When Taylor Swift won the coveted Entertainer of the Year award from the Country Music Association back in early November, many genre purists began yet another predictable round of the same end-of-days handwringing that happens each time a crossover star takes home that particular trophy. Though it usually represents little more than a way for Music Row record labels to thank an artist for selling lots of records, the award also ostensibly takes his or her touring presence into consideration. To that end, the release of Swift’s Speak Now World Tour Live album and DVD is well timed, as it captures her lucrative tour in all of its gold-sequined, fire-spewing glory. While the package confirms that Swift can put on a hell of a show, it doesn’t really refute many of the common criticisms of her either.
It does ring hollow, for one thing, that Swift is still marketed as a country artist when so little of her music actually supports that connection in any substantive way. But for the guitjo instrument she picks during a spirited performance of “Mean” (and “Our Song” on the DVD), Swift buries all of her country signifiers and instead leans far more heavily on massive pop-rock power chords and sing-along choruses that certainly fill each of the arenas where the album was recorded. The changes to the arrangements of the songs from the already marginally country Speak Now only make them sound all the more definitively pop: “Back to December” gets a much more aggressive percussion line, and there’s even less twang in the lead electric guitars on “Sparks Fly.”
As far as genre tags go, far more telling are her choices of cover tunes. In each of the cities along her route, Swift picked a couple of songs by local musicians to include in her set list. It’s the kind of smart maneuver at which Swift excels: She’s better than just about anyone at making each person in her audience believe that she’s singing both to and about them. But there’s nary a country cover to be found on either the album or DVD, so it’s understandable why people who get worked up about exactly how contemporary country sounds might cock an eyebrow that the genre’s most visible star chooses to cover “Bette Davis Eyes” and “Drops of Jupiter” and sounds so perfectly at ease when doing so.
For anyone less preoccupied by such concerns, then, Swift’s covers are more of a matter of dodgy taste and inconsistent execution. “Bette Davis Eyes” is on point and hints at the kinds of songs Swift might write as she gets older, but not even Swift’s dogged earnestness can salvage “Drops of Jupiter” or a tin-eared rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” More egregious are the awkwardly shoehorned-in chorus of OneRepublic’s simpering “Apologize” in “Back to December” and a mashup of “Fearless” with “I’m Yours” and “Hey, Soul Sister.” For all of the things Swift gets right, the fact that her first live album includes two nods to Train, of all acts, is just bizarre.
Indeed, her fondness for terrible MOR bands is the biggest surprise offered by Speak Now World Tour Live; less surprising are the technical flaws in Swift’s vocal performances. She continues to develop into an incredibly expressive, empathetic singer with a distinctive sense of phrasing, which makes it all the more distracting when she straight-up flubs a note in the middle of “Last Kiss” or stays a full quarter-pitch flat for the entirety of “Ours.” She also switches between her head voice and chest voice seemingly at random over the course of “Dear John” and is forced to drop into a lower register mid-phrase on “Haunted” because she lacks the breath control to hit the notes that she wrote for herself to sing. It’s to Swift’s credit that she doesn’t try to mask this limitation with AutoTune or lip-synching, but her poor singing voice still often makes her hard to listen to.
From hearing the exultant crowd participation that runs for the duration of the album, it’s clear that Swift’s sizable fanbase just doesn’t care about her inability to sing on key for more than a few bars at a time. And Speak Now World Tour Live highlights the one-of-us authenticity that makes her such a compelling artist. She may vamp up and down a runway in a series of custom-designed dresses for a good two hours, but Swift never lets the spectacle she creates interfere with her connection to her fans. When she gets to the bridge of “Dear John,” the audience starts to cheer for the song’s brilliant, empowering reversal (“But I stole your matches/Before the fire could catch me/So don’t look now/But I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town”) before the actual fireworks go off.
The pyrotechnics are impressive, sure, and it’s some kind of minor miracle that no one has ever asphyxiated on glitter at one of Swift’s shows, but the focus is always, first and foremost, on the songs. For Swift, that means she’s playing to her strengths. The album includes the entirety of Speak Now save the delicate and strongly country-leaning “Never Grow Up” and the patronizing sermon “Innocent,” with bonus track “Ours” getting promoted to the varsity lineup despite being a fairly rote reiteration of Swift’s general template. What worked about the songs on Speak Now works just as well in a live setting, and what was problematic before, such as the mixed messages she sends by contradicting the whole thesis of “Mean” with the nasty slut-shaming angle of “Better Than Revenge,” remains problematic. Speak Now World Tour Live may not add anything to an already solid set of songs on a narrative level, but hearing her fans react so strongly does add to those songs’ already considerable emotional heft.