Every time Taylor Swift is in the audience at an awards show, directors love cutting away to her during other artists' performances, because she's mouthing the words to everyone else's songs. She's as much a superfan as superstar.
Monday night, she got to play both gracious hostess and humble pop devotee as she brought out Cher Lloyd and Sara Bareilles as special guests during the opening of her sold-out four-night stand at L.A.'s Staples Center. As usual, rather than bring celebs out to help out on her material, Swift had her band learn their songs. As for her vocal part, if you've seen all those TV reaction shots that reveal she already knows the words to every Top 40 hit, you can guess there was probably very little learning involved.
Introducing Bareilles, Swift said, "There's a song that came out a few months ago, and I listened to it every single time I had a bad self-esteem day — which is a lot. And this song is so beautifully written; it's so original. It's something I've listened to hundreds and hundreds of times, by an artist who I absolutely adore, a singer/songwriter who's so incredibly talented, it's ridiculous."
Maybe Swift didn't mean anything with her use of the word original. But Bareilles' "Brave" has been in the news this month, as pop devotees couldn't help but notice that Katy Perry's new single, "Roar," is a virtual soundalike. Many have lamented that Bareilles' superior tune never quite turned into the kind of megasmash that Perry's song is destined to be. Three years ago, Swift had Perry come out and join her at Staples Center for a rousing version of "Hot 'N Cold" — a pairing that's probably unlikely to be repeated any time soon, since Perry has taken up with Swift's ex, John Mayer. In any case, those of who think Bareilles is one of the most underrated talents in music today can agree that Taylor's taste in singers who do songs that sound exactly like "Brave" is definitely on the upswing.
Earlier in the evening, Swift brought out Lloyd, which seemed like the fulfillment of a developing Anglophiliac theme introduced by opening act Ed Sheehan.
"Our first guest performance of our stay at the Staples Center... is a long way away from home," Swift teases the audience. "She is actualluy from the U.K. and she sings this song that has been in my head ever since it came out last summer. I know you probably know it — the feeling when you break up with somebody and you're like, 'Agggh, I shouldn't have done that. I want you back,' and you're like, 'Rrrr!' You're just rrrr about it!"
Given that introduction, fans knew they were not in for "We Are Never Getting Back Together" — which serves as Swift's show-closer every night on tour now — but the earworm known as "Want U Back," which gave Swift the chance to indulge in a rare bit of rapping and a British accent all at once.
Aside from these two surprises, Swift's Staples set followed the same template seen since she started the Red tour back in March: 16 songs, 15 of which are set, with one acoustic wild card... "Ours," on this particular night. She prefaced that one with an introduction about how it was written about being defiant about seeming true love in the face of the watching world declaring a certain guy was bad for her — and "they were right," she added, as an aside. But she sure got a righteous ballad out of that particular favorite mistake.
"Ours" was one of only five "oldies" performed during the evening. How many other performers besides Swift could get away with having 11 out of 16 original songs hail from the latest album? Yet the two-hour Red show is such a relentless onslaught of eye-popping production numbers — and the songs from that 2012 album are already so ingrained in the public consciousness — that it probably wasn't till well into the car ride home (if then) that anybody noticed the absence of "old" chestnuts like "Mine," "Back to December," "Our Song," and "Teardrops On My Guitar." In their place was a mixture of singles and album tracks from Red that, in their own way, still made the show feel like a greatest-hits set.
Perhaps the only time we were consciously aware we were hearing a non-single was during "All Too Well," a ballad that draws out Swift's confessional singer/songwriter ballad in a particularly intimate way. As she sang it at the piano and the otherwise overworked dancers had a bit of a break, it was clear what a commanding live vocalist Swift has developed into, all historical "Mean"-ness aside. It's not as if she ever exactly lacked confidence, but hearing her tackle that particular tune live, you could hardly doubt she's internalized the message of Bareilles' "Brave" now more than ever.
Incidentally, according to the Los Angeles Times, Swift is setting a Staples Center record this week. When she wraps up her four-night stand Saturday, that'll mark her 11th sold-out show at the venue. That's a record for any solo artist (the nearest contenders are Britney Spears with eight and Madonna and Justin Timberlake with seven). But Swift will have to come back next year to break the tie she shares with Mana, the Latin pop group, who also have 11 Staples sellouts to their name. Obviously, "Want U Back" is a song the Staples Center is also singing.