Taylor Swift’s Acoustic Side Commands Center Stage in ‘City of Lover’ Special

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Taylor Swift is furious… a furious strummer. That much was clear from Sunday’s airing of ABC’s “Taylor Swift City of Lover Concert,” which had as its centerpiece a four-song acoustic segment that took up half the prime-time hour. You might imagine the pop superstar would use the intimacy of the format to indulge her delicate side, but if anything, the effect was the opposite, as she took to her guitar with enough fervor to give her solo renditions of those songs a higher energy level than they had on record, fully arranged. So, presumably, when she sang in the title track of the “Lover” album about having “guitar string scars,” she wasn’t being figurative. This is a woman who can bust a cap with a capo.

That succession of four acoustic songs — “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” “Cornelia Street” and “The Man” performed on guitar, followed by “Daylight” on piano — was the key reason to tune into the special, and it served as an effective teaser for the completely solo tour or special fans still hope they’ll get someday. There was nothing particularly wrong with opening “City of Lover Concert” with a fully scaled version of “Me!,” but what her devotees will cherish most from the special was the long stretch that was just “me,” which is to say, her.

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“Taylor Swift City of Lover Concert” wasn’t conceived as pandemic pop escapism, of course, when it was shot September 9, 2019 at L’Olympia Theater in Paris. That gig was a reward for roughly 2000 contest winners from 37 countries who were flown in and put up for the occasion. (Largeness breeds largess.) What was it being filmed for? From the looks of things, with matting on screen to achieve a widescreen aspect ratio, it might have been intended for cinemas at some point, rather than television. But the truer scuttlebutt seems to be that it was filmed without any real intent of exhibition — why have it compete with a world tour, after all — until there was no tour, and it suddenly got drafted into TV service as the sole headlining gig Swift would do to promote “Lover” in 2019 or 2020. (And, let’s face it, 2021 remains up for grabs, too, despite the best intention of packing 60,000 people a night into a postponed “Lover Fest East and West” before it’s already time for a follow-up album cycle.)

It’s tough to replace a summer stadium tour in the hearts and minds of fans with a TV show, but this bien fait broadcast offered a nice compromise — half a scaled down version of what such her summer shows might have looked like (minus the massive sets, costume changes and whatever would have replaced the inflata-snake), and half “MTV Unplugged” on acoustic steroids.

Or, actually, a different staple from the MTV cinematic universe. The special that “City of Lover Concert” most resembled was the “VH1 Storytellers” Swift filmed at Harvey Mudd College outside of L.A. in 2012, as her fourth album, “Red,” was coming out and cementing Swift’s status as the pop century’s premiere tale spinner.

One difference between this “City of Lover Concert” and that “Storytellers” is that only half the Parisian concert made it to the ABC telecast… and it was the eight songs out of 16 that derived from the then-brand new “Lover” album. Was avoiding all oldies in the abridging a necessity due to network time constraints, a conceptual nod to sticking with the album-release party concept, or a middle finger to her masters-hoarding nemesis, Big Machine? Maybe all of the above? This was okay, anyway, as surely we are collectively all in a “Lover” > “Love Story” mood. (Even if we also know a few hundred thousand fans who might hold a grudge about “All Too Well” being left on the cutting room floor.)

It’s not surprising that solo acoustic numbers would be the highlights of a “Lover”-based show — Swift has already left a trail of superior one-off performances behind her, prior to this, that had her alone or close enough to it. On “Saturday Night Live” last October, she performed the romantic “Lover” alone at the piano, then the doomily sexy “False God” in what felt like nearly as intimate a setting. In April’s “One World: Together at Home” special, she stole the show with the topical sadness of “Soon You’ll Get Better.” And before anybody knew this Paris show would become a TV special, it was sneak-previewed when “The Man” was plucked out of it for an a-la-carte music video.

In “City of Lover Concert,” there were colorful moments in the full-band bookending segments, via an LED screen flashing flamingos or pop-art/pop-up lyrics for a not-so-stark “You Need to Calm Down.” But to its credit, the show mostly kept to a fairly monochrome design. “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden,” Swift sang in “Daylight,” and by coincidence or not, the color scheme of most of the special could be summed up as: black-and-white-and-flaxen.

That was especially true during the solo midsection, which flattered the cheerfully lonesome Swift with lighting that was nearly noir. At times, she was lit only by a single spotlight high and to her right, leaving the left side of her face in shadow, which is not the prevailing wisdom in how to light concert performance footage on TV nowadays… but which looked, as they might actually say in an actual noir, swell. (Also mood-lit: the crowd, illuminated only by the glowing bracelets, with a welcome minimum of annoying crowd cutaways.)

The half-hour or so devoted to Swift’s one-woman show-within-a-show was up to the downscale lighting. “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” the rare freshly penned breakup song to be found in her sunnier recent ouevre, was as lightly slashing as intended. “Cornelia Street,” the recent album’s holy-Village-ground ballad, resurfaced as a superior example of the what-if-we-break-up genre. “Daylight,” one of Swift’s traditionally album-ending, piano-based ballads of hope, got stripped down just a little more than it already had been on record. (There’d be no “Red” in this hour, but there would be a nod to it in this song’s allusive lyric: “I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden.”)

But the biggest standout of the special was its already released one, Swift’s furious, or Furiosa, version of “The Man.” She packed extra drama into the anti-sexism protest pop song, taking a trademark pregnant pause after singing “it’s okay that I’m mad” as if to acknowledge, with the audience’s roaring approval, that as a matter of fact, she had spent some time being publicly pissed off recently. Upon returning from that time-out, Swift sang “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can” with an air of actually weary-sounding resignation, before resuming fierceness and breaking into  an actual sneer as she next hit the word “man.” (It’s the little intonations.)

With her acting talent, Swift is skilled at contrasting line-readings like that. Where she really puts it to the test, though, is in striking two different tones within the same line. There’s no better example of that in her catalog than the song “Lover” itself (which felt as intimate as the solo material, even though she was rejoined by her full musical cast). The tender waltz is practically a standard, nine months after the singer described it on stage as “probably my favorite one that I’ve written at this particular moment in time.” The verses and choruses mostly sticks to gently cooing sweetness, but it’s the bridge that is really the song’s knockout, especially when she gets to the marriage-vow-spoofing line “Swear to be overdramatic and true.” Playing up that comic juxtaposition of her personas as a drama queen and truth-teller, Swift struck a fleeting coy-thespian pose to illustrate the melodrama, then immediately leaned into the “and true” kicker with all the earnestness she’s good for.

To accomplish that much career summation in five seconds of writing and singing, you’d just about have to be The Man.

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