The Pleasures of Life Dept.
The Eras Experience
By Cassie Bustamante
I pause on the pedestrian bridge to Nashville’s Nissan stadium, taking a moment to soak it all in. Together, we are a shimmering rainbow of colors and costumes, arching toward a privileged pot-of-gold: The Taylor Swift Eras Tour. Everywhere I turn, glitter make-up, sequined garments, T-shirts emblazoned with “Not a Lot Going on at the Moment.” I spy two floral-sheeted “ghosts” sporting hats and sunglasses. Even my daughter, Emmy, who lives in leggings and hoodies, is wearing a dress — the first in years. The outfits are almost as over-the-top as Comicon and I’m feeling a little underdressed in my long aqua dress.
What is it that draws a record-breaking crowd of over 210,000 people to one stadium for a weekend of concerts? While I can’t speak for the rest of ’em, this 45-year-old has been a card-carrying Swiftie since the 2008 release of her second album, Fearless. The track that caught my ear? “You Belong with Me,” which speaks to anyone who’s ever been an awkward teen — my hand is up! — sidelined in the friendzone: “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers/dreaming about the day when you wake up and find/that what you’re looking for has been here the whole time.” Dressed in marching band attire, Swift played that as the opening song on the Fearless Tour. I know because I was there.
For those of you who are Swift-deprived, Taylor is somehow able to turn her joy and anguish into a mix of catchy tunes that are totally relatable, everything from her mother’s battle with cancer to being taken advantage of by an older man. (I’m looking at you, John Mayer.) She’s not afraid to admit to a carnal desire for revenge that most of us pretend doesn’t exist. After listening to an entire album, we’re left feeling like she’s one of us. And that someone out there understands our pain and knows how to celebrate life’s joy with us.
Emmy’s entire childhood has been set to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift, and, as she’s grown into a teen, the songs have become more than just snappy singalongs. During the great stay-at-home of 2020, while my two teens were hiding from their parents and toddler brother behind closed doors, Swift was busy writing two albums worth of songs. Every day felt like the same challenge on repeat, but the releases of Folklore and Evermore drew Emmy out of her room and gave us something to share. Our kitchen Alexa was mighty tired of Taylor that year.
In fact, Emmy’s love for Swift has — dare I say? — outgrown my own, her bedroom a twinkling shrine. So, when a 2023 tour is announced, my husband, Chris, and I decide that an Eras experience will be Emmy’s Christmas and birthday gift. After chatting with friends — Chandra, Erienne, Jessika and her daughter, Vivienne — we all set our sights on Nashville for Swift’s first tour since 2018.
Almost six months later, after lucking out during Ticketmaster’s Swiftgate, the moment is finally near. We enter the stadium and add our LED concert wristband to our arms, already stacked with friendship bracelets we’d made that morning. (Most Eras concertgoers — inspired by the lyrics, “So make the friendship bracelets, take this moment and taste it” — craft beaded bracelets to exchange.)
Everywhere we turn, we see strangers exchanging smiles and bracelets. I take note of boyfriends wearing “Karma” shirts (“Karma is my boyfriend”), fathers sporting pink button-downs that match their daughters’ dresses and friends in matching sequined ensembles. On this night, one thing is clear: We are all unified, in this together. And that’s no easy feat after a few tumultuous years in America. I look at my own little crew, each of us representing different eras, and tears spring to my eyes. I choke them back before Emmy — who rarely cries and teases me for my constant waterworks — notices.
We continue our search for our second tier seats. After struggling to figure out how to reach our level, we decide to ask a stadium attendant for help, a fortuitous encounter that changes everything.
Erienne approaches a young, Black attendant with warm brown eyes. The attendant, let’s just call her Janie, notices the friendship bracelets piled on Erienne’s arm. She smiles shyly and says, “Those are some nice bracelets you have.”
Erienne kindly removes a green beaded strand that reads “Ivy” and hands it to Janie, asking if she’s a fan.
Janie lights up at the gesture. “Well, I wasn’t before last night [the first of the Nashville shows]. But now, I think I am becoming a Swiftie — that’s what it’s called, right?” she asks. “I listened to her music for two hours last night on my way home and, man, she’s talented.”
After a few minutes of us filling Janie in on all the must-know Swiftie info, she directs us to the escalator that will take us to the second level. But then she glances at us sheepishly, walks a few steps down the hall, away from her coworker, nodding for us to follow. “You know, the front few rows of this section are usually empty,” she says. “If y’all come back here around the time the show starts, I can probably get you into those seats.” (We can only assume they’re typically reserved for potential celebrities or special guests.)
Our mouths drop. Front row stadium seats? As in, just behind the floor seats? Quick-thinking Chandra pulls out her phone and exchanges numbers with Janie. We thank her and I give her one more bracelet: a sunny yellow beaded loop with “Happiness” spelled out.
We make our way to our ticketed seats to catch the opening acts, Gayle and Phoebe Bridgers. Just after their sets conclude, Chandra texts Janie, who gives us the thumbs up emoji, signaling that we are good to go. Back in Janie’s section, she breaks our crew of six into two, placing half of us in row A, the other half in row B.
I sit in the front row, Emmy between me and Chandra. Erienne, Jessika and Vivienne pile in just behind us. We all exchange glances of disbelief. Emmy’s face is happier than I’ve ever seen, her blue eyes, one of which is outlined in a pink glitter Lover heart, wide with excitement. Already sweating from the sunshine and body heat of thousands of fans, my palms begin to perspire. I wonder if I am the only one fearing a tap-tap-tap on the shoulder followed by “This isn’t your seat!”
But then a montage of melodies from each era, intermingled with “It’s been a long time coming,” envelopes us. Showtime! Seven background dancers, each trailing a lavender-and-pink parachute, slowly saunter down the length of the catwalk. They come together, parachutes collapsing on top of one another. And when the chutes open back up, there she stands in a gold-and-silver sparkling bodysuit, the first chords of “Miss Americana” barely audible as 70,000 Swifties rejoice.
Once again, I look to my right at Emmy, wanting to capture this moment of her pure joy in my mind, and I am shocked by what I see. Tears — real tears — stream down her cheeks. At that, my own eyes water once again.
The next three-and-a-half hours rush by, all five senses swimming in an experiential tide. Around the stadium, as Swift performs a total of 44 songs — a number that’s almost unheard of in a single-artist concert — our LED bracelets light up in sync, flashing blue, pink, red, purple, yellow or green, depending on the song playing. It’s like a stadium wave as colors seem to magically flow from one section to another in the dark. At one point, during “Bad Blood,” blazing streams of fire shoot forth to the beat around the stage floor, the faces of Swifties around me glowing reddish-orange. Tissue-paper pieces of confetti fall not once, but twice, a kaleidoscope of color swirling in the air as Emmy reaches her hand out, collecting bits to take home as souvenirs. Of course, Swift also pares it down for her mellow Folklore and Evermore eras, a moss-covered piano and raw wood cabin lending a woodsy and mystical vibe.
Just before her surprise songs — she plays two, never repeated, at each concert — Swift emerges in a long, ruffled, emerald-green gown. As she speaks, she notices that her dress sleeve is not on properly, a green ruffle dangling under her armpit rather than gracing her shoulder. She awkwardly maneuvers, trying to get her arm into the hole, but gives up. Shrugging, she laughs it off, saying, “Just pretend you didn’t see that. It’s fine.” And just a few moments later, when she messes up the lyrics on surprise song No. 2, “Out of the Woods,” she giggles and asks the audience to join her in a repeat of the bridge. On stage, in front of all those fans, she’s still that awkward teen she once was and we all fall in love with her a little bit more.
After the show, we make a very slow trek back over the footbridge into downtown Nashville. As tired as everyone is, someone in front of us starts singing “Love Story” and soon the tune travels through the chorus of strangers — strangers who came together for one night, swapping bracelets, stories and costume compliments.
The contagious joy of the concert crowd lingers in my mind as Emmy and I drive home from the Raleigh-Durham Airport. “You know, Emmy, every single person I talked to in that stadium was kind,” I say, my tired eyes focused on the highway in front of me. “That really says a lot about the person Taylor Swift is to have cultivated such a friendly, caring community.”
Emmy nods in agreement. I may have — OK, I have had — many failures as a mother, but I did something right in introducing her to Taylor Swift’s music all those years ago. Not only has it brought the two of us together during some of the hardest times, but it’s helped us find common ground with friends and virtual strangers alike. We continue along, headlights shining in the dark, as I hear Swift’s voice in the back of my mind: Long live all the magic we made. OH