Taylor Swift is touring again, and it's hard to overemphasize how big a deal this is for her fan base.
Swift hasn't toured since 2018, and in the five years since she has released four new albums and re-recorded several of her older albums with new songs added.
Six of the first dozen or so shows of Swift's Eras Tour are in Texas – three were in early March at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, and three this weekend at NRG Stadium in Houston – and fans are beyond ready for the pop star to come back to the Lone Star State.
Swifties are very loyal, and part of their dedication comes from how long they have been listening. Cara Gustafson, a 31-year-old Austinite who has tickets for Houston, says she's been listening to Swift for almost half her life and knows every song.
"I just feel like she's just been such a part of my life," she said. "For every phase of my life and every album I can think of where I was when it came out and where I was at that time in my life."
For longtime fans like her, the Eras Tour is extra special: Swift is playing music from across all 10 of her albums – taking concertgoers through all the eras of her career.
Swift, like any public figure, has plenty of naysayers – people who think her music is cheesy or basic, or feel like she's overrated. Some conservative listeners were upset when she threw her support behind Democratic candidates in 2018, while others on the left complain that her activism feels insufficient.
The fans I talked to were well aware of all this but say their love for Swift goes much deeper than the back-and-forth over her politics or which awards she's won. Indeed, it goes deeper than simply thinking her music is fun to listen to. They described how Swift has been the backdrop for moments big and small in their lives – moments when they felt understood or empowered – as well as really big changes and hard times.
Childhood memories of ‘a safe space'
Michelle Pitcher, who grew up in Coppell and now lives in Austin, remembers one of those little moments.
"I actually distinctly remember being in middle school on a field trip, listening to her ‘Fearless' album in headphones and staring out the window of the bus and pretending I was in a music video," she said. "So she's been with me for a while."
Katie Wilson's first-ever concert was Swift in 2011.
"I was literally, like, just so elated," said Wilson, who grew up in Lubbock. "It's also kind of a sentimental thing like for me, because when I was a junior in high school, my mom died, and so me and my mom went to that concert when I was in the sixth grade. And so it was just kind of like a great moment for me and her. I'll always cherish that forever."
For Hope Lenamon, who grew up outside of Waco and now lives in Austin, Swift gave her a way to fit in. Lenamon, 26, remembers the first time she noticed a Swift song.
"I was in the backseat of my dad's old pickup truck. He was driving me and my sister home from school," she said. "And I remember hearing ‘Our Song' come on the radio and kind of immediately becoming obsessed with it."
Lenamon was about 12 when this happened, around the same time she started noticing something about herself.
"That's kind of when I started figuring out like, oh, I don't look at boys the way other girls look at boys. It was kind of rough being a closeted queer kid in rural Texas ... and it was really nice to be able to sing along to Taylor Swift songs," she said. "A lot of her songs aren't super gendered, and so I could be thinking of my crush from eighth-period athletics, on the eighth-grade volleyball star, but it sounded like I was singing about boys just like all the other girls my age ... It kind of gave me a safe space to experiment with ideas of love and longing."
Lenamon is attending two shows, one in Arlington and one in Houston, and is excited to go with her best friend from college. The two bonded over their love for Swift, and they stay up late for all the album releases, but they have never been to a show together.
A family event
Andrew Ledbetter is also excited to attend a Taylor Swift concert with his loved ones: his wife and two daughters.
"To get to go to the tour and get to see that and to celebrate that live with the people I enjoy most in the world, that also appreciate Taylor Swift, too," he said. "Oh yeah, I'm really excited about it."
Ledbetter is in his 40s and teaches communication studies at Texas Christian University. He is the first to admit he might not look like your typical Swiftie, but he is committed. He said one of the things he loves about the star's music is that there's a song for whatever mood you're in.
"If it's a happy, upbeat mood, maybe I go to something from ‘Lover.' It's more reflective, I can go to something from ‘Folklore,'" he said. "If I just want to kind of remember nostalgia, when I first began to enjoy Taylor Swift, I can go to ‘Fearless' or I can go to ‘Speak Now' or something like that."
Ledbetter has a page on his website where he ranks all of Swift's songs. His outfit for the show is a custom-made T-shirt with his top 10 songs and a QR code to the site.
And he's far from the only person I talked to who's made a custom shirt for the event – what you wear to a Swift concert is a big deal. Some people are spending hours on homemade costume pieces, painting jean jackets or putting jewels on their clothes. Fans talked about wanting to go all-out for Swift and celebrate the music in a stadium of other people who are just as excited and dressed up as they are. Many concertgoers are picking an "era" to dress as, matching the aesthetic of their favorite album.
Fans bonding over traditions new and old
There is a sense that these concerts are bringing communities together, and not just locally. Many people are flying in to shows from other cities. Several videos have surfaced of planefuls of Swifties having sing-alongs en route.
And there are traditions for the Eras Tour that fans established before the first song was even sung. Many are making dozens of friendship bracelets to bring and exchange with strangers. People are also painting Taylor's lucky number 13 on their hands and writing lyrics on their arms.
But Pitcher says that what's more important than this tour is what Swift's music has done for her throughout her life.
"I've always been able to return to some Taylor Swift song that makes me feel like seen emotionally, makes my emotions feel validated. It's catharsis singing in the car," she said. "She's been around for much of my formative years. And, you know, she's just like a friend at this point. She's a pal. And I just really appreciate what she's done and how she's there for everyone."
And at the six upcoming concerts in Texas, Swift's fans are going to be there for her right back – at least those who were lucky enough to get tickets.
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