Taylor Swift's reputation: Secret Sessions vs Wembley

Taylor Swift’s reputation: Secret Sessions v Wembley

On October 13th 2017, Taylor Swift invited 100 of her fans from all over Europe to a house in London to hear her new album, reputation, almost a month before its worldwide release on November 10th. 8 and a half months later, Swift brought her reputation Stadium Tour to multiple venues across the UK, including Wembley Stadium, where she performed all 15 tracks from reputation for the first time. As one of the people privileged enough to have been at both of the aforementioned events, I’m in a situation where I can compare the two experiences and consider how the album changes when performed to tens of thousands of fans, rather than played to a room of 100.

By the time Swift started the reputation Secret Sessions, two singles had already been released: ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘…Ready For It?’. ‘LWYMMD’ was a big departure from Swift’s usual work, although not a surprising choice for the lead single. Swift’s lead singles often have a very simple, yet catchy chorus line (see ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and ‘Shake it Off’), and ‘LWYMMD’ is no different. The music video charting Swift’s rebirth and rebrand was released soon after the single itself, and featured a lot of throwbacks to various points in Swift’s career. Fans entering the Secret Sessions still had no idea if the old Taylor truly was dead, as the song claims, or whether she was simply waiting, ready to return at the most opportune moment. I think I speak for everyone when I say our questions about the well-being of the ‘old Taylor’ were answered as soon as Swift had crossed the room in which the album was about to be played, and introduced herself with the famous “I’m Taylor!” that has been a staple of so many shows, past and present. Swift quickly introduced the reputation Secret Sessions, in case any fans present were still having doubts over the precise nature of the event (Swift previously invited fans to her houses and hotel suites for the 1989 Secret Sessions in 2014 ahead of the release of her 5th studio album 1989).

The first song on the album ‘…Ready For It?’ had already been released, so instead Swift shared secrets about the making of the song and its upcoming music video, released shortly after. A pattern quickly emerged, with Swift sharing details about collaborations on each song as well as meanings and inspiration behind the music before playing the song to the room who sat enraptured, and often more than a bit emotional. Certain lines stood out in this first listen to the album, including “I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me!” on ‘End Game’, “scratches down your back now” from ‘…So it Goes’, “only bought this dress so you could take it off” from ‘Dress’ and “hold on to the memories they will hold on to you” from the album’s closing track, ‘New Years Day’. The most notable lines on the first listen were those that directly challenged the reputation built by the media for Swift, and those more PG-13 lines that Swift had previously been known for shying away from. ‘New Years Day’, however, was memorable in a different way. The line “hold on to the memories they will hold on to you” has strong callbacks to fan-favourite ‘Long Live’ on Speak Now, Swift’s third studio album and one she wrote entirely alone at the age of 20. ‘Long Live’ features the line “may these memories break our fall” and is often heralded as a love letter to Swift’s fans, or her band. After the album was over, and tears had been mopped up, Swift passed around the magazines set to be released to accompany her new album, and left the room so the meet and greet session with pairs of fans could begin.

Immediately after Swift left the room, there was a moment of silence as everyone present processed what had just happened, and what was about to happen. Heads full of secrets, secrets Swift had trusted only to family, close friends, colleagues and critics. And not only were we in that room trusted with her secrets, we were about to be taken into another room with the friend with whom we had either invited or been invited by, and get to speak to Taylor Swift herself, and have a photograph taken. Quickly, though, conversations broke out, with fans from all over Europe getting to know each other. I was lucky enough to be one of five girls present studying at the same University, and I had only known the friend whom I had invited prior to attending. I spoke to people who’s social media accounts I had been following for years, and got to make new connections with people I had never interacted with before.

Our personal meetings with Taylor were brief, as they would have to be to get through 50 pairs of fans, but as we entered the room she approached us, arms wide open for a hug, and thanked us for attending, to which we responded with a very enthusiastic “No, thank you for inviting us!”. She thanked us, saying she had seen us dancing and picking up lines from the chorus to sing along, and said “you guys look like so much fun!” which is a glowing review that I will probably have mentioned in my obituary. We posed for our photo, and repeated our thank yous and I love yous on our way out. Swift’s publicist, Tree Paine, complemented our outfits on the way out, and we exited the house clutching a bag full of merchandise and bubbling with excitement.

For such a big, feisty album, my first listen of reputation seems very small, very personal, though this is perhaps Swift’s least personal album to date as it splits itself between the ‘Old Taylor’ (read: Real Taylor) and the parody of Taylor Swift, Snake Queen, the reputation created and perpetuated by both the media and many non-fans. As my friend and I walked back to the tube station to head back to our accommodation for the night, we both had a feeling of ownership over reputation. Having heard it in such a magical setting, the album immediately becomes precious and takes up a certain amount of space in your heart that you doubt it will ever not retain.

 

The reputation Stadium Tour is an immense contrast to the experience of the Secret Sessions. For a start, there’s the venue. Swift’s choice to only perform at stadiums means there’s less dates on her tour, so it intrudes less on her personal life, though it means locations are more spread apart and the audience is tens of thousands strong. This was my first experience of a stadium concert, and we were sat right up at the top, on level 5. This only hindered our concert experience a tiny amount, as the giant screens behind the stage kept everyone in the venue aware of the occurrences on stage. Before any action on stage, videos including footage from the Secret Sessions, trivia questions and behind the scenes footage from music videos was played on screen to entertain those who had taken their seats early. Swift’s support acts, Charli XCX and Camila Cabello took to the stage first to perform and get the crowd excited for Swift. Unfortunately for Charli XCX, many of the audience members hadn’t taken their seat for her set, and the stadium looked woefully empty as she opened her set with ‘Boom Boom Clap’, a song featured on the soundtrack for YA romance film “The Fault in Our Stars”. People continued to filter in as she continued her performance, and by the time she exited the stage, the stadium was beginning to look busy, and by the time Camila Cabello opened her set, the majority of the audience was present, though more and more were spilling in during her set and in the break between her performance and Taylor’s. By the time Swift’s set was due to start, empty seats were a rarity, and the atmosphere was buzzing.

Upon entering the stadium, everyone had been given a light up bracelet, which burst into life after a video of flashbacks to Swift’s career interspersed with critical comments from media outlets when Swift entered the stage to open her concert with the opening track of her album ‘…Ready For It?’ which remained relatively unchanged from the studio version, with the exception of the “Are you ready for it?” played before Swift’s entry to the stage. Swift quickly followed up with ‘I Did Something Bad’, which was almost unrecognisable from its studio counterpart. Swift slows down the opening of the song considerably to give it a more sultry feel, adding to the way the media portray her as a man killer. The song picks up the tempo as it approaches the chorus, and Swift uses considerable pyrotechnics during the song, with fireballs exploding from the top of the stage to accompany the chorus. Flashing lights also add to the performance, in time with the beat of the music. Towards the end of the song, Swift once again makes major changes to the studio version, drawing out the final verse. Swift adds the line “and it’s just for fun” after “they’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one” and goes on to repeat many of the lines from the third verse as her dancers gather around her and elevate her, creating the effect of a witch about to be burnt at the stake. The final “light me up” before the song goes into the final chorus is breathy, seductive, and sassy to the extreme.

Swift then took the opportunity to speak to the crowd for the first time, welcoming them and expressing her excitement at her first show headlining at Wembley Stadium and thanking the audience for joining her and her team, before performing ‘Gorgeous’, during which she takes the time to introduce all of her backing performers individually by name, ending with the by now trademark “And I’m Taylor!” before going back into the bridge of the song. After Gorgeous, Swift jumps into the first throwback song of the show, ‘Style’, from 2014 record 1989, and performs the beginning of the song before transitioning into long-time fan favourite ‘Love Story’ from her second studio album, Fearless, and closes up the first act by transitioning into ‘You Belong With Me’, also from Fearless.

While Swift performs a quick costume change backstage, another video of flashbacks to earlier in her career begins, interspersed with the snakes symbolic of reputation. As the video continues, the snake clips zoom out to reveal Swift sat atop a throne in snake skin, and the opening bars of ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ play. The performance features a miniature tilted stage as a shout out to Kanye West, rumoured target of Swift’s anger in the song. It also features a giant snake that inflates out of the gap between the screens in the centre of the stage, alongside images of a golden snake snapping towards the performers on stage. The iconic spoken line (“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why?…. Oh, ‘cos she’s dead”) is on a pre-recorded video and spoken by Tiffany Haddish, friend of Swift’s. Swift then moves on to a much shortened version of ‘End Game’, hampered by the absence of the two features on the track, rapper Future and pop artist Ed Sheeran. The tone of the performance then shifts as Swift performs love song ‘King of my Heart’, her image on the screen glowing ethereally.

The next song on the setlist is ‘Delicate’, Swift’s most recent single, and features Swift flying in a gold cage across to one of two B Stages to end the song. She then brings out support acts Charli XCX and Camila Cabello to perform hit single ‘Shake it Off’ from 1989, with more giant inflatable snakes rising on both B Stages. She follows with an acoustic rendition of ‘Dancing with Our Hands Tied’, a song about a hidden relationship the singer believes to be doomed. The surprise song Swift chose for the night was ‘…So it Goes’, the only song from reputation that doesn’t get a look in on the nightly setlist. Swift then crosses to the other B stage by walking across the floor, grabbing fan’s hands and speaking to a few lucky fans who made it to the barrier, and then performs ‘Blank Space’ from 1989 and ‘Dress’ from reputation. She returns to the main stage in a skeletal snake lift, performing a mashup of ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Should’ve Said No’, two throwback songs from 1989 and Fearless respectively. Her next song, ‘Don’t Blame Me’ again parodies the image of her portrayed by the media as a love-crazed girl addicted to dating, though she calls back to the idea of becoming tame first brought up in ‘…Ready For It?’ in the line “I once was poison ivy, but now I’m your daisy”. After ‘Don’t Blame Me’, Swift takes a seat at a piano, something that, along with Swift alone with a guitar, has become customary at her tours. As she plays the opening bars of ‘New Years Day’, I begin to feel emotional, and even more so as she begins to sing. As the song progresses, she begins to transition into ‘Long Live’ from Speak Now and it’s almost impossible for me not to cry. At a pause in the song, the audience’s standing ovation goes on and on. Swift mouths what appears to be ‘oh my God’, and takes out her earpiece to better hear the screams coming from the crowd. At one point before she manages to interrupt the cheers of the crowd (there’s much debate over how long the cheers went on for – anything between 2 and 5 minutes has been touted by those present) she appears to well up and looks genuinely moved, and speaks to the audience, thanking everyone and expressing her love for her fans, and the love she feels directed towards her. She then finishes the song, and exits the stage while a prerecorded video of images full of callbacks to her music video for ‘Out of the Woods’ (1989) is played with a voiceover of Swift reading poem ‘Why She Disappeared’ from the reputation magazines. Swift returns to perform ‘Getaway Car’, a song about a whirlwind relationship that was doomed from the start. She then brought out Niall Horan to perform a duet of his song, ‘Slow Hands’ before closing the show with ballad ‘Call it What You Want’, and a mashup of ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ from RED and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ from reputation. Ending a show as large as this one with a song from an album turning 6 this autumn, and a song not yet released as a single from a current album is a bold move, but Swift pulled it off flawlessly, providing an energetic and captivating performance to the very end. Sadly, being all the way at the back, we were unable to properly see the fireworks being let off over the stadium as the roof was blocking our view, however the activity on stage was more than enough to hold our attention as Swift closed the show.

Overall, Swift’s reputation stadium tour is enthralling, powerful, and beautiful. Despite the level of fame she has achieved, her shows have never lost the personal touch that makes them so magical for fans. The light up wristbands making the audience a part of the show, Swift’s choice to walk across the floor and interact with fans during the show, her decision to incorporate old fan-favourites into a tour taking place almost a decade after the release of the album and her speeches throughout all make the audience feel close to Swift, despite the tens of thousands of others present and the distance between many of the seats and the stage itself. Hearing reputation live was almost as intimate an experience as hearing it in Swift’s front room and that is a major achievement for a production as big as the reputation stadium tour.

 

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