Taylor Swift at Staples Center: Concert Review

Chris Godley
Amid whimsical scenery, Swift delivers love songs galore, while struggling to project her sweet voice over the screams of a sold-out arena crowd.

The 21-year-old singer was joined by surprise guest Jason Mraz for a duet of his 2008 single, “I’m Yours.”

Love was in the air for the second of Taylor Swift’s four-night stint in Los Angeles, where the Staples Center was transformed from home of the Lakers, to a Nashville-meets-Hollywood spectacular.
Joined by her band and a slew of enthusiastic dancers, Swift dialed up the theatrics for her second headlining tour. A giant red curtain, reminiscent of an old playhouse, offset the stage along with several framed screens, which varied between animations and video of Swift's performance. The visuals felt similar to an HBO concert special -- quick cuts and a variety of angles -- which fit nicely with her many fairy-tale scenes. Even before her encore performance of the irresistible “Love Story,” Swift celebrated the world of romance by trilling the lyrics to “Mine,” “Our Song” and even “Story of Us” from a series of charming set-pieces, including a whimsical bridge, a long set of stairs and a small wooden stage fit for a country BBQ.

Swift began the show in a gold dress and black boots, holding only a microphone. Singing the upbeat country-pop ballad "Sparks Fly" from her Speak Now album, her sweet but soft voice was quickly overpowered by screaming fans. After her obligatory hand-heart gesture, enthusiastically returned by the crowd, Swift stood, mouth agape, in apparent awe that every member of the sold-out audience was there to see her. She kept the banter to a minimum throughout the show, but when she did address fans, the 21-year-old mostly expressed sentiments of being a small-town girl in the big city -- which is, of course, exactly what they relish in hearing -- though at this point in her career, it's a tough concept to buy.

Firing off a slew of infectious radio hits, “Fifteen,” “You Belong With Me” and “Mean” among them, the show was an engaging sing-a-long dance party for the audience, but you couldn’t help wondering whether it’s starting to feel a little stale for Swift herself. Every flip of the hair, every strut and movement, felt over-rehearsed. Swift was at her best when it was just her and an instrument in hand, like while seated at the piano for "Back to December."

In an effort to get closer to her fans, Swift relocated to the center of the floor mid-show, where she sat beneath a bare, glowing tree. Strumming a ukulele, which she described as a "happy" instrument, she covered the songs that remind her of California -- the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and Gwen Stefani's "Sweet Escape" -- to a party tuned-out audience. For the minority of the crowd who knew the words, it was a highlight of the evening.

Of course, no covers medley could compare to the previous night’s big surprise, Justin Bieber, who was joined by Swift for his hit “Baby.” A tough act to follow in any arena, but particularly one crawling with scores of teenage girls, Jason Mraz tried his best by joining the songstress for a rendition of his own "I'm Yours." Donning long, unruly hair beneath an oversized messenger cap, Mraz’s physical appearance was a far cry from his Waiting For My Rocket to Come days in the early 2000s. Still, his vocals were spot on and Swift’s harmonizing provided a refreshing twist to the Grammy nominated track.
Visually, the show was far from boring. Thanks to several changes of scenery, outfits, hairstyles and even instruments (including the banjo, guitar and more), Swift kept the show moving -- if not for a few awkward pauses to soak in the applause. As for the strength of her voice, a topic of debate in recent years, Swift struggled to top the blaring sound of her band and even more blaring screams from the audience. She does her best, but certainly doesn't have the pipes to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Christina Aguilera or Carrie Underwood.
To that end, the country-crossover artist might be better suited to a more intimate venue where the volume of her voice isn’t a struggle. Her poppy radio hits deserve to be heard, though sing-a-longs can be an enjoyable experience in their own right – especially for a young concert-goer experiencing their first live show. For that, Swift doesn’t need to be the strongest singer, only to provide the Top 40 hits which her fans will undoubtedly learn by heart.

Set List:
Sparks Fly
Story of Us
Our Song
Back to December/Apologize/You're Not Sorry
Better Than Revenge
Speak Now
Fearless/Hey, Soul Sister
Last Kiss
God Only Knows
The Sweet Escape
You Belong With Me
I'm Yours (with Jason Mraz)
Dear John
Long Live
Love Story