My name is “Pittsburgh,” and for a couple of magical hours on a balmy, almost-summer night, I am one of Taylor Swift’s besties, along with, according to the video that runs on gigantic screens on either side of the stage, a couple of cats, Lena Dunham, and a bunch of other famous girls in black, none of whom I recognize and some of whom have accents. And, of course, the 54,999 other people in the audience at Heinz Field.
“Hello, Pittsburgh,” my girl Tay-Tay shouts, and though, confusingly, she then launches into “Welcome to New York,” I and all her other besties light up, sharing in her glittery glow.
And sort of involuntarily, tbh: when we arrived at the stadium, we were given milky wristbands that looked like the chunky watch you’d wear if you didn’t care anything about fashion (or, for that matter, time). The wristband was accessorized with a little pull-tab thingie, which one of my daughters immediately pulled, just before we were told to wait for the signal. But no matter: the minute the curtain collapsed on the stage and Swift appeared in the first of her eleventeen glittery micro outfits, everyone’s ugly watches, including my daughter’s, sprang to colorful life. It was time to shine!
For, apparently, all of us.
Except that it isn’t.
But somehow she keeps making the night also be about everybody else. Her opening acts are young men given incredible breaks: Australian Vance Joy, it’s clear from the response of the audience (and my daughters), has gained some recognition with the ukelele-laden “Riptide,” but it’s pretty safe to assume that Shawn Mendes, who is 16 and probably doesn’t even shave yet, is unused to audiences in the 55,000 range. Midway through the show, Swift brings out a band who had once given her a break, country artists Little Big Town, to return their long-ago favor, letting them spend a significant amount of time singing a song about a pontoon. (“Wait,” one of my daughters says, “what even is that? Is a pontoon a country thing?”)
Downtime throughout the show is filled with Friends of Taylor returning to the big screen, and while it’s true that much of what they say is about her, the videos also function as advertisements for these others (though they are clearly aimed at people who already know who these women are). Also, and I don’t mean to sound bitter here, but Swift’s cats, Olivia and Meredith, get way more screen time than any of my cats have ever gotten (just sayin’).
Her presumably hot male dancers (we are very, very far away from the stage, in the Mommy-Daughter ghetto where I am easily the oldest mother by at least a decade of covering up our gray roots) take the stage nearly as often as Swift does (though with far fewer costume changes). One of her musicians gives a lengthy guitar solo at one point, and at the end of the show, Swift very generously names and thanks each of his band mates.
And then there’s me, “Pittsburgh.” Throughout the show, my girl Tay-Tay pauses the music to give the audience what I can only describe as pep talks, strolling to the end of the catwalk to remind us that we are not “someone else’s opinion” of us, that we are not “damaged goods”; we are not “going nowhere just because [we] haven’t gotten there yet.”
“Thanks for being here tonight, Pittsburgh,” Taylor shouts. “You don’t know what it means to me. You don’t know.”
Maybe not, but I, Pittsburgh, know something of what it means to the rest of us that she is here, if only because of the signs her fans hold up to the stadium camera as it zooms around the stands: I GAVE UP MY GRADUATION PARTY, reads one. Not to be outdone, another reads: I CANCELED MY FAMILY VACATION. A sign carried by two girls, one wearing an emerald ball gown, lets us know that they have SKIPPED THE PRIDE PROM to be here, together, tonight.
And, to thousands upon thousands of young girls in the stands, Taylor Swift being here tonight means that they, for a few hours, get to pretend to be her. Two by two (because to be Taylor Swift means that you are, first and foremost, somebody’s best girlfriend), they incarnate a decade of Swift: there are Country Swifts in ten-gallon hats and cowgirl boots; there are Cheerleader Taylors and Tay-Tays in Tutus; Angel Taylors brush wings with their Unicorn-Headed sisters while Sexy Swifties saunter down the stadium steps in black-and-white striped shirts and vivid red lips.
And while hundreds line up for the honor of blowing thirty-five bucks on official Taylor Swift 1989 Tour t-shirts, countless others arrive in hand-lettered homages (“Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream” is the reigning slogan, though my personal favorites are the girls whose backs boast Long Lists of Ex-Lovers, with checkmarks in the boxes next to “Noah” and “Jacob” and “Kirk” and so on).
But as night falls, we become indistinguishable from one another, save for the constantly shifting colors of our wristbands, controlled by some unseeable force. We pump our fists in the air and throw our green lights to the sky, just before they turn blue, or pink. We wink our lights at one another, waves of color rippling through the stands.
We are watching the spectacle but we are also of it, a lightshow that a cynic might read as a gimmick, but there is something about it that is also generous, and lovely, and, I suddenly realize, sad.
Because I am struck by how much our glowing wristbands look, in the dark, like the scales of a giant and glittery fish.
I have a confession to make: I am one of those mothers who banned a book from their children’s home library. That book was Rainbow Fish, a tale that wasn’t so much written by Marcus Pfister as assembled from glitter glue and text copy-pasted from some jealous middle-schooler’s wish-fulfillment diary. “The rainbow fish was the most beautiful fish in the sea,” it begins. “But he never played with the other fish. I’m too beautiful, he thought.”
Let me break it down for you (though doing so will involve more words than actually appear in the book): nobody likes Rainbow Fish, and so Rainbow Fish is lonely. He seeks the wisdom of his fellow sea creatures, who tell him that the reason he has no friends is not that he’s an asshole, but that he is too pretty, and his prettiness makes his fellow fishies feel bland. So rather than learning to be more humble, and maybe just a teensy bit less of a self-involved douchefish, Rainbow Fish (spoiler alert!) decides to help make all of his would-be fish friends as beautiful as he is, so that he no longer outshines them all.
By giving each of them one of his shiny scales. From his actual body.
Needless to say, it is a stupid, stupid book. Amazon describes it as a story “about a beautiful fish who finds friendship and happiness when he learns to share,” but an inability to share is most definitely not Rainbow Fish’s problem. Is Taylor Swift selfish because she has an adorable face that squinches up like Samantha Stevens’ when she’s about to cast a spell, or hair the color of Iowa corn in August, or legs that are at least a shin bone longer than normal, human legs? Is she somehow keeping the rest of us from having these things, hoarding the pretty that would otherwise be ours?
No, she is not, and neither is Rainbow Fish. Rainbow Fish’s real problem is twofold: 1) he thinks the fact that he is more beautiful than everyone else means that he is too good for everyone else; and 2) everyone hates him because they know he thinks this.
The book’s solution, that he parcel out his shiny scales so that he becomes less beautiful as everyone else grows more beautiful until magically every single fucking fish is equally lovely, completely misses the implicit lesson about arrogance and goes right into some hellish morality where it’s better not to outshine others because then you won’t be loved.
And this is why our wristbands suddenly make me sad: because what if there is more than just generosity motivating Taylor Swift to share so much of herself and her stage time and her lightshow and her fame? Is she worried that people will think she’s a jerk if she doesn’t, the sort of fish who looks around a stadium and thinks: I’m too beautiful to swim with the likes of you?
Because here’s the thing: some people, like Taylor Swift, really are more beautiful than others. And smarter, and stronger, and funnier, and way better at rhyming words that don’t actually rhyme. Some people have a defter grasp of the pop sensibility; some people can throw on a black leather catsuit and strut around shouting about bad blood and still somehow manage to not look either delusional or insane.
If all the fish are special fish, then “special” becomes synonymous with “gefilte,” and I’m not prepared to live in that particular sea.
Nor do I want my children to.
And definitely not my Tay-Tay.
So here’s my pep talk back atcha, Taylor: you are not a douchefish, and you don’t need to make everyone else shine just because you can’t help but give off light. Most of us have big enough hearts and gills that we can still love someone even if she has way more pairs of glittery shorts than we do, and maybe even if she has much much much more famous cats.