TAMPA — The audience at Raymond James Stadium erupted at the sight of a broom cart being wheeled on stage. Could Taylor Swift have been inside? Her fans, tipped off to this particular idea thanks to social media speculation, seemed to think so.
When she actually appeared on stage Thursday night, it was through a dramatic trapdoor reveal, the pop star in sparkly knee-high boots and bodysuit. Part Barbie, part superhero.
“Oh, hi!” she chirped with a little wave. As if she was running into a friend at the grocery store rather than greeting over 68,000 of her worshippers in a sold-out stadium.
Swift is as much a mythological figure as she is a pop star at this point. It’s been five years since she came to this part of Florida, and her fans seemed confident the wait and hassle would be worth it. What’s hundreds (or thousands) of dollars and miles compared to three hours and 44 songs dancing on your feet and howling at the top of your lungs?
On the first of three nights in Tampa, Swifties came in boots and cowboy hats of all colors, nodding to the singer’s country music roots. Some transformed into characters from songs, or the character of Swift herself, in ringleader costumes fit for a music video or goofy goggles that matched her post-Lasik surgery specs. Dozens rocked the exact manicure Swift wore onstage — a different color nail to represent each of her ten studio albums. Just about everyone came covered in sparkles: stamped into hairdos and fishnet tights, dangling from earrings, crusted liberally on cheeks and arms and eyelids.
Some at this Swiftie convention had memorized the set list, plus the choreography and the costumes, gasping when their queen wore a new dress for the first time on the tour. But based on fans the Tampa Bay Times encountered at pre-show tailgates, more people than you might think went out of their way to avoid spoilers. Even if you knew that Swift was breaking up her set into distinct eras based on albums, you might wonder: Why these songs? Why this order? And might a show on the 13th of the month — Tay-Tay’s lucky number — inspire a deviation from the norm?
If Swift is reeling from her recently-revealed split with Joe Alwyn, her partner of six years, she didn’t show it Thursday night. She didn’t stray much from the set list or performances that she brought to other cities. It seems like her swap from the love song “invisible string” to breakup bop “The 1″ is here to stay. Only two songs on the setlist are supposed to change every night, and fans even knew when those surprise acoustic tunes would take place. The most shocking twist in Tampa came when the humidity coaxed the singer’s straightened hair back into shaggy waves as the night progressed.
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“So this is actually our first outdoor show on the Eras Tour,” Swift said. “This is going to just get curlier and curlier.”
It’s impressive that at just 33, Swift has an entire career’s worth of distinct personas to choose from. Ever the skilled storyteller, she leans heavily on visuals during this tour to shift to the mood of the next era. The jumbo screen behind her, for example, displayed hissing snakes to introduce 2017′s “Reputation” and thawing snow to lead into the cottagecore vibes of “Evermore.”
Swift oozed confidence and sex appeal during a sultry chair dance for “Vigilante S—t” and crept alongside a witchy coven of cloaked backup dancers for “Willow.” She melted across the stage during “August,” the fabric of her dress billowing around her outstretched arms.
“Cardigan” felt sacred and mystical, Swift singing softly in the dark surrounded by fireflies and a chorus of fans. She entertained as a campy villainess during “Look What You Made Me Do,” while her backup dancers, clad in her old music video outfits, writhed inside glass cages. “Enchanted,” was electrifying, though slightly disappointing knowing it was the only song she’d planned to sing off 2010′s album “Speak Now,” which is loaded with concert gold.
As she slinked off stage, carrying her floor-length gown in her hands, she peeked back at the crowd with a knowing look. It must have been a hint for what was to come — her first surprise acoustic song of the night was the title track off “Speak Now.” The Swiftie screams began just three notes in.
The final third of Swift’s performance felt slightly rushed, as she sped through a selection of songs from “1989″ and last year’s moody record “Midnights.” The screen behind her shifted from live shots of her moving to more prerecorded video — a shame, as Swift is an expressive performer. This is the quality that sets her apart, what makes her more than just a poised entertainer. Her communication with fans extends past between-song banter and relatable lyrics. She spent the night teasing the crowd with an open-mouth smile and her signature cheeky, doe-eyed glance. Fans screamed louder each time she batted her lashes.
“Champagne problems,” an “Evermore” cut about a failed engagement, had perhaps some extra meaning for the crowd Thursday given the update in Swift’s romantic life. But the moment following the song showed that the true love within Swift’s career is the relationship she’s spent roughly 17 years building with her fans.
As the song faded, Swifties could not stop shrieking. Still sitting at her piano, Swift grinned, then tugged at her ear. Her audience roared louder. She basked in the glow, then mouthed, “love you” and set them off again. Over and over, she reignited her fans with a subtle shift in her smile or brow.
Finally, her followers were rewarded.
“Oh, so you’re the best crowd, huh?” Swift said. “OK, I love you guys.”