There are some things that I, as a 25-year-old male, can never fully understand. A few examples: childbirth, the Disney channel, Forever 21, bangs, a world where John Travolta isn't creepy, sexy vampires, and, among many other things, Taylor Swift.
I’m not saying Taylor Swift has no appeal to men over the age of 18 (Ryan Adams has made it very clear that she does), but I think it’s fair to say I — a wholly unglamorous creature — am not exactly her demographic. When I was 15, the only person telling me they loved me was my mom. And I believed her.
So trying to get to the bottom of the Swift-mania that’s swept our country over the past year on my own would be a lot like having an iguana write a book about the Ottoman Empire. To dig into the mountain of ice cream that is Taylor Swift, I need help.
Enter my boss' 12-year-old daughter, AKA my T-Swift Sherpa. Let’s call her Caroline.
The two of us ride in my Mazda on the way to the American Airlines Arena, listening to a Taylor Swift mixtape I made earlier in the day.
I don’t hang out with 12-year-olds a whole lot, so I’m not totally sure where to start. Track 2 of my mixtape comes on, Swift’s 2008 single “Fifteen.” I tell Caroline it’s my favorite Swift song, and she nods politely, but I’m sure she’s thinking, Dude, you have a beard. Stop it.
Calling Caroline a Taylor Swift fan is like calling Taylor Swift successful. It’s an understatement. I ask her to rank herself on a scale of one to ten in Swift fandom.
I’m out of my league.
“I did some studying, just to let you know,” she tells me as we pull onto Biscayne Boulevard. I ask her for some pertinent Taylor facts, and she takes a deep breath.
Taylor Swift’s favorite show is Grey’s Anatomy. Her lucky number is 13 because she was born on December 13 (1989, obviously). She has two cats, named Meredith and Olivia. She got her big break during a gig at Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. The first person to teach her how to play guitar was a computer repairman. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer last year, and she has one brother named Austin.
On the walk to the arena, tweens dart around me and the cops directing traffic seem more on edge than I’ve ever seen them before. I suddenly understand why children can be so effective in horror movies, and I decide elementary-school teachers should be paid in diamonds, by the pound.
We get past a pretty stringent security line with metal detectors and head off to find our seats. On the way, a girl waddles by us inside a box carved and painted to look like the Empire State Building. She looks like a Boxtroll, and I lean toward Caroline to find out if this is simply a child fond of iconic architecture or if I’m missing something here. “‘Welcome to New York.’ It’s a Taylor Swift song.”
I feel like I have my own personal translator.
Later we’ll watch the same girl work her way down a flight of stairs gingerly, guided by a friend, where she’ll take her spot on the floor next to the stage, her pointy needle head swaying back and forth in the middle of the crowd the entire night.
Before we take our seats, Caroline wants to get a Taylor Swift shirt. The merchandise booth is less a merchandise mecca and more the water scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. There are at least 45 child/parent duos with surprisingly good fundamentals working in tandem to box out competitors for shirts ranging in price from $30 to $45 (a $50 blanket too). After a few minutes of taking 6-year-old elbows to the thigh, I decide we should take our seats and try later, and also that, if we’re handing out diamonds, elementary-school cafeteria ladies deserve a few as well.
We eventually will get the shirt, though it’s not much easier once the show ends.
Swift is supposed to go on at 8:30 p.m. sharp, and at 8:41, I start to plan my escape route in case these petite maniacs turn violent. I’m thinking I grab the littlest one to my right standing on top of her chair and start swinging her like a tennis racket as I lead Caroline toward the nearest exit, but thankfully, just then, the lights cut out.
It’s hard to describe the sound of 20,000 teen girls losing their shit in unison. It hits you in the stomach and works its way down your legs and out through your feet into the floor. It’s beautiful and terrifying, like a tornado made of glitter.
Swift pops out from below the stage, wearing sunglasses and looking flawless as always. She opens with “Welcome to New York,” and I look down toward the floor to see the tip of the miniature Empire State vibrating like a seismograph.
Each seat in the room had a rubber wristband taped to it. The bands
Swift runs through a combination of hits — “Blank Space,” "I Knew You Were Trouble.” Twenty minutes into the show, it feels as if no one’s taken a breath. Caroline has morphed into a small whirling dervish, and I’m 97 percent sure I won’t have a job tomorrow when I show up on my boss’ doorstep with nothing but a charred pile of hair and tennis shoes saying, “I… I don’t know what happened.”
As things reach a fever pitch, Swift finally breaks pace to address the crowd. My theory is these wristbands are meant to monitor our heart rates so a doctor can signal Swift when she needs to stop singing or else risk 20,000 pocket-sized heart attacks.
It’s become routine for Swift to bring out celebrity guests at most of her concerts, and she gets the crowd ready for the first of what will apparently be multiple surprises in the night. Caroline and I were speculating
We were kind of right. The first celeb to step out is Dwyane Wade. The crowd goes wild, though at this point, there’s really no one for whom they wouldn’t go wild. Swift could bring out Charles Manson and the screams would be loud enough to shatter glass.
Wade says some nice things about Taylor before giving her a Heat jersey and handing her back the microphone. The night’s next two other celebs will be Pitbull and Ricky Martin. Mr. 305 sings “Give Me Everything” while chasing Swift down the catwalk like an alligator. Swift subs in for Ne-Yo’s verse marvelously and then duets with Ricky Martin on “Livin' La Vida Loca.”
Caroline’s not familiar with that one, but she dances along regardless.
Watching Swift onstage is like watching Tyson in his prime. She’s operating at humanity's highest caliber. She’s perfect and mistake-free but still somehow feels human and vulnerable. Girls are holding their hands up, palms open toward the ceiling.
On the ride home, Caroline will say, “Everyone’s just there to praise the queen.” She’s right.
After Pitbull hops offstage, Swift walks to the end of the catwalk that cuts across the arena floor and, after what I’m sure is urgent doctor’s orders, slows things down again. The platform disconnects from the rest of the floor and raises Swift up about 30 feet in the air.
The singer launches into what Caroline tells me is “the ‘Clean’ speech.” It’s about cyber-bullying and being confident, ignoring mean people, and being nice to everyone else. After she finishes, she plays the song “Clean,” and suddenly I understand why it’s called “the ‘Clean’ speech” and, not for the first or last time that night, I feel intellectually inferior to a 12-year-old.
The raised platform spins Swift around like those machines they use to prepare astronauts for intense g-force, and I’m pretty sure Swift is preparing for a show on the moon, which is probably already sold out.
As she spins around to give folks a better view, she seems to be making eye contact with everyone all at once, and, I think, for the first time that night, I start to get it.
What’s behind all of this?
That’s been my main question going into the show, and it's one Caroline has patiently tried to answer for the past two hours. Artists who tap so deeply into the vein of our planet’s youth are rare, only bounding along once or twice a generation. Their music doesn’t have to sound the same, but they do have to share one thing in common: Fans need to relate to them not as celebrities but as people.
So what’s Swift’s secret? Here’s an attempt at an answer from a man who’s been hanging out with a tween for several hours, which has to be the equivalent of, like, a bachelor's degree in Swiftology.
In the realm of our nation’s middle and high schools, Swift is that
It’s this that elevates her past artists like Rihanna or Katy Perry, who would no doubt show up to prom in the cool limo, reeking of watermelon vodka with college boys named Trent as their dates.
I float this hypothesis by Caroline on the way home, and she thinks for a moment before agreeing. “Yeah,” she says, though she doesn’t seem too impressed. Trying to get a Taylor Swift fan to analyze why they like Taylor Swift is like trying to get someone to explain why they think a joke is funny.
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But Swift is just so accessible in a way so few megastars are. If Beyoncé is Jesus Christ, then Taylor Swift is Pope Francis, a more tactile figure who will reach out and kiss your hand rather than just be worshiped from a distance.
Caroline likes this analogy better. “She’s down-to-earth too,” she says. “She actually interacts with her fans.”
I ask her if she and Swift would be friends if they went to the same school. She thinks so.
I do too.