Review: Taylor Swift at Staples Center
Taylor Swift’s latest album, “Speak Now,” is all about confessions, but she let a humdinger slip at the first night of her Staples Center stand Tuesday. The flaxen-tressed poet laureate of heartland millennial romance recently bought a house here, right in the scorpion pit of sin and celebrity and silicon that Angelenos call “home.”
“You’re really nice people here,” Swift said, just before diving into “Mean,” a song about leaving small-town backbiters behind for the bright lights and big city. “So, thought I’d make it official.”
To cry “sellout” at one of the most commercially successful new artists of the last five years would perhaps cause some fans to grumble (and note how she might be the first person to move to L.A. based on the kindness of its inhabitants), and would miss the point. All her songs are inherently autobiographical. If that autobiography turns toward a house in the hills and reported flings with John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal and Taylor Lautner, that just means her “Dear John” letters are more interesting that most.
At Staples on Tuesday, she succeeded at her most difficult task as a writer and performer yet. She made the life of a self-aware arena star feel relatable and true to young fans both within the proximity of her adopted new home and to those farther-flung but still in the omniscient reach of TMZ.
That fraught pop-star pirouette came largely on the back of her tradition-rich writing. There’s nothing more tedious than an artist’s “Woe Is Me, Burdened Pop Star” followup to a major hit record, but Swift knows better than to let that intrude on her craft.
She played the title track of "Speak Now," a charming daydream about swooping in to save a crush from his obviously doomed marriage, as an acoustic doo-wop miniature, the simplicity of the tune bolstered by a funny ensemble dance number set at the altar. “The Story of Us” proved her arena-rock mettle, with a driving kick drum and waves of electric guitars giving weight to Swift’s sassy vocals, and “Better Than Revenge” was a smart bit of Paramore-esque locker room pop-punk.
That song was a particular pivot point in the set, as it was the first instance in her catalog that young romance actually had the threat of turning sexual. “She’s not a saint, she’s not what you think, she’s an actress…she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” Swift sang. Though it draws from the high-schoolish tactic of what’s become known as "slut-shaming," Swift countered it with a playful and self-aware moment where she sensuously leaned into a female bandmate.
It’d be absurd not to expect the 21-year-old to start tackling the minefields of young lust, but pop is littered with careers of women who doubled-down on self-exploitation at this juncture -- a particularly dicey one for a country-pop star whose career depends on the approval of Middle America. Maybe this is where Swift’s celebrity helps her -- gossip hounds know who she’s been seeing on the side, so she can afford to be more coy and sly in her songs. The only boldface name named was, to the rapture of the largely tween audience, “my friend Justin” (of the Bieber variety), who emerged for a quick cameo performance.
Despite all that, it’s clear that Swift's heart still lies on the optimist’s side of the ledger on love, and a surprisingly ace solo take on the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” was a late-set highlight. Though power ballads aren’t her voice’s most natural setting, a sprawling version of “Enchanted” made a convincing case that she’s still, at some level, another misfit kid cutting through the weeds of life in L.A.’s music scene.
Yes, a misfit who can ride an aerial riser over the Staples Center crowd while glitter cannons shoot off at the hands-up climax of her hit single “Love Story.” But let’s confess -- isn’t that everyone’s dream when they move here?
-- August Brown
Photos: Country singer Taylor Swift performs during her Speak Now tour at Staples Center on Tuesday. Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times.