Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert felt a lot like going to Mass
As I nervously made my way to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Memorial Day weekend for Taylor Swift’s second show in the Garden State, I felt a queasiness I could not quell. It was a feeling of both anticipation and terror: anticipation for the night I had been waiting for for so long and terror (yes, real terror) that it might not live up to my sky-high expectations.
It reminded me, oddly enough, of going to church.
There’s a ritualistic safety to Mass. You always know what’s going to come next, no matter who is celebrating it or what church you happen to find yourself in. I remember on vacations attending Mass at local parishes, it always started out a bit awkward; but eventually I melted into the familiar words and rhythms, feeling at home and secure. The only truly nerve wracking part is the homily. With an unfamiliar priest in an unfamiliar parish, you always run the risk that you may not like what this particular priest has to say.
That day I spent in New Jersey, Taylor Swift would be my pastor, MetLife Stadium my parish, and the Swiftie community my congregation.
That day I spent in New Jersey, Taylor Swift would be my pastor, MetLife Stadium my parish, and the Swiftie community of the tri-state area my congregation. There would be familiarity there, and safety, but also uncertainty: Could it possibly be as good as I’d hoped?
I arrived at the venue a few hours early. Much as I would approach going to Mass in an unfamiliar parish, I wanted to get there ahead of time, try not to stand out and let the ceremony itself ease me into my surroundings.
Thankfully, Swifties may well be the most welcoming group of people I have ever encountered. As friend groups began to mingle in front of one of the many entrances to the stadium, a Swiftie carrying a massive bag of friendship bracelets began asking everyone if they would like to trade. Each of the bracelets was emblazoned with the title of one of Swift’s many songs or otherwise a reference to Swift herself or her personal lore. In the rush of people, I traded a “Last Great American Dynasty” for an “Anti-Hero,” a “Paper Rings” for “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” and a bunch of others.
As conversations started to flow easily about favorite songs, album rankings and especially shared disdain for Swift’s brief romantic dalliance with Matty Healy, my fear and anxiety started to disappear. Disagreements about what we liked (or, especially, what we didn’t like) were delivered casually, and reminded me oddly of the way academics and theologians wind up being friends with peers who hold vastly different views.
Swifties may well be the most welcoming group of people I have ever encountered.
I kept thinking to myself, “Why is this so easy for a bunch of Taylor Swift fans and so difficult for the Catholic Church?”
Phoebe Bridgers provided one of the opening sets. Bridgers, an artist whose bread and butter is melancholic indie folk, might seem an unorthodox choice to open for a mega-popstar like Swift, but the crossover between the two singers has always felt organic, particularly after Swift herself entered the folk scene with the twin albums “Folklore” and “Evermore.” During the concert proper, the two would perform an acoustic duet of “Nothing New,” a song all about the shared experience of loneliness—turning a crowd of thousands into a bawling mess.
For as loud and packed as the stadium was, I forgot about all of it the moment that Swift came on stage. Dressed in a pink bodysuit adorned with glitter, Swift started working the crowd immediately. The first lyrics out of her mouth were from her 2019 song “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”: “It’s been a long time coming, but/ It’s you and me, that’s my whole world.” It really had been a long time coming, and Swift was letting her fans know that this concert, this opportunity to be with so many of her fans at once, was the thing that mattered most to her. She sang those words like a solemn vow, a promise that this night would be unforgettable. The crowd responded with raucous applause.
Somehow, Swift would keep this level of engagement for the entirety of her nearly three-and-a-half-hour set. One had to marvel at the amount of production that went into the concert: pyrotechnics, fireworks, expansive lighting rigs, intensely choreographed dance sequences happening on a stage that stretched the length of the entire football field. I was exhausted just watching the show. But by the end of it, Swift seemed to have barely broken a sweat.
Swift’s congregation did not want to leave. Three hours, none of us wanted this to be over.
One might think this kind of blockbuster production would have prevented the concert from feeling intimate, but Swift made sure to structure the spectacle to give room for quieter moments. And all the while, Swift would pause and “converse” with the audience. After she played a particularly emotional song during the “Evermore” set, the crowd cheered for so long that Swift, teary-eyed, responded afterward, “There’s nothing I can say that can accurately thank you for doing that.” Despite being shared by 74,000 people, that moment was special. It offered the kind of connection I wish I felt at times during the liturgy. So often, the relationship between priest and lay person can feel distant, like the celebrant is just going through the motions. When your priest feels like he just wants the Mass to be done, it is hard for the congregation not to feel the same way.
Let me tell you that Swift’s congregation did not want to leave. Not even three hours in did I feel like any of us were ready for this to be over.
In a strange way, one could say that my relationship with the Catholic Church is not all that dissimilar to my experience as a Swiftie. Neither of these two institutions (and after the Eras Tour, Swift is most definitely an institution) are perfect. Swift, at least, has no issues admitting her own faults. Many times over the years that she has criticized herself for being who she is. In “Anti-Hero,” she says, “I should not be left to my own devices/ They come with prices and vices/ I end up in crisis.” And in “Hits Different,” she calls herself an “argumentative, antithetical dream girl.” She is well aware of the contrast between the amount of worship she gets from her celebrity and her own failings as a human being.
Perhaps it is in finding peace between those two tensions—acknowledging fault and expressing doubt while remaining connected with the people whom you are serving—that the church may best take away some lessons from Swift. Maybe it’s O.K. to say, “We were too stubborn; we got it wrong; we’re sorry; we’re going to try to do better.”
During the penultimate act of the concert, Swift plays two surprise songs. These songs are unique to each night and each one is played only once during the entire 60-show run. They have been the subject of much discussion over the past few months; on social media, Swifties will often express their displeasure that their favorite song was not played at their particular show. I held no real expectations about what she would play at my show. I was only praying it wouldn’t be a song from deep in her back catalog that I am not very familiar with.
Swift played “Holy Ground” and “False God,” two of my favorite songs from her “Red” and “Lover” albums. It felt like she was singing directly to me. Both feature references to God and New York City. Both are about being in the midst of a complicated love. “False God” in particular is about doubt and losing faith. In it she sings, “They all warned us about times like this/ They say the road gets hard and you get lost/ When you’re led by blind faith, blind faith.”
It was like a reminder from Swift herself: Blind faith can only really lead you so far. Active engagement, an admission to yourself that you’re wandering aimlessly, might just lead you to the right path. As Swift looked out into the audience with the confession that she herself had been “worshiping an old love like a false god,” she was giving us permission to stumble, fall and find ourselves.