The world's biggest pop star sat alone at a piano in Tampa, looking for the first time in a long time like she wasn't quite sure what to say.
"This exact day a year ago, I was not playing a sold-out stadium in Tampa," Taylor Swift told the crowd of more than 50,000 on Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium. "I was in a courtroom in Denver, Colorado. And honestly, I was there for a sexual assault case. This day a year ago was the day that the jury sided in my favor and said that they believe me."
And in a rare public show of emotion, Swift's voice began to break.
"I guess I just think about all the people that weren't believed, and the people who haven't been believed, or the people who are afraid to speak up because they're afraid they won't be believed," she said. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry to anyone who ever wasn't believed. Because I don't know what turn my life would have taken if people didn't believe me when I said that something had happened to me."
A lot can happen in a year, from a painful public trial to a divisive new album to a megawatt stadium tour that looks like the art of pop perfected. Imagine if the city of Las Vegas was a concert — the gilded circus atmosphere, the veneer of prestige on a night driven by the id, and the fireworks, my goodness, the FIREWORKS — and that's pretty much what Swift's Reputation Tour delivers.
Yet you want to know how Swift can fill a football stadium on a muggy August Tuesday in Tampa? That moment of truth at the piano is your answer. Call her pop's realest star or one of its most opaque, America's sweetheart or a nightmare dressed like a daydream. But no amount of negative press or public scrutiny can shake off the connection she's built up with her fans.
Swifties from as far away as Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Thailand flooded the grandstands and field, draped in flags, fishnets, tassels and and homemade tees inscribed with her lyrics and photos of her cats. It wasn't just about looking good; it was about looking your most Tayloriffic. There may be no other concert experience where the cosplay is so intense and inventive, yet heartfelt and homespun.
"I'm seeing a lot of costumes that are based on lyrics, which honestly just wins my heart," Swift said after walking through the crowd between songs.
So what does Swift do on nights like these? Accessorize, of course. Every fan through the doors got a wristband that glowed and strobed to the music — shape-shifting red and white splotches on Bad Blood, a galaxy of indigo dots on acoustic country throwback Invisible, an old-school rarity dedicated to a fan who told her the song inspired him while coming out.
Yeah, Taylor went there, all right, all the way back to her Nashville roots. She mashed up Love Story with You Belong With Me, flashing that old mouth-agape grin, not an atom on stage out of place. Even Bad Blood worked a little bit of banjo into its dubsteppy wobble. The crowd would've settled for an entire concert filled with performances like Dancing With Our Hands Tied, a newer song strummed alone and acoustic, just as she would've played it in her country days.
But Swift's got a Reputation to uphold, so to speak, and in playing nearly every track from that album, she brought it to vivid, maximalized life, surrounded by a full band and nearly 20 dancers. For Look What You Made Me Do, she dressed as a Cleopatrafied warrior woman, swinging and stomping in big, exaggerated gestures. At various point enormous snake megapuppets rose from the stage, eyes aglow. During King of My Heart, they slithered about Swift's high-def video backdrop with such clarity that when viewed head-on, it was hard to tell which snakes were real and which were fake, which were authentic and which were just images. (Any correlation here to Swift and her Reputation rivals is surely coincidental, right?)
Swift's majestic set laid the foundation for a top-to-bottom night of ladypower. Havana homegirl Camila Cabello, glowing like a ruby in a custom Bucs jersey, praised the early arrivers on a "humid, mosquito-filled night" in her home state, mixing pop songs sparse and breathy (Never Be the Same, Consequences) with kicky and fun (Inside Out, Into It).
And kicking it all off was Charli XCX, a pep-squad pixie in a white sports bra and red-tipped bob, bouncing all over Swift's X-shaped stage like a juiced-up SuperBall on the thunderous Boom Clap and chirpy, chiptuney Boys.
Cabello and Charli came out to join Swift on Shake It Off, another finale-worthy song on a night chock-full of them, with more dancers and more giant snakes and even more fireworks, the whole shebang. For her actual finale, Swift had to outdo even that — and somehow she did, lugging a working fountain in front of an image of a Gatsbyesque mansion for the relatively subdued Call It What You Want and pyro-mad mash-up of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together and This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things. Heck of a way to end a school night.
And yet in the days and weeks to come, it may be that moment alone at the piano that will stick in so many fans' memories.
Swift on this night wasn't afraid to let the stadium see her sweat — she frequently brushed perspiration from her eyes and bangs, so much so that at one point she admitted she thought it was raining. But when talking about her sexual assault case, a "really, really horrible part of my life" and the "public nature of the way my life is," she was at a loss.
"Sorry, I just haven't really talked about it," she said, "and so I'm just not composed at all."
So as fans waved dollar bills — a nod to the symbolic $1 she won in Colorado — she sang Long Live, a song reminding her to "remember this moment in the back of my mind." During the affecting New Year's Day, she did just that, pausing with a big, warm smile on her face, surveying the stadium, and the galaxy of glittering bracelets she held in the palm of her hand.
Swift thanked them and told them she loved them. When it comes to the sway she still holds in their hearts, nothing else needs to be said.
— Jay Cridlin