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By Danielle Witt

On Monday, Taylor Swift arrived for the first of two concerts at Nationals Park as part of her 1989 World Tour. I assumed that Swift had come to town to kick ass and sing bubblegum. The reality was much more spectacular.

The openers were Shawn Mendes, Vance Joy, and HAIM, the latter of which have been written up extensively by BYT. For the first two, I thought their sound would have been a much better fit on Swift’s Red tour, as they were more reminiscent of the guitar-driven and soulful (more so than 1989 in any case) music of that album. The opening selection reveals a lot about an artist, and I’d be curious if 1989 turns out to be an aberration rather than the rule. 1989 could just be a bombastic one-off in the end, and Swift might yet return to something more recognizable as soft rock.

Or the next album may see Swift edging more towards badass rock, as reflected by HAIM. They were the embodiment of effortless cool, with snarling guitar licks and a commanding stage presence. I wish I could say that everyone in the audience appreciated the band, but for every enthusiastic HAIM fan there was a restless, disinterested (and generally underage) fan awaiting the main act. While Swift is a woman and no longer a forlorn teenager, she knows which side her bread is buttered, and that side is heavily populated with girls escorted by their parents. In her lyrics, all references to sex are opaque and obtuse. That doesn’t mean she’s not in on the joke; a suggestive wink in “Wildest Dreams” shows that she’s well aware that she needs to play both sides of the age divide, and that may keep her from truly embracing badassery.

Opening with “Welcome to New York,” Swift spent the next two hours cavorting about the stage, dodging muscular dancers and mugging for aggrandized screens. Light-up bracelets that were distributed before the show would flash in time to the music, illuminating the audience as both a single member and as part of a whole. It was a theme Swift would return to throughout the show, one of recognizing the power of the individual, regardless of the fact that there were 45,000 of them present.

Watching her on stage, I was reminded of just how professional she truly is. Say what you will about Swift’s music, but there’s no denying that she is quite possibly the smartest person in the room. When her raised platform experienced technical problems mid-song, she only lost concentration for a split second, and then quickly regained composure. She deftly responded with grace under fire, when I’ve seen other musicians (ahem, Ryan Adams) completely lose their shit for far less.

The show was interspersed with vignettes by Swift’s famous friends (including Lena Dunham, HAIM, and models Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, and Lily Aldridge just to name a few), each of whom would praise Taylor’s virtues while providing examples of how Swift was just one of the girls, a regular woman in a remarkable situation. If the irony of famous and accomplished women downplaying their megastar friend with quips about cats and cookies was apparent to the crowd, then they showed no sign of acknowledging it. These vignettes not only provided an opportunity for wardrobe changes – of which there were over half a dozen by my count – but served to reinforce one of the keys to Swift’s success: her inherent accessibility, even though she operates in her own self-made stratosphere.

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Between songs she dropped bon mots about the power of friendship and the need for each of us to realize our own self-worth, offering personal anecdotes about understanding the feeling of being outcast, or the fear inherent in “why aren’t they texting back?” But Swift is no mere mortal. Her good friend Lorde just happened to show up unannounced and sing “Royals” as a duet. Swift is a woman who says “jump” and Apple says “how high?”; she has repeatedly played the outcast card, only to be the revealed as the one who actually made the rules in the first place. Even a cynical non-fan like me walked away with a feeling of “I could totally be her friend.” That she can still appeal to the audience as an everywoman and be wholly believed is nothing short of amazing. She is changeable for the times, which is a true testament to her staying power. Swift’s come a long way from being a “feminist nightmare” to a poster child of fourth-wave feminism, successfully checking society’s cultural temperature and acting accordingly. Another artist who did this successfully is Madonna. After seeing this show, the similarities between Swift and Madonna are profound.

Like Madonna, Swift is, first and foremost in my mind, an entertainer. She lacks the strength and consistency of a truly talented musician; she alternated between actually playing the piano and faking the motions, which became obvious once the actual piano music subsided. She is not a strong singer, and by the last third of the show there were many instances where she gave up lip synching and allowed the backtrack to continue without mimicry. When her true voice rang out, it sounded more nasal and off-pitch than the albums would suggest (God bless you, Autotune). But none of that mattered. She might not be a remarkable musician, but what she lacks in instrumentation she more than makes up for as a performer. Swift won’t be belting “The Sound of Music” at the Oscars anytime soon, but that’s not the point. She promises you an experience, with bells, whistles, fireworks, and yes, light-up bracelets, and she delivers.

I assumed that with 1989, Taylor Swift had begun worshiping at the altar of Madonna. Instead, Swift has taken Madonna’s crown for herself.

Editor’s Note: We did not send a photographer to either Nationals Park show because of the contract Swift is enforcing photographers to sign before shooting. Check out these sweet photos we took from when she was @ Verizon Center a little while back though.

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