Nostalgia is a retirement community, the place the mind goes when it’s tired of going places. It’s fun to revisit the person you used to be; it’s difficult to keep speeding into the unknown. This is what Taylor Swift is singing about in “Midnight Rain” and “Invisible String”: the question of how closely to cling to the spaces and traditions and relationships that once made us feel at home. The year of Taylormania that followed the launch of 2022’s Midnights — a deluge of romantic upheaval and political intrigue in the middle of an elaborate reissue campaign and world tour — bore this out further. Night after night on the Eras tour, her new album provided a majestic, self-aware conclusion to a survey of past Taylors, claiming victory over the money takers and heartbreakers who get in her way and celebrating her own resourcefulness in the two-hit combo of “Mastermind” and “Karma.” Swift is on trend as always, conducting a guided tour of her past wins and losses via a vast and variable array of Bush- and Obama-era faves, while scratching the same itch as 4K Blu-ray box sets and Resident Evil remakes with each Taylor’s Version and merch module. The multimedia blitz, capped off with the new Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour concert film, comprises a sage act of asset management wrapped in self-empowerment language.
The Eras Tour movie is a tech-savvy take on an age-old ploy: giving fans another space to connect, a step between listening to the records alone and ponying up for arena performances, like the Pink Floyd laser light shows of the ’70s or silver-screen pop-star endeavors of the ’80s, from Prince’s Purple Rain to Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Eras gets great mileage out of the simple premise of bringing Swift’s tour to audiences defeated by the presale ticket gauntlet and territories the North American itinerary missed. You can see the tears ricochet in the Bronx or in Dubuque. The IMAX presentation is startlingly crisp; if you yelled at an inopportune moment in any of the shows at L.A.’s SoFi Stadium, where director Sam Wrench shot the film, there’s a chance you’ll hear yourself. As Swift thunders through over two and a half hours of hits and deep cuts, every sound pops and every sequin sparkles.
But it’s almost too much movie, a trip through nine albums in sections that sometimes cover almost half the track list. Observing Swift closely forces a reassessment of 15 years of adaptability and success in hitmaking. This isn’t too different from the goal of any other live performance, where a set list is pieced together out of cherished singles and recent gems. The wise angle is commercializing the fandom slang in Eras’ title and concept — it was people pining for new Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Beyoncé albums who got everyone debating and complaining about pop-star “eras” — which conveniently provides framing for sets that poke around the studio albums Swift released since her last trek, 2018’s Reputation Stadium tour, in addition to the ones being rerecorded and reissued at a steady drip.
A hefty slice of 2019’s Lover leads the way, offering a feel for the ambition of the rest of the show as Swift and her backup dancers buzz through a makeshift office complex during “The Man.” The Folklore section features a tiny cabin and Swift serving Florence Welch teas, thrashing about dramatically in a flowing white gown during a stormy rendition of “August.” Evermore’s “Willow” gets a fiery routine that resembles a Druidic ritual. The tour and film both cycle through bubbly dance-pop, mainstream country, rustic folk, and slick R&B/trap while jumping around the catalogue out of order, impressing upon the viewer how much Swift has grown artistically and how much ground she remains capable of covering, strumming the guitar, playing the piano, and working through modest choreography (with a spirited team of dancers playing off of her gestures). She can be the high-school bully stomping through 1989’s “Bad Blood” and the Springsteen-esque auteur unfurling wounded verses across Red’s “All Too Well (10-Minute Version).”
Blasting these songs out in pristine quality and creating dance parties in theaters across the country sets up a bread-crumb trail leading back to the records. Lover’s “Cruel Summer” is enjoying better traction on the Hot 100 this month than it did in 2019, when it was first released. Swift has not reinvented the wheel, but she has spent the year engaged in an elaborate, successful project to drum up interest (and presumably value) in the presentation and legacy of a catalogue of albums at a time when many of her neighbors on mainstream radio are more concerned with maintaining release schedules that break old chart records and penetrate evolving trends than thoughtfully looking backward. She’s teeing up late-career stability during her record-selling prime, running the warm, fuzzy retrospective odds-and-ends campaigns the subjects of Rhino reissues often do as they crack their vaults in their 50s and 60s, making sure that the versions she can oversee herself are the ones percolating on streaming services and freeing B-sides and alternate takes that have developed a patina of mystery. She’s editing her narrative in real time, revealing the extent to which she’s figured her shit out since the shake-up in her public image brought about by the war of words with Kim Kardashian and Ye.
This year finds her juggling silliness and seriousness. Swift is just as eager to showcase the versatility of her creativity as she was in 2021, when she presented her All Too Well short film at the Tribeca Film Festival, but she remains leery of reveling in the same vaunted singer-songwriter air she courts. (This is a dilemma you can observe on her face when she feigns surprise while winning awards. In the film, stage banter undercuts the intensity of the pen, and you’re treated to a blooper reel in the closing credits.) But the Reputation era taught Swift the importance of weaponizing prestige. The Miss Americana Netflix documentary tracked the process of learning to draw lines in the sand around her politics, to pierce the mask of agreeability she developed as a teenage country star, to make a few enemies. Swift’s pointed critiques of Ticketmaster over the presale fiasco and Scooter Braun over the alleged surprise purchase of her masters come from the same place, fashioning the outraged recalcitrance of Speak Now’s “Mean” into a scythe.
At the root of Eras and its big-screen component is a proverbial taking the power back. Swift’s production company financed the film out of pocket and signed distribution deals with AMC and Cinemark to secure theaters, cutting out studios for an independent documentary release. And the “I’m Still Standing” vibe in the premise of the tour coupled with the themes of heartbreak in the lyrics made it a hot ticket for celebrities in the throes of divorce proceedings. (The tour is the rare cultural event attended by Flavor Flav of Public Enemy; Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex; and Billy Joel. Over the film’s opening weekend, Taylor Lautner, Beyoncé, and the puppet from Saw were spotted in theaters.)
A keen fascination with American glamour in its variable permutations drives Folklore’s “The Last Great American Dynasty” and Lover’s “Miss Americana and the Hometown Prince,” and between Fearless’s “Love Story” and Midnights’s “Anti-Hero,” the timeless dream of the storybook career and romance is explored and critiqued. This makes the glint of classic Hollywood ubiquity on Swift’s recent swarm of activity feel like a performance not so far removed from the impassioned take on “Cruel Summer” that brings a fan to tears in the film. On the surface, Eras is a naked, clever plot to plug into the millennial nostalgia machine that has yielded music festivals tailored to ’90s nu metal and aughts indie rock fans and mountains of cartoon and sitcom reboots. It’s a logical expansion, another exercise in big-league capitalism from an artist who has used pizza boxes and UPS trucks as promotional platforms. But it’s also a showcase for the pen and pain that animate Swift’s finest compositions, the fuel that keeps the pistons in her well-oiled business apparatus pumping year after year.