When you can watch footage of a pop concert streamed live on TikTok from the front row, how do you make it worth buying a ticket? The answer is crystallised in Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour, which opened at the Arizona State Farm Stadium on Saturday night: by putting together not just a concert, but a three-hour long immersive spectacle.
Sensory, intimate and with an existing audience of dedicated fans, pop concert content thrives on TikTok. Love On Tour, the hashtag for Harry Styles’ recent tour, has 7.2bn views on the platform; #TaylorSwiftEras already has 80m. Because of bottlenecks, bots and soaring prices, concert tickets have never been more difficult to obtain – and yet footage from them has never been easier to access.
No one is more aware of this than Swift, a savvy marketer always tuned into the zeitgeist, who was furious when a Ticketmaster meltdown prevented thousands of her fans getting tour tickets. “Eras” is by no means the first stadium show to offer an experience far beyond the music – the turning point for this was arguably Beyonce’s 26-long set at Coachella 2018, which pushed the boundaries of what a pop concert can be – but its lengthy, immersive format seems to confirm that for elite pop stars playing live in the 2020s, expectations have changed. Swift – along with Beyonce – offers not just a concert, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Listening to a recording of a song – or even watching a video of it being performed live – is nothing like being in the room as an artist plays. We have all whipped out our phone at a gig within the first few seconds of our favourite song, only to watch it the next day and realise that the video captured nothing of the performance – and that we watched the real performance through our phone. Yet we are surely past the stage when artists can sincerely beg fans to put down their devices and be in the moment: try telling that to the millions of Swifties who don’t live in Arizona, refreshing their feeds and waiting for content to drop. Social media is a powerful tool for fans – it allows more exposure for more people.
Yet in order that a ticket for the concert is still covetable, attending must offer a unique experience: one that goes beyond simply hearing the songs played live. Ironically, adding significant visuals also makes the footage imminently more prone to go viral. Bruce Springsteen is known for his marathon concerts, which do not involve costume-changes and pyrotechnics – but his audience is also unlikely to scour TikTok for videos of him playing “Dancing in the Dark”. That concert tickets have dramatically increased in price over the past few years is because artists are offering a lengthy, large-scale show, which costs more to produce than a stripped-back acoustic set. Naturally, this creates expectations, and fans want more and more in turn – both in-person and online.
The premise of the tour is key to what Swift is offering. Formerly only in the vocabulary of the chronically online, the idea of the pop-star “era” – a chapter of their life or career usually distinguished by aesthetics – has now entered the broader cultural lexicon. For Swift, whose frequent regeneration constitutes a significant part of her identity, taking ownership of her eras provides a neat way simultaneously to self-narrativise – trendy – and perform her greatest hits – what the people want – with a huge, relatable wink at the meta irony of it all.
Perhaps most importantly, though, compressing into one show a catalogue as extensive and varied as Swift’s results in something huge in both scale and duration: very different proportions from those of a 15-second video on a six-inch iPhone screen, and an experience only attainable first-hand. There is a sense of generosity in this 44-song extravaganza, comprising set- and costume-changes, dance routines and all the light and shade of the Swift catalogue: an exclusive experience that gives us more of Swift than ever before, and a complete immersion in her world.
Swift’s apparent benevolence creates a tension. For every fan in the room who deserves the show of the lifetime, there are 1000 at home who cannot be there. With Eras, deliberately or not, she navigates it perfectly. Framing the show as a showcase not only of her music but her life and career creates intimacy. Caricaturing the various facets of her identity with costumes and musical reference points creates myriad opportunities for clickable content – yet scaling up visually, aurally and temporally creates an immersive atmosphere that is not possible to capture on video. I would wager that Eras is a show that inadvertently encapsulates our own – though you may not trust me on that. I’ve only seen it on TikTok.