I'd put Sunday night, May 17, in my calendar a few weeks ago when City of Lover was announced. I simply called it Taylor Show so that something would feel normal when I looked at my upcoming events. I'd done a lot of deleting entries that ended with show lately, so it was a welcome change- even if I was pretending. I thought about dressing up or doing something special to watch it for the first time, but I ended up just turning on the TV and watching in my sweats.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the televised special filmed at Taylor's first show of the Lover era back in September from Paris. I'd already seen the video of her playing "The Man", and her performances are never a let down, but I doubted how good a TV special could be. I've been watching a lot of versions of people repackaging old footage into a reminder of what concerts and festivals were like only a few months ago. I watched Capital's Summertime Ball compilation the day before and didn't find it particularly satisfying despite a promising line up. There's something about being in the room, in the crowd, in the middle of it all that's hard to communicate through a screen into the living room you've come to know too well. I honestly spent most of the time watching that glancing back and forth between the screen and my phone.
My hopes weren't high for City of Lover, but that was for the best. The low expectations made her flawless delivery even sweeter. The show kicks off with "Me!", which I've honestly disliked from the start. It's the only Taylor song that I just can't listen to, as much as I hate to say it. I just don't understand why it was the lead single. Still, Taylor has the ability to make me smile through even the songs I'd rather be left off the setlist.
Then she transitioned into "The Archer", which was the moment I realized that this was going to mostly be a showcasing of the singles. It made sense for an ABC primetime spot, but it was still a little disappointing. I loved this version of "The Archer", though. It was a song I hand't paid much attention to after we got the rest of the songs, but the way she performed it made me look at it in a new way. She sang it standing alone in the middle of the stage in a way that highlighted the quiet vulnerability of the song. Even though she didn't move and there wasn't much of a visual element, I was captivated. I've always marveled at and admired Taylor's ability to emote through her face and tell the story so fully in a few nuanced expressions. Thought the flashy dance numbers are fun, she excels where many people fall apart- staying just as interesting when all the distractions disappear. There was an earnestness and a fear in her voice and expression that made the whole song more impactful and focused, grounding its dreamy tone. I was also struck by the way she appeared to sing the song to a single person, making eye contact and channeling all her energy towards them before moving to the next. It created a feeling of intimacy that made the theater feel cozy and the couch viewer feel included.
After the commercial break, there's a second set of songs, this time performed on acoustic guitar. The three songs in the middle of the set were the non singles, and the ones we hadn't gotten to see performed before. She started with my personal favorite from Lover, "Death by a Thousand Cuts". I particularly love her acoustic version of it. Sitting with her guitar allows her to fully run the show, and there's a comfort level with what she's always done best that make these performances shine. The amount of emotion poured into "Death by a Thousand Cuts", "Cornelia Street", and "The Man" were unmatched the rest of the night. Her ability to control the dynamics and find just the moment to make her voice soft and light or throw in a hair flip and some lively moments allows the full emotional range in every song to shine. While "Death by a Thousand Cuts" will always own my heart and "The Man" shines even more when there's a solitary spotlight on Taylor, "Cornelia Street" gave me literal chills repeatedly- something I was not expecting.
I liked "Cornelia Street". It was a fun album addition to Lover, but it's not a song I particularly seek out. That's changed. Taylor turned "Cornelia Street" into a full body experience, even without her new audience being in the room. It's pretty amazing that the immense amount of emotional range and intensity translated all the way through the screen without compromising a moment. I had to fight tears as I watched because I was so invested in every line of the song. With the original breezy, carefree production, I hadn't realized just how powerful and devastating the lyrics were. The acoustic performance puts emphasis on every line. She tells the whole story of her relationship and finding the kind of love that would be completely devastating to lose. I'd listened to the song plenty of times, but never before had I absorbed the true severity of "Baby, I'm so terrified that if you ever walk away/I'll never walk Cornelia Street again". It's the ultimate love song, but even in the happiness, even in the oozy gushy happiness that's all over lover, there's still that undercurrent of fear and uncertainty that runs deeper than what's easily on the surface. The performance both woke me up to how amazing "Cornelia Street" really is and also made me reconsider my previous thoughts on Lover.
Before moving on from this section, I do want to give "The Man" credit where credit is due. It's a song from Lover that stands all on its own. It's most of my friend's favorite song from the album. And every line holds an insane amount of truth. Watching Taylor jam to it by herself just emphasizes that even more. Watching her, the line, "And I'm so sick of them coming at me again/Cause if I was a man, then I'd be the man" hit so much harder. From Scott to Scooter to Kanye, who were all ultimately proven to be in the wrong, none of those men were ever harassed, shamed, or attacked like Taylor has been. People chalk it up to "That's business" or the even more infuriating shrug of "Well Kanye is Kanye." They're not forced to apologize. They aren't seen as demanding or bossy for taking what they think they deserve and they're not seen as playing the victim or whiny or too emotional when they complain about online abuse. Taylor has managed to build herself an empire, and unlike men in the music industry, is constantly attacked and taken down for it. None of her accomplishments will ever be enough for some people, and it's such a power move to come out with a song that's like "I know what's happening here, and I also know my worth." The way she plays it here drives her points home almost as well as the music video, and I love the super long pause she takes in the middle to let her words sink into every single audience member and viewer at home. There were many empowering moments at City of Lover, and the show itself seemed to be a real nod to just how much Taylor has grown over the last few years.
The last acoustic song was "Daylight", which she played on the piano like at the BBC. I've always been a "Daylight" fan, so it was fun to get to see another live version. I love how full circle the song is, and it's a great album closer.
Then it's time to start the party back up again with "You Need To Calm Down". Everyone has their own opinion on it, but I really do get excited every time she plays it. Like "The Man", she tells some blunt truths in it, and it's nice to have a song to bop around to that points out just how pathetic the haters are. This was her most choreographed moment, and I always love the dance moves she does with her back up dancers. It's a number we've seen a few times, like at the Jingle Bell Ball, but I enjoy it every time, nonetheless.
Then the whole show closes with "Lover", played on her signature Lover guitar. It's a nice way to close the show and one of her standby songs of the era.
Overall, I loved City of Lover. Somehow, a combination of Taylor's masterful performance skills and some thoughtful camera work and editing combined to make a televised special that felt almost reminiscent of the real thing. It made me realize how much I missed seeing Taylor perform live, because that's where she truly gets to shine. I was happy to get to see professionally shot Lover performances since I wasn't going to get to go to Loverfest anyway. It made me realize how badly I did actually want to be there when the show happens.
It managed to fill the concert shaped hole in my heart better than anything I'd tried before. I found it inspiring, and it reignited that sense of hope and glimmers of creativity that I'd been chasing for the last month or so. Suddenly, the world felt a little more okay. While I wish there'd been more songs (because there are never enough songs), and I would've loved to see more album cuts like "Cruel Summer" and "Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince", it wasn't a dealbreaker that they were absent. City of Lover ended up having one of the best sets of her recent live performances. I'm glad I got to have that moment with "Cornelia Street", and seeing a mostly stripped back rendition of Lover gave me a new appreciation for the complexities that exist behind the cotton candy clouds and swoony promises. Not everything is perfect. I also think it's a true testament to Taylor's songwriting ability that even though she works with the best producers, like Jack Antonoff, her songs shine the most when it's just her and a guitar. Her words can stand up to the emptiness like almost no one else's.
I definitely want to go back and give Lover another complete listen now that time has passed, and I've seen some of them live.
I can see myself revisiting City of Lover often, and I'm so happy she decided to release it. I think it's what a lot of us needed right now. Let me know in the comments what you thought!
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