NEW YORK — It’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard in your life. Imagine a cross between the squeal of an 18-wheeler peeling out at light speed and a 50-foot tall referee’s whistle reverberating around the Grand Canyon. Now multiply that by 20,000. No, we’re not talking about the wail of a fret-melting guitar solo or the piercing squeal of a fiery fiddle, though both of those played a part in Taylor Swift’s sold-out Madison Square Garden concert. We’re talking about the audience. If you’ve never been in the midst of 20,000 tween-to-teen girls shrieking at maximum lung capacity, well, consider the above description an understatement, and suffice to say it’s easy to understand why the Beatles quit touring so early on.
So what has inspired such a frenzy here at this storied New York City venue? The biggest coming-out party ever, one that seems way overdue. Between her 2006 debut album and its ’08 follow-up, Fearless, Swift, now 19, has broken so many sales and chart records over the last three years that Guinness should have a full-time employee following her around. And yet, this is her first full-blown headlining tour. (It’s not her first time at the Garden, though — she proudly informs the crowd that her MSG debut came at age 12 in a talent competition during a Knicks halftime show.) She’s brought along this year’s new kids on the block, Gloriana, and pal Kellie Pickler, for company, and the latter makes an instant connection with the fans, who sing along en masse to her opening tune, “Best Days of Your Life,” but in the end, this crowd is here to pay fervent, very vocal tribute to Swift on the eve of her “arrival” as a real-deal headlining superstar.
It’s not merely her youth that has endeared Swift to an audience a full generation the junior of the fans most country stars attract. Tanya Tucker in the ’70s and LeAnn Rimes in the ’90s hit it big when each was three years younger than Taylor was when her “Tim McGraw” made the country and pop Top 40. But those earlier teen titans sang to and for the pre-existing country fanbase, i.e. adults. Swift’s gift is her game-changing ability to create a country audience her own age (and younger) by writing — neither Rimes nor Tucker were initially songwriters — and singing songs about and to them.
That’s the dynamic being played out on its biggest scale to date here. Just in case overtly teen-directed Swift singles like “15” and “Picture to Burn” aren’t enough to reach the cheap seats in such a capacious venue, Taylor makes an impressive grab for the title of hardest-working woman in show business. She offers a jaw-dropping array of extramusical elements. Besides the elaborate, two-tiered stage setup, constantly shifting video graphic displays and dancers (How many other country artists employ dancers?), the singer herself goes through at least seven costume changes. They include a drum majorette/toy soldier uniform for “You Belong With Me” and a Victorian-looking ball gown for “Love Story.” She races to the back of the arena to play a couple of songs for those farthest from the stage before doing the same in the middle, trades moves with the dancers and band and engages in theatrical, song-accentuating tableaux amid constantly changing stage scenery, from a mockup of a TV chat show to a high-school classroom.
So does all this make the experience any less “country?” Not instrumentally. Swift’s band prominently features fiddle, banjo, and acoustic guitar, where Pickler’s, just to nab the nearest example, doesn’t. Not emotionally. In her between-song banter, she repeatedly goes out of her way to underline the songs’ relatable nature (“I’m not the only girl who burns her ex-boyfriend’s pictures.”). Not visually. Anybody ever heard of a guy named Brooks, who was flying over the stage and employing pyrotechnics when Swift was in diapers, never mind Chris LeDoux, old enough to have been her grandfather, whose rodeo-riding cred wasn’t damaged a bit by his onstage mechanical-bull antics?
While there are plenty of males and adults who have no problem relating to Swift’s music, this evening was ultimately about our heroine communing with her tribe. Never has there been a question as rhetorical as Swift’s cry toward the show’s end, “Where my girls at?” Those rump-shaking gyrations and dramatic hair-flips Swift indulged in throughout the concert, her series of sequined minidresses, even the similarly dolled-up state of her assembled admirers, it was all for each other, not for the prurient pleasure of some guys. These were expressions of exultant celebration, not attempts at sex appeal.
From “You’re Not Sorry” to “Should’ve Said No,” if Swift’s repertoire has an overarching theme, it’s the resilient nature of the female spirit, especially in the face of romantic betrayal. Call it “girl power” if you must, but come to think of it, that concept is surely far from foreign to the mothers (who were out in numbers) of these girls, too. You didn’t think those quadruple-Platinum sales came strictly from the high-school set, did you? It all hit home in the final image of this momentous night at the climax of “Should’ve Said No,” when the final visual spectacle of the evening, a giant waterfall, covered Swift in its flow as she stayed her ground, duly drenched, but with a fist triumphantly upraised.View photos from the Madison Square Garden concert.