Three hours before hitting the stage for her sold-out gig at New York's Madison Square Garden, Taylor Swift is jittery with nervous energy. "I'm freaking out," says the singer, whose 52-date Fearless tour — which launched in April and wraps in October — marks her first headlining run. "I had to force myself to go to sleep last night, because I ran through the set list 400 times in my mind: every single change, every single step."
There's a lot to remember. From show opener "You Belong With Me" — which features choreographed cheerleading and Swift in full high school band attire — to the encore, during which Swift and her fiddle player stage a drum battle on "Should've Said No," the two-hour, three-act show is an elaborate spectacle that doesn't slow down, even when the singer hauls her acoustic guitar into the audience to play a sweet, stripped down set of tunes including "Fifteen," "White Horse" and her 2006 hit "Tim McGraw."
The crowd — mostly teen girls who flash Swift's trademark "heart" hand sign and scream their faces off while snapping cellphone photos — especially digs the quieter moments. The applause that rolls in after "McGraw" is so thunderous that Swift stands for three minutes, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. When she finally speaks, she looks misty-eyed. "As long as I live," she says, "I will never forget what you just did for me."
She regains her composure for the third act, which kicks off with "Love Story." Dancers dressed in Elizabethan costumes glide across the stage while Swift, wearing a red-and-gold cloak, sings the modern-day Romeo-and-Juliet tale. The number includes a speedy costume change — by the end, Swift is donning a gauzy, white gown and a jeweled headband.
The princess-like demeanor turns into pissed-off attitude later in the set. "You're Not Sorry," which Swift pounds out on a grand piano, radiates a vibe that any scorned girl can appreciate. (Lines like "Could've loved you all my life/if you hadn't left me waiting in the cold" are punctuated by curt electric guitar blasts.) The track pays homage to Justin Timberlake as Swift weaves lyrics from "What Goes Around Comes Around" into the song's coda.
But Swift really lets the misbehaving dudes have it during "Should've Said No," the night's closing tune. "This is a song about choices," she says, smirking. "There are good choices — like playing Madison Square Garden" [insert insane crowd screams] — and there are bad choices. This is a song about a guy who cheated on me. And he shouldn't have, because I write songs." With a toss of her blond curls, she unleashes years of pent-up boy frustration: "You should've known that word 'bout what you did with her would get back to me," she belts, minutes before a giant waterfall rains down from the ceiling, drenching her. "We tried out so many dresses for that gag. If they would get ruined or see-through, we'd cross it off the list," she tells us before the show. "Thankfully," she adds, "we ended up with something that worked out."