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From Midsommar to Midnights and the cult of Taylor Swift

25 June 2024, 08:30
Words by Mitch Stevens

Photos: TAS Rights Management

As the London leg of the Eras tour kicks off, Mitch Stevens heads to Wembley to try and understand why Taylor Swift inspires such devotion in her fanbase.

Singer, songwriter, arguably the most popular artist in the world, and the woman responsible for more variants than whatever lab Covid escaped from, Taylor Swift is a seemingly insurmountable titan in the historical landscape of pop music.

After releasing her self-titled debut in 2006 aged 15, Swift amassed a sizable following within the country-pop crossover audiences that saw her become the first legitimate successor to Shania Twain’s “Queen of Country Pop” title. This may have felt like hyperbole at the time, but Swift’s resulting experiments with arena-rock on Speak Now and dubstep on Red found her extending her reach further beyond those initially lofty ambitions.

Then came 1989; a genuine cultural phenomenon on its 2014 release. Captivating her already secured-teen and Disney Adult audiences alike, the album also piqued the interest of more discerning listeners for its synth-pop infused and often-fantastical takes on young love. The result was seismic, gifting her three of her four Billboard #1s to date at that point. The record – as well as many of its saccharine soundbites – entered cultural canon. This was Swift’s superstar moment - a moment that she took with both hands and never dropped.

A decade later, Taylor Swift is arguably the most listened-to artist on the planet and is currently 15 months into the Eras tour – an unprecedented run of 154 career-spanning shows that shine a light on the chameleonic life and times of a seemingly-normal girl who has grown up in an ever-increasingly bright spotlight. For all of these publicised and highly-celebrated shifts in sound however, Swift has never truly swerved away from middle-of-the-road territory… so why am I (and by the looks of things, half of London) beginning a 90-minute pilgrimage to Wembley Stadium, the UK’s biggest music venue, to watch this small-town girl from Nashville singing her little songs that have taken over the world?

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These are the thoughts I’m contesting with on an incredibly hectic tube carriage up to Wembley Stadium. The air is thick. This is obviously helped by the kind of heavy, sticky oxygen you can taste on any congested carriage once London goes above 18 degrees, but the explanation this time is more alchemic than a combination of airbourne sweat molecules and dead skin cells. Parents have coordinated sequined outfits with their offspring who are acting like they’ve received the golden ticket from Wonka himself. There are children and adults exchanging hand-made bracelets with each other more than actual words (I’ve heard that building the bracelets is a process before each show to integrate disparate Swifties into their mutual experiences)... It’s sweet, but sickening and I can’t get enough of it. It’s like eating a full box of Celebrations, impulsively throwing up, then going back for more. It’s the ultimate serotonin activator with unparalleled abilities to boost your mood, but also make you nauseous.

So we’ve got matching outfits, ritualistic creation of iconography and worship of a figure not connected to a secular religion. I’ve long held a belief that obsessive music fandom in the online age is the closest thing to cultism that we have, so by my own rules, am I walking into the biggest cult meeting in the UK?

The walk up to Wembley Stadium is like a pilgrimage in itself. Tens of thousands of costumes are now fusing into one giant, sun-reflective impressionist painting and the bars and cafes on the way are blasting out Swift’s biggest hits. I buy myself a cowboy hat from a stall outside; I’m committing to the bit. It’s an immersive, intoxicating experience, but how does the pilgrimage compare to the ceremony itself?

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Eras is not for the casual fan. The whole thing is like telling your friend you enjoyed Lord Of The Rings, so they sign you both up for a marathon screening of the trilogy’s director’s cut with The Hobbit (The Tortured Poets’ Department) tacked on. I’ve brought a Taylor lifer with me, someone who has been listening to her since she was eight-years old, who has told me of all the ways in which her music has helped her identify with and rationalise her emotions through her life, and it’s still an intense experience for her. We very much seem to be in the minority though, as throngs of fans borrow energy from Swift, who bounds around the stage with endless enthusiasm in the early Lover, Fearless and Red segments of the set.

It’s infectious; there are moments where I feel like I’m genuinely ascending, including an unbeatable b2b of “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story”. There are also moments where I’m bitterly disappointed to not hear some of my own personal highlights from Swift’s catalogue. “Out Of The Woods”, “mirrorball” and “Red” are all missing, which brings me to the blessing and the curse of people forming such close bonds with an artist’s music: billing a tour as the definitive trip through a seminal artist’s extremely intimate back catalogue means that not everyone’s definition of “definitive” matches up. There are more than enough highlights in Taylor Swift’s discography to bring you back to life though; for every ten-minute version of “Alll Too Well” (no song needs to be that long, sorry) or “You Need To Calm Down”, there is a rapture of euphoria in “Style” or unrivalled warmth in “august”. This hits a real lull in the show’s final act however, as Swift’s arguably two least impactful records in The Tortured Poets Society and Midnights are given the spotlight at the show’s climax, their lack of bite glossed over by some of the night’s most show-stopping visual set-pieces.

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Nothing comes close to the spectacle of Eras. It’s part-concert, part-theatre, and for the duration, wholly church for those in attendance. I’ve been blessed enough to see some of the all-time greats perform over my life – Prince, Beyoncé, Rihanna – but nothing has come close to the grandiosity of this show. For its 90,000 capacity, Eras’ physical setup makes serious efforts to feel as intimate as possible. There’s real care taken to ensure that whoever is in attendance is transported from their present-day struggles and back to the moment when they first heard these deeply personal songs for the first time. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old; for the 210(!) minutes that Swift is on stage, that teenage dream lasts forever, with the person who guided you through those times being there with you to do it all over again.

And therein lies the borderline-religious obsession Swift’s fans have with her - she’s the older sister who’s been there and done that so it doesn’t make you feel so stupid for crying. She’s the daughter you’ve watched grow up in real time and emerge from her turbulent teens and 20s successful, but still navigating the same problems she was when she was writing songs back in her bedroom. Eras is for the completionists, so I was never likely to be a fully-fledged convert by the time the final notes of “Karma” ring out, but spending a night at the altar of one of modern music’s most globally-worshipped artists has helped me understand the devotion.

The Eras tour returns to Wembley Stadium in London for five more shows from 15-20 August 2024

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