The Eras Tour: Taylor Swift’s Greatest Love Song

Taylor Swift

The cynical view of Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour goes something like this: let’s take a cash grab tour of her past lovers and public debacles through songs that may have changed genres two or three times, but all sound the same. (They don’t.)

The critical view goes something like this: after mastering country, pop, and indie, are we looking at the next all-time great? (Ignoring the fact that, if she were a man, she’d already be lauded as being there.)

The delusion fan view goes something like this: Is this algebraic formula an Easter egg? (No.) Taylor Swift is for the girls, gays, and theys and straight men shouldn’t be allowed at the tour. (This is exhausting.) I bought all four versions so I could have a clock. (Okay, this one is more on Taylor’s incredible mind for capitalism; but, c’mon folks, it’s the same record. You only need one copy.) Etc.

Somewhere in the middle of this wild and inaccurate Venn diagram of discourse is the truth: we are witnessing something not quite before seen in history. Taylor has achieved something not seen in decades: monoculture. She’s the zeitgeist. Everyone seemingly has something to say about it. Including me.

Taylor Swift performs “Love Story” in Detroit, June 9, 2023

I don’t quite have the labels that encompass what is currently going on around The Eras Tour, but I’ve seen whispers of Beatlemania, rumblings of Elvis, even talks of Michael Jackson’s Thriller era. Usually, as a Millennial, when you’re living through this year’s once in a lifetime event, it doesn’t come quite this bejeweled and full of joy.

If Ticketmaster is to be believed, she would’ve needed an additional 850 tour dates to meet demand in the United States alone. The thousands of folks “Tay-gaiting” outside stadiums every night seems to indicate the truthfulness of this statement. Somehow, the most popular music artist on the planet became even more popular during a global crisis.

I had the distinct honor and privilege of attending The Eras Tour twice–Nashville Night 3 and Detroit Night 1–and I’m inviting you to come along with me for the ride of trying to put my finger on what exactly Taylor Swift is accomplishing with this tour. It begins with this thought: this is what happens when you turn your performance into the greatest love song you’ve ever written. And this time, the object of the love song is her longest, most personal, and most life-giving relationship: the one she has with her fans.

The Lover Era

“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s you and me, that’s my whole world.”

Taylor Swift introduces “Lover” in Nashville, May 7, 2023

You’ll never convince me that these words weren’t intentionally chosen to kick off this three and a half hour tour de force of a performance. “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” has always been one of my favorites on Lover, and this brief intro felt like a tease. But it was the coda, the truth, of what would happen between the crowd and Taylor for the rest of the evening. It created this kinetic energy and connection that began barreling forward from the stage across the crowd that didn’t relent until well after the fireworks. 

When it comes to Taylor Swift, most of the time you have to look past the noise. It’s not about her love life, her friend group, her feuds, her genre, her record label…it’s about the music. (Even when it’s admittedly difficult to escape everything else.) It’s the way the music connects with the fans. And the second song of the night was the first moment that drove home exactly how strong this connection is.

Cruel Summer” was the obvious choice for Lover’s lead single to anyone but Taylor and her team apparently. After seeing it live, this opinion is forever solidified for me. Four official singles later in the album rollout, it was rumored to be about to get its time to shine when COVID-19 dramatically altered, well, everything. From the way the crowd roared every single word, you’d never know that this song didn’t chart at number one all summer long in 2020 as originally planned. 

“It’s about time, Nashville,” Taylor said after that four hour lightning delay, “Cruel Summer” dropping to an instrumental as she allowed the tension and hype to build around the launching of the bridge. “We are finally off to the races and I would appreciate it if you would absolutely go off on this bridge. Are you with me? Go!”

In a stadium under rolling thunderheads, nothing else mattered in that moment. Not the hours spent cramped sheltering in place, all but assuming that this concert was going to be canceled. By any other artist, it would have been canceled. The euphoric release of tension into the night sky by the largest crowd ever assembled in Nashville (yes, even larger than the two nights prior without the rain). “I love you. Ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?”

It was at my second show in Detroit that “The Archer” really stood out to me (click that link to watch a video I took of it). The dancers and back-up singers cleared the stage leaving just Taylor. The crowd’s bracelets twinkled like that mythical mirrorball as she walked the perimeter of the walkway, gesturing towards each section. Somehow, in a cavernous venue, it was intimate. One of Taylor’s most vulnerable songs, being shouted back to her. This was no longer about a man from her past. It was about the fans in her present.

“Who could stay? You could stay.”

The Fearless Era

“‘cause I don’t know how it gets better than this, you take my hand and drag me head first, fearless.”

Taylor Swift performs “Fearless” in Detroit, June 9, 2023

And just like that, those of us staying with Taylor were drug into a time machine by that opening guitar line of “Fearless.” I could hear my friend Sarah playing the album on her laptop our freshman year of college while doing homework somewhere in the depths of my mind. Taylor had said earlier on in the show that we would be exploring seventeen years of her career (“one…era…at…a…time”), but I didn’t expect each era to take me back to that time and place where I first heard them or fell in love with them (sadly, not always the same moment). Taylor and I are eight days apart in age, and every so often it feels like her albums are able to reflect on something I’ve just lived through or to reveal something about being that specific age in that time and place that creates a deep appreciation and bond within me for her music.

Suanne Garfinkle-Crowell’s guest opinion for The New York Times, “Taylor Swift Has Rocked My Psychiatric Practice” captured it perfectly for me by saying: “Whatever you are upset about, the poet laureate of this generation has got a song somewhere in her mega-oeuvre describing that precise feeling. She is not going to solve whatever problem you are having, but she is going to sit with you in it until the passage of time does its work: Look at her now.”

Seeing Taylor replicate those twirls, gold dress spinning, unlocked a feeling deeper than a memory. Music that travels with you through time is always at risk of becoming nostalgia fodder. “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” (another Detroit snippet) launched Taylor into a new level of popularity back in 2008. In 2023, they’re less a vehicle for nostalgia than you’d expect and more of a joyous celebration of youth. Many songs don’t stand the test of time, but fifteen years later, we can confirm that these have (and that many more of hers will).

“It’s a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes.’”

The Evermore Era

“What died didn’t stay dead. You’re alive in my head.”

Taylor Swift performs “Tolerate It” in Nashville, May 7, 2023

I’ll be honest, I was skeptical of how an album like Evermore would translate to a live setting, especially one designed for football. Taylor very quickly let me know that I was an idiot, oh, and by the way, here’s your three favorite songs on the album as well. Two of which I had jokingly said to my boss, “It’s not like she’s going to play ‘Tis the Damn Season’ and ‘Tolerate It’ on a stadium tour” on the day we bought tickets.

It’s impossible to disconnect Evermore (and Folklore) from the pandemic. They exist because of a true tragedy. They’re healing in that they expose so many hurts. They peel back the corner of the curtain and say, “Remember how this feels?” In exploring “folk” storytelling, Taylor stumbled upon universality in the extremely specific. In trying to make sense of the changing, tumultuous world around her, Taylor gave us the vehicle to experience emotions in the safety of art in a world that wasn’t feeling very safe.

Having recently lost my grandfather, “Marjorie” was a beautiful moment. Especially when I feel like he never got to see my life truly take off and become what I imagine he saw in the future for his grandchildren. “All your closets of backlogged dreams and how you left them all to me.” If Marjorie could see you now, Taylor, she’d be your biggest fan. And not because you’re selling out stadiums worldwide on multiple nights, but because you’re genuinely you through it all.

But, my goodness, the “Tolerate It” performance. Jaw-dropping. Incisive. Emotional. Moving. In a show of bombastic highs, this is a moment where the vocal work and lyrics got to absolutely shine. Every ounce of heartache on display, and then the turning to the crowd as she sings “take this dagger in me and remove it, gain the weight of you and lose it. Believe me, I could do it.”

Taylor knows who is on her side no matter what, which immediately leads into…

“I come back stronger than a 90s trend.”

The Reputation Era

“My reputation’s never been worse so you must like me for me.”

Taylor Swift performs “Don’t Blame Me” in Detroit, June 9, 2023

The emotional, hilarious whiplash of “Tolerate It” to “…Ready For It?” may be one of the more genius moves of the entire tour. No matter how much I adore Evermore, the energy did flag a little in the crowd. It’s a long show. But the instant that snake flashed on the screen, the place just about exploded.

The Reputation Tour (watch it on Netflix if you haven’t, what are you even doing?) is often considered Taylor’s best tour (until now) for a reason. These songs are made for stadiums. They’re made for crowds of thousands shaking the foundation of these huge stands. Taylor had grown as a performer by this tour, and continues to grow in front of our eyes now. There is nothing more laudable than an artist continuing to strive for growth at every turn.

Throughout the tour, more and more fan callouts have become tour standards. The “You Belong With Me” claps. Cell phone lights during “Marjorie.” “Taylor, you’ll be fine.” “You forgive, you forget, but you never let it go.” The pen click. The “Champagne Problems” applause. But leading up to the tour, I only ever saw chatter about “1, 2, 3, let’s go bitch.”

Let me be perfectly clear: I hated this. For all the negative connotations that come with the word bitch, considering all of the “discourse” around Reputation, attaching such a chant to “Delicate” seemed far too crass and disrespectful. But you know who doesn’t hate it (or so it seems)? Taylor. Counting on her fingers, smirk on her face, backup dancers gesturing wildly behind her on the stage hyping up the crowd, living in the chant. “That’s what they said I am…so what if I am?” she seems to indicate, encouraging her fans to scream it louder every night of the tour.

And that’s where Taylor has always been the mastermind: claiming the narrative. We know who she is–”Blank Space” and “Anti-Hero” are too on the nose to be anything but glib mockeries of who they say she is. After all, “don’t blame me for what you made me do.” Because, as we’ve learned, at her lowest point in the public eye, her fans embraced her even harder. Whether it’s calculation or just the realizations of growing into adulthood, during this era Taylor did begin to write more for the fans than for the fame. She already had plenty of both, but she solidified her relationship with the former and it’s made all the difference.

“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now…”

The Speak Now Era

“This night is sparkling, don’t you let it go…”

Taylor Swift performs “Mine” in Nashville, May 7, 2023

If Taylor made any critical mistake in designing The Eras Tour, this is it. Speak Now has far too many career highs and fan favorites to be reduced to a shortened version of “Enchanted.” In fact, I’d go as far to say that–especially given the (Taylor’s Version) announcement–this Era should’ve been the closing era every night of the tour.

“Enchanted” into “Mine” and “Sparks Fly,” then coming to a close with “Long Live” is the closest thing to a perfect ending I could’ve scripted for this show. Especially when viewing the tour in light of it being a love song to her fans. Of course, saying which three songs I think she could cut to squeeze these three others in could lead to an all out brawl depending on the fan. (One from Folklore, two from Midnights.)

Having gotten both “Mine” (Nashville N3) and “Haunted” (Detroit N1) as secret songs, I can guarantee you that more Speak Now would’ve been absolutely special for everyone involved. And it’s because of the magical, almost fairytale-like nature of the songs themselves. Folklore and Evermore may have explored the storytelling prowess of her career, but the songs on “Speak Now” carry that same magic and ingenuity just as strongly. You believe you’re in the songs living those feelings and stories as you sing them.

And they’re the songs we’ve sat with for well over a decade now. They have the power of memory and the distance of time to no longer be about the specifics and instead about the moments and the emotions, for us and for Taylor. In the intimacy and naivety of youth across this album explore the feelings we all know so well. And it culminates with one true fear:

“Please don’t be in love with someone else…”

The Red Era

“It feels like the perfect night…”

Taylor Swift performs “22” in Nashville, May 7, 2023

The era on which the entire show hinges. The era on which her entire career hinges. Her magnum opus. Her scattered snapshot of every emotion you can possibly feel at 22. Her heartache and her elation. Her genre exploration. All coalescing into “ten minutes of your time.”

In Nashville, during “22,” the rain poured down so hard that the spotlights appeared almost physically among us. A joyous, raucous celebration of youth once again transporting me back into a different time and place. When I listen to Red, I experience a deeper sense memory than with any other album. I know what these songs make me remember, make me feel, and make me taste. I know where I was when I fell in love with them.

We Are…” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” played like the massive pop hits they are, feeling less out of place in this setlist than they do on Red itself. While I would’ve adored seeing “State of Grace,” “Red,” “Treacherous,” (what a run to start that album, am I right?) or “Begin Again,” I get why she chose the pop singles over the country singles. It may be an Eras tour, but the country side of her career is definitely the most downplayed (justice for Taylor Swift; “Tim McGraw” and “Our Song” should’ve also been nightly staples on this tour). Thankfully, I did get to see “Nothing New” out of the vault in Nashville, dipping more sonically into the less-pop side of the album.

But, of course, it’s entirely about the climax of the era and the centerpiece of her tour (and her career): “All Too Well.” My favorite Taylor song of all time, the original version not the ten minute. The critical consensus for her best work of art. A fan favorite. A shock #1 single. There are thousands of words written about this song all across the internet, including by me.

Much like “Dear John,” you could forgive Taylor for not wanting to play this one live very often. But as she explains in the Reputation Tour documentary, there are some things that the fans have changed for her. How the song evolves from the initial moment of hurt into something grand and connective and beautiful. And hearing the thousands of us singing along with her, I’m glad that something so devastating has become something so flawless. It’s like every shattering moment of Taylor’s life allows for the fans to kintsugi it into something else. And in that moment, you can see the love song Taylor is writing throughout her career for her fans. We’re creating something so beautiful for her despite all of her pain…and she’s doing the same for us.

“It was rare, I was there, I remember it…”

The Folklore Era

“To live for the hope of it all…”

Taylor Swift performs “Illicit Affairs” in Nashville, May 7, 2023

Okay, I’ll just say it: it really bothers me that the Betty-James-Augusta love triangle is performed in reverse order of how it happens chronologically in the story. But I digress.

Like Evermore, I wasn’t sure how Folklore would translate to the setting. Songs aren’t written for the venue they’ll be performed in, but rather for the people who will listen and sing them. I think these songs translated just fine, for the most part, but the first three songs are definitely the lowest energy portion of the night. (Not a critique, just an observation.) It was well past midnight in Nashville when we arrived here, so I was thankful to see it again in Detroit much less tired. (Though, I did get the debut of “the note change” in “The 1” in Nashville.)

The absolute highlight was “August” with the “Illicit Affairs” bridge turned into an outro that directly enters “My Tears Ricochet.Folklore is an immense collection of songs, and this stretch of the show really cements Taylor’s legacy as a songwriter and performer. In fact, it was around this moment where I realized I had moved from “she’s among the greatest of all time because I’m a huge fan” to “she’s the greatest of all time, no qualifiers.”

In many ways, Folklore was the moment I think Taylor realized any direction she wants to go, we as her fans will follow. For a career that’s always been calculated and planned, the pandemic forced her into taking a risk–with an absolutely monster of a payoff. One of my wishes going forward in her career is that she takes these risks knowing it won’t affect how her fans appreciate her and her work. A stadium rock record seems like a good risk to take, if you’re reading this Taylor.

“‘cause you weren’t mine to lose…”

The 1989 Era

“We never go out of style…”

Taylor Swift performs “Bad Blood” in Nashville, May 7, 2023

The five singles off of 1989, one of the most popular albums of this century, probably represent the casual listener’s image of Taylor more so than any of her other singles and eras. This was her moment of radio domination and ubiquity after leaving country. And the crowd reacted appropriately. This is least intimate portion of the show, and I think it reflects the glam and mega-stardom of the era as it happened. The songs, despite being her pop singles to date, are almost too big for the story she’s been telling thus far. “Style” and “Wildest Dreams” are two of my favorite songs in her entire discography, yet they don’t feel like the core of this set of songs.

As a longtime fan, I know why she went singles again here…but I was left wanting some deep cuts from the album. I missed the 1989 World Tour due to finances at the time and I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever get to hear a “All You Had To Do Was Stay” or “I Wish You Would” or “Wonderland” live. These are songs that tap into the emotional core of the writing of Taylor’s that I find most compelling. In many ways, this era felt like the safest, least surprising presentation of songs. Which, considering what comes next, could’ve been on purpose.

Say you’ll remember me…”

Surprise Songs

“You are the best thing that’s ever been mine.”

Taylor Swift performs “Haunted” in Detroit, June 9, 2023

The surprise song section of the tour has been one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen an artist do. After only doing one surprise song per night on her older tours, she expanded to one guitar and one piano song. It allows for moments of true awe, surprise, and glee for both Taylor and the fans.

I’ll never forget the live debut of  “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” in the pouring rain. The absolute stunning piano version of “Mine” after admitting that for her, this song was about her fans. Or the complete shock of her playing “Haunted” in Detroit and the crowd struggling to catch up to the realization. Or the moment I grabbed my friend next to me as she played “I Almost Do” without any introduction, playing a song from Red I never expected to see live.

I’ve watched grainy, time-delayed livestreams of the secret songs most weekends. It’s playful. It’s unique. It’s caring. It’s paying tribute to a legacy of her body of work. But it’s also a constant surprise to her how loud people sing these songs back to her. “Oh, you really know this one!” she said, mid-song, playing a b-side from the Fearless era in Atlanta.

Songs from every era, no matter how well known or obscure, are met with deafening roars and rowdy singalongs. Songs we’ve had for almost two decades or songs recently released from the vault, it doesn’t matter. The concert may be a love song to her fans, but the fans are the ones singing it the loudest. And, if what I’ve been witnessing holds true, it’s going to stay that way for a very long time.

The Midnights Era

“Ask me what I learned from all those years. Ask me what I learned from all those tears.
Ask me why so many fade, but I’m still here.”

The concert ends with the most current era of her career. I wouldn’t say it’s her best era artistically or lyrically, but it’s the most free she’s ever been. She can do whatever she wants, and the scattershot nature of the album and chosen songs reflect that. The insightful, introspective look back at the dark nights of her life really do encompass this feeling of all of her eras culminating here. Whereas Red and Lover approach the scattershot approach quite differently, there’s something cohesive about Midnights that reflects the moment Taylor is at in her life.

And what a moment it is.

Taylor Swift performs “Karma” in Detroit, June 9, 2023

“It’s me, hi.”

Amanda Petrusich’s superb write-up for The New Yorker, “The Startling Intimacy of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour” captured it perfectly for me by saying: “The scope of the show reinforces the hysterical demands on twenty-first-century pop stars: be something new every time you show up, or don’t show up at all.”

But Taylor shows up because this is who Taylor Swift is. The seventeen year old girl with the thick country accent is the same as the thirty three year old woman conquering the world one pop single at a time. She’s been inescapable. She’s been the outcast. She’s been the icon. She’s been dramatic. She’s been reserved. She’s been deeply flawed, deeply human, and deeply connected. She cares deeply.

And for that? We, her fans, love her. Because we have been all those things. So, if I have to hear these songs for my life to make sense? I’ll be “asking God if He could play it again.”