As the track’s hazy opening synth-pop beats blasted through State Farm Stadium, you could hear the gasps with simultaneous shouts of “OH MY GOD!” hardly heard over the ecstatic chaos (and in some cases profuse sobbing) among the nearly 70,000 in attendance. Fast, resplendent in a sparkling bejeweled silver bodysuit and matching knee-high boots, beamed at the crowd because she knew exactly what she was doing.
Swift fans believe that in a parallel universe, “Cruel Summer” (the wistful anthem on her 2019 album, “Lover,” about a steamy and toxic relationship, with a chorus that demands you sing-scream along) was destined to be the song of the summer of 2020, released as a single as Swift planned to embark on a series of festivals called Lover Fest. Clearly, the global downturn of 2020 happened instead. Still, the obsession with “Cruel Summer” persisted, especially because Swift had never performed it live.
Analysis | Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour Opener: A Complete Recap of All 44 Songs
So this wasn’t just a song. For many, this was a stinging, subconscious reminder of how much we lost and what could have been. It was also a moment of pure, confusing joy – not only because of the thrill of hearing a beloved song live for the first time, but also because it’s clear that even one of the most powerful celebrities on the planet had felt everything it also. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that on top of her first show on her Eras Tour – 52 dates to sold-out stadiums – she wanted to pick up right where she left off before the world shut down.
“I don’t know how to process all of this and how it makes me feel right now,” Swift told the stadium as the song ended, her voice shaking slightly. She later added: “I’m really, really, really overwhelmed and I’m trying to hold it together all night.”
“Trying to keep it together” has rarely been the case to the 33-year-old Swift, who, nearing the end of a second decade as a professional musician, has risen to the rare, glorified status of a once-in-a-generation pop star. She has no cold. After gaining fame with songs about her awkward, unpopular teenage years, she now embraces creepiness and seriousness. That’s part of the draw of her legion of fans, who see her as one of them. After Ticketmaster folded during the sale of the Eras Tour, the parent company’s chairman went on the defensive by pointing to the extreme demand, claiming that the number of people trying to buy tickets “could have filled 900 stadiums.”
The Swifties shelled out hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars for tickets and travel and descended on Glendale this weekend, determined to make the often harrowing process of ticketing a distant memory. The Phoenix suburb, which recently hosted the Super Bowl, could barely contain its excitement. The mayor declared it would temporarily change its name to “Swift City,” and electronic signs on the freeway urged safe driving with Swift puns: “CUT OFF? DON’T GET BAD BLOOD. SHAKE IT OFF.” “RESPONSIBLE DRIVING? YOU NEED CALMNESS.”
But that was nothing compared to the electric energy around the stadium. Being a Taylor Swift fan is learning to master the clues and secret messages that could be embedded in every song lyric, public comment, and social media post, no matter how opaque. Being a Taylor Swift fan is always being prepared, which includes devising the perfect outfit for a concert, with limitless options given by the singer herself, who chose a tour theme, “eras,” that celebrates her past and present.
Being in the crowd was like being in a force field where all pretense is gone; Swift’s music runs the gamut from bubblegum pop (which she refers to as “glitter gel pen lyrics”) to deep introspective poetry, and her concerts are a place where you can dance or cry to both. Swift has laid bare her own insecurities and emotions over 10 studio albums and more than 200 songs. Here, in her presence and among each other, fans become their truest selves.
Perusing the crowd, you could see countless sequined and bejeweled skirts and jackets, a nod to the “1989” era. There were also dark blue dresses with stars for “Midnights”; red heart sunglasses, a black bowler hat and a T-shirt that reads “Not much going on at the moment,” a shout-out to the “22” music video; dark lipstick and black leotards as a tribute to “Reputation”; the lyrics were written down in people’s arms in marker, something Swift used to do before every concert; and No. 13 painted on hands, another past Swift tradition from when she started out as a country star.
“My inspiration is the Red Tour, one of Taylor’s iconic outfits, and I just wanted to recreate it,” said Giacomo Benavides, a 26-year-old content creator dressed as a circus ringleader who traveled from Peru for the show.
Some were even more specific: Olivia Jackter of Tucson, 26, wore a traffic light that displayed the phrase “I don’t know,” referring to a lyric from the song “Death By a Thousand Cuts.” Would non-swifties understand? Of course not. Did it matter? Of course not. “This was supposed to be my costume for Lover Fest. I’ve been waiting for this for years,” Jackter said.
A group of 20-something women attached plastic Easter eggs to white T-shirts with pictures of some of their favorite “Easter eggs” and hints that Swift has fallen over the years. A man dressed in a cat costume as Swift’s newest pet, Benjamin. Two women hooted excitedly as they passed each other in line for food and saw that they were wearing matching floral dresses similar to what Swift wore to the 2021 Grammy Awards.
Another popular theme was “All Too Well,” the searing breakup ballad that recently got a new lease on life when Swift released the updated 10-minute version. Lots of fans wore clothes that displayed these lyrics. Ivan Hernandez of Phoenix wore a blue T-shirt that read, “Where’s the scarf, Jake?” – a reference to the song’s supposed subject, Swift’s ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, and the lyrics suggesting he ironed her scarf.
“(My son) wanted to go to the concert and he said, ‘Let’s wear outfits,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to wear an outlandish outfit,'” said Hernandez, 46, whose 13-year-old son, Eli, was wearing an Eras Tour shirt they had bought at the merchandise stand Saturday afternoon before Swift’s second show. “So I just went online and started looking for something about ‘Too Good,’ and this is what came up.”
Swift, who doesn’t miss a thing, praised everyone for their efforts from the stage.
“You guys really outdid yourselves. The way you decided to show up at this concert, you really, really decided to show up,” she said, noting that she saw people dressed as mirror balls (from song “Mirrorball”); willow trees (from “Arrow”); and “sexy babies” (from “Anti-Hero” – and too complicated to explain). “I’ve seen, like really amazing, specific visual representations of lyrics or weird online jokes that we have.”
“I was thinking about tonight and how special this is,” she added. “You’ve made me believe, by you being here, that it’s special to you too, so it’s really nice that it’s mutual.”
Swift’s unusually close relationship with her fans started back when she was a country artist, a genre where singers are supposed to think of listeners as their peers. Swift always went one step further and chatted with fans on Myspace before Nashville executives even knew what it was, and that connection has continued to this day.
In concert, Swift referred to the journey she and her fans have taken together as if they were a family. (The “four new members of the family,” she said, are the four albums she’s released since her last tour.) She made no secret of the fact that she monitors fans’ social media activity, even dryly noting that her 2020 record “Evermore” is “an album I absolutely love, despite what some of you say on TikTok.” (People on the platform are convinced that “Evermore” is her “forgotten child.”)
It’s all why her bond with her fandom remains so strong. She connected early on with other teenage girls who deduced from society that their crushes and feelings and dreams were silly, only to find someone in Swift who took them seriously and who could articulate in songwriting what they didn’t even know they felt .
“When she’s done living through something and writing about it and putting out music, I’m living through it,” said Briana McReynolds, 32, of Phoenix, who showed up wearing a T-shirt covered in lyrics and a purple stripe in her hair to represent “Lavender Haze,” Swift’s latest single. Her best friend, Chris, accompanied her to the concert as an “emotional support Swiftie.” (“I’m doing my best,” he said.)
“She just accidentally wrote the soundtrack to my life,” McReynolds said. “She’s matured with all of us, or we’ve matured with her. So no matter what age I am, she can sing my heart out completely.”
Caitlin O’Connor, 32, of San Diego came to the show with her mother; they’ve seen every Swift tour together for the past 15 years, and O’Connor makes sure to go several times.
“You don’t need therapy; you need Taylor Swift songs,” O’Connor said. Swift’s concerts, she explained, “are my happy place, and there’s nothing else like it. It’s the most natural high you could have in your entire life.” On her arm, she has a tattoo of lyrics from Swift’s “Treacherous”: “All we are is skin and bones, trained to come together.”
“I love that line. Really, at the core, everyone is human,” she said. “And that’s the thing about Taylor Swift concerts, too: Everyone is really nice. … You bond with something immediately.”
Swift is very aware of the world she’s built, and she doesn’t shy away from it. In a surprisingly direct admission, while introducing the song “Mirrorball” from her 2020 album “Folklore” during an acoustic set, she reiterated to the audience how intensely she has missed them over the past several years.
“I was thinking about how one of the songs I wrote with you in mind during the pandemic was one of the first songs I wrote on ‘Folklore’ and it was me writing about how bad I longed for the connection I feel from watching out for you pointing my way,” she said. “I was trying to think of some kind of eloquent way to say I love you and I need your attention all the time. “
The stadium fell silent as she climbed and sang.
“I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try; I’m still on that trapeze, I’m still trying everything to get you to look at me. Because I’m a mirror ball. … I will show you all versions of yourself tonight.”
And though she asked the members of the crowd for their attention, she didn’t need it; it was already there and it always will be.