Recently, I saw Taylor Swift perform and as the more than two-hour show progressed I was struck with a stunning thought: how does a girl with very limited singing ability, and even more limited dancing ability, sell out a 45,000-seat baseball stadium two nights in a row?
I don't mean to hate on Ms. Swift. She seems like a nice person, and obviously I forked over the cash to see her, so I must be a fan. She is currently in the midst of her 1989 World Tour, to support its namesake album that has sold more than 5 million copies to date in the US, a feat unheard of in an era where people would rather listen to albums for free, or maybe a small monthly subscription on Spotify. Not even Beyoncé is moving those kind of units.
I saw her show at the Nationals Park in DC and as I stood there watching her perform, I started to think a lot about the importance of the ever elusive x-factor. Vocally, it's not that Swift sounded terrible she sang on key the whole time. It's just it was nothing to write home about, I would say she is a good as a random high cool student who practices for a few weeks before the big spring recital. A friend of my later suggested poor acoustics could have been the reason for the less than strong singing, so who knows? Dancing wise, well she didn't dance per se. It was more fast-paced walking, and poses that inferred dancing. Yet still the audience was raptured.
So how could this be? I would say the x-factor, a nearly indefinable thing that makes a person interesting, so interesting that you want to spend your hard earned money on concert tickets, merchandise or their albums.
This same quality would explain how fellow pop star Britney Spears, whose Vegas residency show I saw earlier this year, can sit down on some steps, look bored, wait for the CD version of a song she recorded when she was a teenager to start and mouth along YouTube "Lucky" and "Piece of Me," and you'll see what I'm talking about. Yet Spears has one of the most successful shows on the strip, and its run has been extended multiple times.
The importance of the x-factor was very apparent even during the sets of the opening acts for Ms. Swift's show. Shawn Mendes was one of her openers. He sings pretty well and could play a guitar, but the audience was paying him dust. They were looking at phones, talking to friends, giving him little attention
He seemed noticeably irritated by this, at one point saying, "you guys probably don’t know who I am" and he was right. He was so desperate to have a stadium singing along with him than he sprinkled his set with covers of Ed Sheeran and Plain White Ts songs to get some sort of audience participation. While people sang along, he seemed to win over few fans. "Why doesn't he sing his own music?" a mother of two middle-school aged girls asked aloud next to me.
Minutes later, Swift had people shouting back every word to her songs, even the filler tracks that have yet to be released as singles.
Swift may be able to do a bit more than carry a tune, but she is a masterful performer. A key strategy is to make every show unique, even if it's her second night in a city, as was the case with the show I saw. At one point she decided to perform one of her old hits, "You Belong to Me," instead of a new song called "You Are In Love." She did this she said, because she sensed the audience would have preferred listening to that song.
She also does something I haven't really seen any other pop star do, randomly fly in other performers and duet with them on one of their hits. Day one in DC it was Lorde, and a rendition of "Royals." Day 2 in DC it was Jason Deru;o and they belted out his summer jam "Want To Want Me." Fans know when an artist is phoning it in and going through the motions, and Swift expertly avoids falling into that trap.
She also knows her audience is still mostly high school and teenage girls and it's this awareness that makes me want to compare Swift to a Pixar movie. She writes songs that are emotionally general enough that they can be about any time in a person'’s life. Her hit "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" could easily be about a middle school break up as much it could be about a broken engagement of someone in their thirties.
But it's a tightrope to walk, and sometimes you see Swift break a sweat while doing so. For the 1989 tour, she had a troupe of all male dancers. While other pop stars may have had these guys shirtless or even less clothing during their shows, these guys were always modestly dressed as not to offend anyone. When Derulo surprised Swift and removed his shirt, she laughed nervously and her faced tightened. "Would the Dads with their little girls in the audience be upset?" her expression seemed to say
This awareness of her audience could be the key to longevity for Swift career wise. Far too often after a child act enters into their 20s, songs become about wild club nights and sex leading to limited commercial success. I’m thinking of Miley Cyrus here. Bangerz and its namesake tour may have been modest successes but nowhere near Swift's level.