Taylor Swift came to NPR’s office in Washington DC last week to tape her very own Tiny Desk Concert. Tiny Desk Concerts are usually reserved for artists at the start of their careers, are seen as indie or alternative, or who have suddenly grabbed the attention of the public. This is not meant in a pejorative way at all, but Swift is none of these.
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Her last tour supporting her 2017 release reputation sold out stadiums across North America and the United Kingdom. It featured giant inflatable snakes called Karyn, confetti bursting up from the floor, and flying cages. Swift is known for stadium tours. Mainly because there is no way you could fit every “Swiftie” into venues that aren’t stadiums! In other words, Swift doesn’t do tiny or small.
Swift played four songs; three from Lover and one her 2012 release RED. She opened with ‘The Man’, the gender flip/thought experiment song about how she would have been written about by the media and society if she had all of the same accomplishments, made all the same mistakes, but if she had done all of that as a man. The thing that hammers home the true double standard in our society is the bridge, “And it’s all good if you’re bad/ And it’s okay if you’re mad/ If I was out flashin’ my dollars/ I’d be a bitch, not a baller/ They’d paint me out to be bad/ So it’s okay that I’m mad”.
Swift said she took this opportunity to perform the songs as she had written them, giving us a glimpse into her creative brain, and why and show she writes songs the way she does. “It was one of those weird moments: in the middle of the night, in my PJs, stumbling to the piano because I got this idea,” she said. “There’s a line in the song I’m really proud of: ‘With every guitar string scar on my hand, I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover.’”
On that note, Swift moved to the piano to perform the title track of the album as she had originally written it. ‘Lover’ takes on a completely different form from the album version. It moves away from the ‘70s inspired timeless wedding feel that makes you sway even when walking down the street and makes you want to jump up on a chair and belt out the bridge and becomes something much softer and more intimate. The choruses are subdued and the opening chords to the bridge is utterly beautiful, the line, “My heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue/ All’s well that ends well to end up with you” takes on an edge of melancholy that wasn’t there before.
‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’ has become a fan favourite from the album so it was fitting that Swift played it front of 300 fans young and old, all crammed into NPR’s tiny office. The song also brought the conversation around a question that Swift says has sparked the anxiety and most soul-searching for her – “What will you do if you ever get happy?” – Short answer: write the masterpiece that is ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’, a song inspired by books, films and her friends’ lives.
At the end of the set, Swift played the most well-crafted, critically and fan acclaimed song from her entire discography – ‘All Too Well’. It is the fifth track from her 2012 album RED. It was never a single, it never had a music video, it was never sent to radio, but it has become the stuff of musical folklore. Swift plays ‘All Too Well’ on piano and even though there’s no headbanging or tears, you can still feel it all. The what if’s, the if only’s and burning love turning to ash. It is a perfect example of the universality of specificity, and perhaps, because of this is one of the most beloved songs to be written about love, loss, and the most dangerous thing when you are lying awake at 2am with a broken heart, memories. As the camera pans to the audience, eyes closed, mouthing along, you can see they agree.