Photos by Randall Vasquez
Taylor Swift co-opting snakes – the name and emoji used by trolls and a certain celebrity family to describe the singer amidst a handful of controversies two years ago – from the onset of promoting her sixth studio album, reputation, not only set the tone of her return, but became the pillar for reclaiming her throne and in a way, her reputation. It felt pointed and buzzy upon its first reveal last summer, a strong note about the latest version of herself that the public, press, her fans, and her haters would get to support, scrutinize, or bully, if they really wanted to do so.
It’s tempting to cast off the use of the motif in her spectacle of a stadium show, a near two hour performance that was presented to Toronto for two nights at the Rogers Centre this long weekend. There were a lot of snakes: cobras that strike on large digital screens, cobras on a gold, tilting stage, a humongous cobra that hovers on the stage during “Look What You Made Me Do”; another serpent off to the side of a B-Stage, a snake cage that Swift boarded to travel above the crowd, a bedazzled snake mic, and all of the necklaces, tank tops, and body paint that her fans wore in the stands and on the floor (part of which is officially referred to as the “Snake Pit”) in support of their queen. In contrast to the pop-dance anthems, love songs, and vulnerable ballads, the slithering reptile sometimes felt out of place, and maybe even excessive in use.
But this is Swift’s narrative, and true to her creative history, she leaves the details as markers that audiences can take in as much as they want. These particular displays do add to the grandiose of the Reputation Stadium Tour, which is carefully and brilliantly crafted for the sheer size of venues, and the crowds that come with them. As they loom, they remind you how Swift became the ringleader of her own media circus, and emerged in her best form as a performer and artist.
Before we met this Swift, her wisely chosen openers Charli XCX and Camila Cabello each shared robust, entertaining sets that set the energetic tone for the evening. Charli XCX, against neon backgrounds with exploding, dancing pills and melting mannequins, shared some of the best of her catalogue, including “Boom Clap” (which she performed as a surprise guest during Swift’s stop in Toronto on the 1989 tour), “I Love It”, and “Boys”. Her pop is infectious; and her brief celebration of girl power all the more well-received. “The Reputation tour is such an incredibly amazingly special tour. Not one, not two, but three badass females all standing on one single stage,” she expressed.
Much like Camila Cabello’s last appearance in Toronto for the Never Be the Same tour, she once again showed how poised she is for bigger stakes as she grows her career as a solo artist. If you attended that tour, you’ll note the similar dance segments and recount the video intervals, which were used once more for Camila’s set during songs like “Never Be the Same”, “Havana”, and “She Loves Control”. After all, she kicked off her slot on Swift’s tour mere days after concluding her own, and they do help shape her show. But for fresh eyes and devoted fans alike, Cabello is a high-calibre talent with both the vocal chops and presence behind her performance.
Joan Jett’s “Reputation” blared over the speakers as a lead-in to Swift’s video intro; a montage of media reports both praising and questioning the singer over the years. Those initial moments felt like an impending rebirth. As “rep” flashed repeatedly across screens, with thick smoke blasted to the beat of “…Ready For It?”, Swift took her first steps onto the stage, and instantly, you knew: this was her second coming.
Unlike Swift’s last record, reputation leans into contemporary electronic-pop tendencies. The lyricism is some of her strongest, but sonically, this is an album constructed for a stadium. The sharp pacing, heavy synths, vocoder, and beat drops are all elements that pair very well with dramatic visual cues and Swift’s evolving ability to play with personas. On “I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me”, she moves from quiet admissions to bold confessions; she becomes playful on “Dress”; and even on the hit-or-miss “End Game”, she finds a cool groove with her backup dancers and flashy graphics. Fortunately, nearly the entirety of the album was played, allowing Swift to pivot from a classic pop concert to a bold, entertaining feast.
One of the most striking things about the Reputation Stadium Tour is how it masterfully blends the elements of a big performance with intimate moments simply by staying conscious of the audience. The action on the main stage was choreographed to a tee across the full length and down catwalks, with dancers, heavy pyrotechnics, drums, and prop pieces (including a fully-functioning water fountain during the encore) shifting in-and-out seamlessly. Every one of Swift’s moves hits the mark, perfectly timed to the point that even when she paused and smiled, she looked directly into the camera, as if she were breaking the fourth wall. She knew that you’re keenly watching, and suddenly, 50,000 people knew that she sees them too.
This is the balance that Swift manages: a pop queen well into her new term, but also someone who wants to keep the connection to her fans as close as she can. At one point in the show, she hopped onto a platform reminiscent of a Cinderella-esque coach to perform “Delicate”, a soothing, gentle look at the nuances of crushing on someone, as she slowly sailed above the audience. She even went acoustic, sharing “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” and “Out of the Woods” for the first time on this tour, allowing the everyday-girl-next-door with a guitar to flex the best of her vocals and share exactly what fans saw in her when she broke out years ago.
1989 was Swift’s real artistic turn, so celebrating its hits – “Style”, “Bad Blood”, and “Blank Space” – against the boldness of Reputation numbers occasionally shifted the tone of the show, but were a necessary, fun, and welcomed part of Swift’s repertoire. Charli XCX and Camila Cabello joined Swift during “Shake It Off”, performed under the shadow of one of her serpents, with rainbow glows and confetti flying everywhere. Even Shawn Mendes was spotted bopping to the tune, a reminder to Swift – and all of her fans – that you can let things go, and dance while you do so.
Whether you support or disagree with the merits of Swift’s criticism and her controversies, there’s a major takeaway from her stadium show that remains true regardless of the hot takes: her resilience. “It took me a bit of time to get my head together…and figure out who I was, who I wanted to be, what decisions I would make if I wasn’t on tour and in the spotlight,” Swift shared. The Reputation tour proves that the old Taylor is dead, but the new one? She is strikingly secure and confident, a master of her own fate because of all that is behind her: the sold out arenas, the awards, the gossip, the relationships, and the death of her reputation. Now, she’s building something better for herself, and that’s something that should be recorded. Cobras included.