People don’t become famous — they’re born famous.
Sure, fleeting moments of celebrity can be thrown on someone like Ken Bone or the Ken Bone of 2010, whoever that was, but to make it past the so-called 15 Minutes of Fame, you must possess a natural charisma and presence that not everyone has. It’s one of the reasons why Donald Trump will probably be the runner-up in the upcoming presidential election, which is further than anyone expected him to go. Say what you will about that human toilet-flushing soundboard, he commands every room he’s in. That’s because he honestly believes he’s the most famous person in every room he’s in.
Taylor Swift would never admit it — she’s far too polite maintaining her I’m one of you persona that keeps her fans feeling so connected– but I bet she feels the same way. She must, to make it as far as she has. With every album, Swift’s grown more into the mega-star she was pre-destined to be, from the awkward country of her self-titled debut — which turns ten years old, today by the way — to the throwback pop blowout that is 1989 — nearly 10 million copies sold, and counting.
On Saturday night, Swift was, by far, the most famous person in a crowd of 80,000 people. That’s because we, myself included, were at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX, for Swift’s only concert of 2016. The show came packaged with tickets to watch Formula 1 United States Grand Prix (and Usher and the Roots on Sunday), but for every one fan of fast cars, there were four teenage girls wearing “Taylor Swift for President” shirts. Personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those; I wore my Swift/Sonic Youth mashup, instead.
The groundswell of support for Swift started early, around 2 PM when fans started to line up for prime spots on the lawn or pit, and didn’t quit until 8:45, when the show ended after a 15-song set. There was no talk of Kim and Kanye, of slithering snakes, of Katy Perry, of Calvin Harris, of Tim Hiddleston — the most “controversial” moment of the night was the concert starting a half-hour late.
Swift was all business, and her business is romantic empowerment through friendship. I half-expected her to publicly proclaim her support of Hillary Clinton, something she’s been criticized for not having done yet, until I remembered that’s not what Swift does. She’s too much of a people pleaser to potentially upset a fraction of her audience, much of which is still too young to vote. Swift introduced “Fifteen” by noting that if she could “pick one year of my life where I learned the most lessons, I would still say… it was when I was 15.” That’s when she met her best friend, Abigail, and learned that “I’ve found time can heal most anything / And you just might find who you’re supposed to be / I didn’t know who I was supposed to be at fifteen.” Swift’s songs are about how politics don’t rule the world; love — for yourself, for your friends, for your partner — does. It’s corny, but it’s effective. Just ask the seven-year-old girl to my left who was openly weeping during “Sparks Fly.”
Or the 29-year-old man. (It me.)
Unlike the 1989 World Tour, which kicked off in May 2015 and ended in December in Australia, Swift’s Circuit of the Americas show was downright intimate, insofar as performing in front of 80,000 people can be considered “cozy.” There were no costume changes (she wore the same black romper the entire time), backup dancers, guest stars, or surprise album announcements — only a five-piece band, three backup singers, and one Taylor, who stuttered around the stage unless she was strumming the guitar or, during a three-song stint, playing the world’s sparkliest piano.
You know how there’s always That One Song you hope whoever you’re seeing live plays? That’s me with “All Too Well,” Swift’s hair-whipping power ballad from Red, which came out exactly four years before the Austin show. I was probably the only person in the crowd who was let down when she performed “This Is What You Came For,” Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s top-five hit written by “Nils Sjöberg,” instead, but by the time she got around to “Sparks Fly” and a captivating “Enchanted/Wildest Dreams” medley, I had already moved on. Swift went from hit (“22”) to hit (“Blank Space”) to hit (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), but unlike Katy Perry, whose albums are top-heavy with obvious singles and bogged down with nonessential filler, she can throw out a deep cut, like the stomping “Holy Ground,” and no one will leave to use the restroom.
Before the concert started, I struck up a conversation with a 20-something woman standing next to me. This was her eighth Swift show, and she could recall even the smallest detail about all of them: the time Taylor looked right at her, the time a backup dancer shared one of her photos on social media, the time she paid you-don’t-want-to-know-how-much for a ticket. (She even proudly told me about how her college roommate was in the “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” music video.) She felt a direct connection with Swift, as if her command to “let go of anything that’s stressing us, sing at the top of our lungs, and scream when we need to scream” was directed right at her. I bet everyone else around me felt the same way.
Swift, especially in person, has an uncanny ability to convince the skeptical and preach to the faithful, with playful winks, knowing glances, and just enough vague nods to her personal life to keep things familiar. “I’ve been playing shows in Austin, Texas, for about 10 years now, and it’s been about 10 years since my first album came out,” Swift said, her voice glowing with earnestness. “Since then, I feel like I’ve been opening up my journal and letting you read it, and it feels so good that 10 years later, you still feel like reading it.” It’s a canned line, one that she’s probably said 100 times before for 100 different cities. Unlike her songwriting, this line rang hollow for me, the 29-year-old man, but the rest of the crowd screeched in approval.
Instead, I found Swift to be at her most human when she momentarily excused herself to blow her nose. She was a nursing a cold and didn’t want the crowd to see her use a tissue. In a expertly choreographed concert, where everyone on stage carefully hit their marks and the setlist was arranged days in advance, this was a rare moment of improv, where the divide between performer and audience ceased to exist. It lasted for all of five seconds, when Swift took a bow, and became the most famous pop star in the world again.