The first time I saw Taylor Swift in concert was August 24, 2011, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. She was still rocking those famous curly locks, promoting her third studio album, Speak Now, and singing songs like "Sparks Fly," "Our Song," and "Dear John." Her special guest that night: Jason Mraz, on a duet of his 2008 hit "I'm Yours." (One night prior, Justin Bieber had joined her on stage to sing "Baby.") It was her second headlining arena tour.
At the time, I was on assignment reviewing her set for a Hollywood trade publication. I wrote things like, "Every flip of the hair, every strut and movement, felt over-rehearsed" and "the country-crossover artist might be better suited to a more intimate venue where the volume of her voice isn’t a struggle. Her poppy radio hits deserve to be heard."
On Wednesday, August 27, 2015, in that same arena, I saw a different performer. Sure, she sang "Love Story" and a brief verse of "Enchanted," but Swift had moved well beyond that doe-eyed girl -- and it's about time.
Two years ago, I admired how far she had come on the Red Tour. Again, in the same venue, Swift traded her signature hand-hearts and the aw, shucks, you came here to see me?! routine for choreographed dance numbers and duets with Ed Sheeran. This is what I tweeted:
By 2015, within those first opening moments of her 1989 World Tour, it's obvious that Swift has cemented her place in the big leagues. There's the big budget production, the deafening screams, and Swift's confidence like she's been doing this her whole life. (Because, let's face it, she has.)
But underneath the pop mega-performance, there's still Taylor. "Hi, I'm Taylor!" she cheerily introduces herself to the crowd. (I'm also pleasantly surprised to see that her dance moves have not largely improved -- but dammit, she tries. That remains one of the things I find genuinely endearing about her.) Later, she rambles on about self-worth and not letting haters on Instagram get you down. "I know how tricky happiness can be to find in 2015," she says. "These days, all I care about is what you think about me -- not people who don't know me."
Have these fans actually met Ms. Taylor face-to-face? Overwhelmingly, no. Do they know her? Perhaps. But if there's one thing Swift is set on, it's making her fans feel deeply and undeniably connected to her. And she's done an exceptionally good job of that.
Still, Swift has relied largely on buzzworthy guest appearances from stars like Julia Roberts, Alanis Morissette, and Nick Jonas -- to name only a few -- with this tour. As ET has recently suggested, it's all part of her grand plan for world domination, and it's working. While guaranteeing once-in-a-lifetime experiences for fans at each of her shows, she's kept herself in the headlines consistently all summer long. And while parading her famous friends through a series of pre-taped confessionals (pals like Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, Cara Delevingne and Jamie King all sing Swift's praises at various points in the show), I can't help but think: She doesn't need this. She's doing just fine on her own.
I look around at the audience, filled with fans of all ages -- crying tweens, middle-aged moms wearing tutus and homemade 1989 shirts, groups of 20- and 30-somethings indulging in adult beverages -- and I wonder: What are they feeling right now, and why are they so invested?
Sure, I sang along to "Blank Space," I reveled in Swift's new found sexiness on "I Knew You Were Trouble," and I got my mom-croon on during "I Wish You Would." I screamed with the best of them when Swift introduced Gomez as her first guest of the night, singing, as Swift said, "the song of the summer," "Good For You," all while secretly thinking to myself: I bet all those suckers that bought tickets to the first four shows are kicking themselves right now.
I whipped out my cell phone to record Lisa Kudrow aka Phoebe Buffay trade verses with Swift on the Friends classic, "Smelly Cat," ("You have to really feel the lyrics," she scolded Swift halfway through.) but I was an observer -- there for work, very much enjoying myself, but not fanatically invested. Then, I lost my mind when Swift's final guest hit the stage.
"I'm obsessed with his music, you're obsessed with his music, there's no one that's not," she teased. "It's like the one thing everyone in the world has in common."
And then, amid a dazzling pyrotechnics display, Justin Timberlake launched into "Mirrors."
Now, I've seen Mr. JT live several times under different circumstances. There was the nosebleeds for *NSYNC's No Strings Attached tour in Buffalo, New York, then the front row of his intimate iHeartRadio release party at the El Rey in Los Angeles, but I still maintain that his 20/20 Experience tour stop at L.A.'s The Forum is one of the best shows that I have ever seen. But to be caught off guard with a JT sighting -- while he's singing one of my favorite songs of all time -- was enough to send me into shock. Overwhelmed with happiness, cheeks flushed, heart pounding, hands shaking... I thought, for a brief moment, I might vomit.
I didn't vomit, but I did remember exactly what it feels like to worship a pop star, and that's the best gap she could have bridged. Suddenly, any criticism seems, as Swift immortalized in song, "Mean." Whether it's alongside Joan Baez, John Legend, Lorde, Fetty Wap or Mary J. Blige, Swift will command your attention -- whether you like it or not.
Since its inception, 1989 has been a bold move for the country crossover darling. Swift has openly addressed her decision to give her label head "a very firm 'no'" when asked to incorporate at least three country tracks into the synth-heavy album, and in an interview with ET earlier this year, she opened up about the high stakes surrounding the tour and her decision to take on "100 percent control" of the show's message and flow.
"It's pressure that's worth putting on yourself, I think," she said in April. "You just have to take that on if you are really going to own the direction of your life and your career."
If there's one downside to this star-studded affair, it's that Swift has raised the bar so high -- not only for her fellow pop stars, but for herself. That said, Swift has built her career on being relentlessly relevant in the zeitgeist, wearing out her Taylor Swift Surprise Face, moving on to "a long list of ex-lovers," then collecting an enviable squad of gal-pals and coining the phrase "Tay-lurking." I have no doubt that she's already thinking about her next chapter, and I have no doubt that pop culture will be ready and waiting to soak it all in.
See Swift's big duet with Timberlake in the video below.