig!” While those lucky enough to be going know it will be. It’s a well-oiled machine. Would they consciously admit to themselves that after 70+ shows on this tour alone, their self-described anti-hero will be on semi-auto pilot? No. Does it even matter to them? Also no.

The more interesting question about this zeitgeist-crowding American avalanche is: how exactly did it even get like this? How did Taylor Swift become so pervasive, so impossible to avoid – or to put it in more historically accurate terms, how did she win the great (culture) war? It was only a few years ago – seemingly a lifetime as it was pre-COVID and a whopping four, almost five albums ago (not to mention the TV re-recordings!) – but for the rest of us mortals, it was only five and a half years ago that she arrived in Melbourne, played one gig, and left.

It all happened without too much fuss. If you were a fan, you might have seen it; if you weren’t, you might not have even known she was in the Southern Hemisphere. She did not crash Ticketek; she would have struggled to crash Moshtix, and the #70 tram rolled down Swan Street relatively unabated.

So again, how did we get here? You know, that place where she is credited with helping keep the largest global economy out of a recession. Where her tours rival entire countries in gross domestic product. Where she eclipses Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon for the most AOTY awards at The Grammys. Where she is shown on camera during the Superbowl more often than a certain Tight End for the Kansas City Chiefs. Where she has our own State government extending the damn free tram zone!? As usual with Taylor Alison Swift, it comes down to narrative.

A single line in the refrain of Bejeweled, the hyper-pop anthem off her most recent album, Midnights, maps this journey best: “Best believe I'm still bejewelled when I walk in the room, I can still make the whole place shimmer.” For those who know their Swift, this is a strangely self-confident assertion. It has swagger. Not usually a word associated with a woman more famous for mining the complexities of heartbreak, self-doubt, anxiety, and regret. But it speaks volumes to the preceding six years Swift has endured and the place she finds herself now because the last time we saw Taylor, just down the road at that soulless building in the Docklands, she wasn’t in the best headspace.

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We all know what happened. It started with the snatched mic moment at the 2009 VMAs, it escalated with that line in Famous, and it exploded with Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat videos. The snake emojis flooded Swift’s social media pages, and the next time we saw her, that glimmer of joy had disappeared from her eye, and she released an (underrated) album called Reputation – one that the artist herself describes as “a goth-punk moment of female rage at being gaslit by an entire social structure.”

That 2018 tour essentially had her performing in The Chamber of Secrets, owning the snake iconography and weaponising it against those who had wronged her. It was a PR move deployed during her most debilitating public image crisis - one in which she would ultimately be absolved - but at the time, she still came across as a wounded animal defending herself in any way she could. There was a cognitive dissonance between her playing fun and carefree songs, such as 22 in front of her hysterically happy fans and the simmering anger that was so obviously bubbling under the surface.

Well, who could have predicted the turn of events that unfolded? Her antagonist at large effectively buried himself in a tomb of antisemitic, slavery-revisionist, right-to-choose-abolitionist rants. And Swift made not one, but two indie-folk-Aaron Dessner-produced masterpieces that her (once elitist) ex-boyfriends would approve of. Then she proceeded to break almost every commercial record the music industry has with Midnights.

So here we sit in 2024; the snakes are gone, the rage has dissipated, the wounds have healed, and this phoenix has not only risen from the ashes, she is soaring. The Eras Tour is, first and foremost, Taylor Swift’s victory lap. But at three and a half hours long, it’s a victory marathon. She’s TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year and sits pretty, perched on top of the world, so you best believe she’s now bejewelled, and when she walks in the room, she does make the whole place shimmer. 

But shimmer is a serious understatement. The MCG should probably employ structural engineers to check the foundations before the AFL season begins. It is impossible to imagine the cacophony of this concert unless your cochlear nerve has experienced it. Or to imagine the sight of a horde of Swift disciples on the turf, seemingly moving as one in a tidal wave of excitement whenever she struts down the stage towards them.

And it bears repeating that she has been a very busy woman since she last visited us, so much so that instead of debuting songs off one album, as any artist would at a typical concert, we are hearing songs off Lover, folklore, evermore and Midnights for the first time. For a night that defies hyperbole in so many ways, it is worth underlining the rarity of this detail. So, when the opening notes of Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince ring out onto Australian ears for the first time – a song that is almost five years old – to begin our Eras Tour experience, the crowd is rightly euphoric. When it seamlessly splices into Cruel Summer, the masses of the MCG are sent into a frenzy.

Now, it's pointless running through every song for a concert experience that has only had a few permutations since its first date almost a year ago in Arizona; that’s what is for, but if you are scrolling to find out if she knocked it out of the park, it’s safe to say the ball is still bouncing down Brunton Avenue.

What is surprisingly brilliant is her stagecraft. From Bon Iver’s woodland shack in folklore to the revenge dress era of 1989, Swift excels at playing into the narrative of each of her lifetimes through choreography, detailed stage sets, and her myriad of glittery, sequined costumes. This allows her not only to relive her past eras with a wink and a nod but also enables those fans who connected with them so purely to fully immerse themselves in the emotional turbulence they remember. It’s a rare but special kind of fan service. And it’s mirrored in the passionate conviction of her singing. You would expect the sting to have gone out of her tail with some of the breakup songs that were written over ten years ago, but she belts out All Too Well – the ten-minute evisceration of poor Jake – with all the venom past Taylor could muster.

This internal dial she has, from vexatious woman on a warpath to cooing coquettish romantic, is swung like a pendulum, and we are all hypnotised, unable to look away from the strutting, posing mastermind who has us resting in the palm of her hand. She guides us through her discography at speed, as if trying to squeeze one more song into the already lengthy show, but there’s an anxiety-relieving aspect of The Eras Tour – that by playing songs from every album (except her twee debut), each fan is guaranteed to hear at least a few songs from their individual favourite era. Except Speak Now. Don’t even start about how dirty she does Speak Now and the continued omission of any and all of Sparks Fly, The Story Of Us and the perfect country-pop song that is Mine.

But whatever petty setlist-related grievances might be laid on her doorstep… why end with the Midnights era? Why persist with a weak single like Look What You Made Me Do? Why finish the evermore era with tolerate it when one of your best songs, happiness, is right there? They are quickly forgiven during Melbourne’s own Surprise Song setlist. For those uninitiated, the ninth and penultimate act of The Eras Tour is a lottery, with Swift performing two songs that won’t be played on any other date (except Midnights deep cuts, which she can re-use). It’s an ingenious way to play to the diehards while keeping the setlists fresh for her enjoyment and forever the shrewd marketeer; the fact it fuels dialogue about every show is surely not lost on her.

Well, Melbourne struck gold. With a solo guitar version of fan-favourite Red and the live debut of You’re Losing Me on piano, Swift rewarded the largest single crowd of her career (96,000!) with two performances that exemplified her musical prowess. And as confident as she is trapezing around the gigantic stage the MCG affords her with her incredibly talented troupe of dancers, there is still something special about the intimacy of the old Taylor singing to us with a guitar in hand like we are in a small bar in Nashville.

No matter how impressive the dance routine is, the country girl inside her always seems more at ease when playing an instrument to us – and it’s in one of these moments that she drops the news that a new edition of her upcoming album, The Tortured Poets Department will feature a bonus track called The Bolter. This bombshell might not seem like due cause to stop the presses, but Swift has built a universe unto herself, and for her Melbourne acolytes to receive that easter egg personally, it was enough to trigger pandemonium. These moments, where she toggles off from semi-autopilot to make the night seem as unique and authentic as possible to those in front of her, are why she’s as good as she is. It’s why her cult is as devoted as they are; she can somehow make a personal connection with 96,000 people at once.

So where to from here? History says the narrative can only go in one direction. What goes up must come down. However, here is a woman who has flown in the face of history her entire career, who has refused to kowtow to an industry still dominated by men, many of whom have tried and failed to rein her in or control her.

If anything, the success of The Eras Tour is her coup de grâce. Her reign as a cultural tour de force has begun as her influence spreads across everything from U.S political battlegrounds, to major film studio distribution schedules, to global airline routes, to the stock of beads at your local craft store. And if the only local comparison to the sheer size, influence and importance of this event is Michael Jackson’s Bad tour arriving in Australia in 1987, then perhaps the only logical conclusion is to pronounce Taylor Swift as the official Queen of Pop. Let the coronation begin. Let her bejewelled crown shimmer.