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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Taylor Swift @ The Bradley Center

June 8, 2011

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One of last year's sharpest online videos was a three-minute montage of Taylor Swift looking completely and utterly shocked by her many award-show victories. In clip after clip, the country singer gasps in stunned disbelief as she claims yet another trophy she was heavily favored to win. She contributed another memorable highlight to that reel Wednesday night in Milwaukee, when she briefly paused her concert at the Bradley Center to turn to a live broadcast of the CMT Music Awards, where she was up for video of the year. There couldn't have been less suspense as a televised Kid Rock read the nominees—this was a fan-voted category, and no country musician's fan base is larger or more devoted than Swift's—yet nonetheless Swift bounded around the stage with jaw-dropped astonishment as she accepted by video feed the 81st award of her career in front of "15,000 of my closest friends in Milwaukee."

Humility and innocence have been central to Swift's appeal, but with fame they've become a tougher sell. Songs written just a few years ago that cast her as the plain girl next door now feel ridiculous coming from a megastar in the middle of a sold-out world tour, let alone one who is also a CoverGirl spokeswoman with the long-legged gait of a runway model. Swift's latest album, Speak Now, acknowledges as much, and marks a turn toward much more adult songwriting. The album plays like an acerbic postscript to the notebook-doodled fairy tale of her first records: Having achieved her happy ending, here the newly crowned princess turns to ax grinding, rubbing her success in the face of any rival or ex-lover who doubted or wronged her. The album's barbed recriminations owe more to Paramore's Hayley Williams than country standard-bearers Faith Hill or Shania Twain, and there's an unmistakable whiff of Beyoncé in the diva-like pride with which she trumpets her greatness. On song after song, she sings of watching enemies wither in small towns while she shines like fireworks.

Those metaphorical fireworks were accompanied by actual fireworks Wednesday night, as part of the same literal-minded choreography that had a dance chorus of feuding lovers act out Swift's lyrics to "The Story of Us." The big-budget concert was staged almost to a fault: Every third song arrived with a new set—a wedding-primed cathedral for "Speak Now;" a magical forest on "Enchanted;" a small town straight from a Steinbeck novel for "Our Song"—and the spectacle didn't always justify the wait caused by set changes. The concert was at its best when it kept things simple, allowing room for Swift to perform without distractions, letting her strip down her hit "Fearless" on a ukulele (and segue into a short cover of Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours") or rework her ballad "Back to December" from a piano with the refrain from OneRepublic's "Apologize." Swift's stage banter and her overuse of "Milwaukee, Wisconsin" as an applause line felt as rehearsed as any of her award-win reactions, but when she was actually performing, the joy she received from being on stage—and the glamour she brought to the stage—couldn't have felt much more real.
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