Concert review: Taylor Swift at Ohio Stadium

Andy Downing
Taylor Swift performs during a stop on the Reputation Tour at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on July 7, 2018. [Photo by Greg Bartram]

The reptile-averse Indiana Jones would have struggled to make it through Taylor Swift’s performance at a crowded Ohio Stadium on Saturday.

Snakes were everywhere during the pop star’s concert — digitized on massive screens, forged into skeletal cages, onstage in outsized, inflated form and, most importantly, in Swift’s songs, which frequently found the musician imagining her revenge on the various slithering creatures she viewed as having done her wrong, such as the ex she dismissed amid the acidic kiss-off “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

Swift, arguably the biggest pop star of the decade, appeared here in support of her most recent album, Reputation, from 2017, on which the singer spends at least some of her time exploring how others perceive her. On “Call It What You Want,” Swift took aim at these various critics. “All the liars are calling me one,” she belted. As she sang, a series of words that Swift has seen attached to her name on social media and elsewhere appeared onscreen: “fake,” “squad,” “drama,” “snake.”

The word “snake,” which informed the evening’s theme, sprung from a Snapchat post in which Kim Kardashian labeled Swift a snake — an extension of a running tiff with Kardashian’s husband, rapper Kanye West. And Swift didn’t hesitate to return fire here.

“I don’t like your little games/Don’t like your tilted stage,” Swift sneered on “Look What You Made Me Do,” a reference to the spaceship-like contraption on which West has toured in recent years. She then pivoted: “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time.”

In a prerecorded video that played during the song, comedian Tiffany Haddish portrayed Swift’s secretary. “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” she said. “Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”

If Swift was killing off a previous, perhaps more timid version of herself, it certainly wasn’t a first for the musician, who has made a career of reinvention, first emerging as a teenage pop-country balladeer and now stepping out as a colder, more calculating, black-clad siren whose songs build heavily around synth-pop and EDM. “Don’t Blame Me,” for one, shuffled along on a slinky electronic groove, while a booming “…Ready for It?” included massive drops that landed with stadium-shaking force.

Swift is a polished performer, and she moved with assassin’s grace through elaborately staged set-pieces. On “Call It What You Want,” the singer and her dancers recreated an elaborate waltz at Jay Gatsby’s mansion, complete with a life-size fountain. “Don’t Blame Me,” in turn, played like a scene from the cult flick “Dark City,” taking place on a set that mirrored the steam-filled inner workings of a darkened factory and including mysterious, black-outfitted dancers who could have passed for minor characters from “Mortal Kombat.”

At times, however, this professionalism could be viewed as detrimental, particularly when Swift delivered her between-song banter, which frequently felt canned, as if it was being read off of a teleprompter. “I’ve come to see you a lot here in the great state of Ohio,” she said in one aside that could have passed for a plug sponsored by Experience Columbus.

Fortunately, Swift dropped her guard from time to time, most notably on “Dancing with Our Hands Tied,” a disarmingly simple acoustic ballad about a brief, intense romance, and on a footloose “Shake It Off” that included an assist from openers Camila Cabello and Charli XCX, who appeared onstage wrapped in clear plastic, looking as though she was about to play a house guest the album Sports by Huey Lewis and the News, and then kill them.

Best of all was the gorgeous, piano-driven “New Year’s Day,” which fell near the end of the nearly two-hour set. Here, Swift picked her way through the detritus of the previous evening’s festivities — glitter-strewn floors, discarded Polaroids, empty, castoff bottles — as she reckoned with the effects of time. “Please don’t ever become a stranger,” she sang.

Though the line was ostensibly directed at another, Swift could just as easily have been singing to herself. Others might whisper, calling you a snake or worse, the moment seemed to suggest, but you can’t shut down, building a wall so high that people can no longer see you.