Concert Review: Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber rock Staples Center

Here”s how intense the audience for a Taylor Swift concert is: at Tuesday night”s show, her first of four sold-out nights at Los Angeles” Staples Arena, the mere sighting of Swift”s mom, Andrea, prior to the concert”s start provoked the level of high-pitched screams usually reserved for the headliner.

In other words, even before Swift took the stage, the overwhelmingly female tween and teen audience was primed and at its ear-splitting decibel best. And Swift did little to dissuade them from screaming their sweet little hearts out throughout the nearly two-and-a-half hour show.

With the strains of Tom Petty”s “American Girl” playing (a thematically obvious, but somewhat strange, choice given its popularity was long before most of the audience was born), Swift burst up through the floor in a frenzy of gold, shimmery fringe and long, flowing locks before launching into the upbeat “Sparks Fly,” from current album “Speak Now.”

It was only a minute or so in before she did her trademark glance to the left, hold and pause, glance to the right, hold and pause,  wait for the screams to begin, and then act shocked that there are more than 20 people in the room. It”s a move she should have long abandoned given how many gazillions of albums and tickets she”s sold, but Swift still plays her “aw shucks, you”re really here to see me?” kewpie doll routine to the hilt in  a way that appears disingenuous, especially from an artist who is otherwise so believable in the image she”s projecting.

On a well-designed set that featured smartly-utilized moveable staircases, Swift focused largely on material from “Speak Now,” with a generous smattering of tunes from sophomore album “Fearless,” and as least one track, “Our Song,” from her 2006 self-titled debut.  Each song was often its own mini-play, which meant there was a lot of filler to accommodate Swift”s multiple costume changes. When the visuals worked, they were a nice touch, such as rolling out a white grand piano for Swift to play “Back To December” on, while her string section, elegantly decked out in tuxes with tails, lined up behind her on one of the staircases.  Other times, they dragged, such as a long bride-groom sequence acting out  “Speak Now,” or, at the worst,  seemed like a Spinal Tap spoof on the weird, Evanescence-like rock number “Haunted,” with Swift dramatically pounding a huge bell that raised to unleash a Cirque du Soleil-like acrobat suspended from the bell”s inside. It was almost as if Swift is so determined to make sure that she gives her fans their money”s worth that she”ll spare no excess in trying to do so. It”s a noble, and truly admirable notion, but one that fell flat a few times.

Part of what makes Swift so popular is thet endless desire to connect. She is a master at understanding the value of making fans feel special, whether it be commenting from the stage on the girls in the nosebleeds and their lighted-up number 13 (Tay Tay”s fave number, as I”m sure you know) or running through the audience and hugging and high-fiving fans on her way to a make-shift stage at the opposite end of the arena for an unplugged set. 

Back on her little island, she talked about how she started writing songs when she was 12. First they were for fun, but “over time, it progressed to something I need to do to stay sane,” she said. As she acknowledged, most of her songs are about falling in love and losing love. While it”s a limited palette to be sure- and one that I hope she”ll break out of for her fourth album- it”s one that her audience fully appreciates, as many of them go through the first flushes of puppy love themselves. Plus, she is such an accomplished songwriter for someone still so young that she has very artfully and richly tapped into a vein that rings true, even when the song is as moribund as “Last Kiss.”  Happily, she transitioned from that downer tune to a segment highlighting Southern California artists. As she”s done on nearly every stop of the tour, she broke out a few cover tunes from local artists. Tuesday night the audience  got a well-intentioned cover of the Beach Boys” gorgeous “God Only Knows” (A+ on song choice there, B- on delivery) and a plucky version of Gwen Stefani”s “The Sweet Escape” that worked far better than one would have expected with Swift artfully rushing through the tumble of lyrics.

She started her biggest hit, “You Belong With Me” on acoustic guitar before rushing back to the main stage to give the song the bouncy, upbeat treatment it deserves with the full band. A word about that band:  though clearly chosen for their looks rather than their chops, they frequently drowned her out. Plus, in a trend that female pop/country singers with young female audiences tend to indulge in,  most of the dudes had horrific haircuts straight out of Billy Idol-era Steve Stevens crossed with Kate Gosselin”s god-awful razor cut. Hairstyles best left in 1989 do not equal edgy.

Swift had just finished “You Belong To Me” when she coyly burst into the “Oh-oh-wa-oh” opening of Justin Bieber”s “Baby,” and then, suddenly, there he was joining her in the flesh.  It was almost more than the girls in the audience could bear as the Bieb ran down the extended stage slapping hands. Their duet was a fun, sweet moment, if not a particularly well-sung one,  with Bieber delivering Ludacris”s rap. He then picked up Swift and gave her a little twirl (not so easy when Swift is a head taller than he is) before disappearing as quickly as he appeared.

Much has been made of Swift”s sometime off-key vocals-she even addresses the criticism in her hit tune “Mean” -but on Tuesday night her voice seemed more powerful than it has been in the past. She still hit a fair number of clams and her voice lacks any true nuance or dimension, but she gave it all she got so it may be time for that tired theme to die. The only time she seemed truly out of her vocal depth was on  “Better Than Revenge,” where she was practically screeching. Plus, the play acting of bitch slapping her rival is simply out of character for someone who seems as sweet as Swift.

While some of the antics seemed coldly calculated to this adult, many of the young kids ate it up. At one point, as Swift was running around the arena floor, I spotted a cherubic girl, who looked to be about 9 years old. She had on her Taylor Swift t-shirt that her parents has purchased for her earlier in the evening and she was bouncing up and down, grinning ear to ear, in excited anticipation of Swift coming close enough for her to touch the singer.   The little girl got her Swift moment and as soon as the singer had passed, she gave her mom a huge hug before collapsing in her seat as if she was now totally spent. Every costume change; overwrought, dramatic eye glance, and aggressive hair toss that Swift makes is for that girl and the thousands like her at Staples last night. And god bless Taylor Swift for knowing that.