By Alex Suskind
May 09, 2018 at 01:47 PM EDT
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Taylor Swift was ready to talk about it. Near the end of a captivating opening night performance of the Reputation world tour at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Tuesday, the 28-year-old pop star sat down at her piano and addressed the proverbial elephant (well, snake) in the room. “A couple of years ago, someone called me a snake on social media,” she said, “and it caught on.”

Swift was of course referring to the long-running feud between herself and Kanye West, specifically a 2016 incident where West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, threw snake emojis her way following a dispute over the rapper’s song “Famous.” It was a dark period for the singer, and she ended up retreating from the spotlight almost entirely. Her adoption of a snake motif was a way to not only help take back the narrative she had lost, but to try something fresh. “I wanted to send a message that if someone uses name-calling to bully you on social media it doesn’t have to defeat you,” she said to the capacity crowd of 59,157. “It can strengthen you instead.”

Swift transferred that strength into her latest album, the multiplatinum Reputation, as well as its accompanying tour, a two-hour-plus, 24-song set that features various serpentine forms on stage and screen: towering, inflatable pythons; gold-embossed cobras; scaly Potter-esque visions projected on the Jumbotron — all in all, enough snakes to populate a Raiders of the Lost Ark reboot (even the VIP section was named the Snake Pit).

In person, the images reinforced a new undercurrent for the artist. Her last album 1989, and its subsequent tour, was a pop sugar rush. But on this run, there’s something a bit darker and more elusive happening: an artist grappling with the shift in her once squeaky-clean public image.

RELATED: See the photos from night one of Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour 

The night began with a video clip depicting Swift surrounded by paparazzi interspersed with news anchor narration of the singer’s latest escapades, before an a cappella tease of “Ready for It” kicked in. The singer, bathed in red light, emerged in silhouette from a small opening in the stage. Her dancers followed suit, trotting out in medieval-inspired, midnight-black attire, surrounding Swift while grabbing, pushing, and slithering their way around her. Her next song, “I Did Something Bad,” another cut off Reputation, included flames and strobe lights. Later, her dancers wheeled out Swift’s own tilted stage — a reference to the first line of “Look What You Made Me Do” and its not-so-veiled shot at West’s infamous Life of Pablo tour.

But as the night wore on, the tone began to lighten, as Swift returned to more familiar territory. Maybe the old Taylor wasn’t dead after all. (Speaking of, the Reputation tour has some leftover flourishes from her last run of shows, including those famed light-up wristbands that are synced to the beat of the music.) She playfully sang-rapped on “End Game.” She glided across the stage during “Love Story” and frolicked in front of a giant courtyard fountain and mock manor home during a Gatsby-style soiree with her dancers for “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”  Openers Charli XCX and Camilla Cabello joined in on the fun during “Shake It Off.”  And there was even a brief sighting of comedian Tiffany Haddish, who appeared via video screen to recite the “…old Taylor is dead” line off “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Christopher Polk/Getty Images

While there are still some early opening tour kinks to work out — the sound was a bit muddled in parts, where Swift’s vocals were drowned out by an over-amplified snare drum or bass line — this was, first and foremost, a pop star back with something to prove. One of her most impressive traits as a performer is her knack for making a concert held in a gargantuan space feel more like a casual hang with friends. “I was able to see what you guys were posting online, seeing what you guys were hoping would happen on tour, and a lot of those ideas ended up on the drawing board,” she said, before diving into “Dancing With My Hands Tied.”

Swift may have retreated from the spotlight — why talk to the press when you can produce your own newspaper in confetti form? — but she’s always been lurking, keeping a watchful, curious eye on her massive fanbase, commenting occasionally on Tumblr. Events of the past few years may have been painful, but it’s clear she’s come to the realization that the answer she was looking for all along was right there in her audience.

“I learned a really important lesson that I’ve been telling you from the stage for 10 years,” she said. “I think that the lesson is, that you shouldn’t care so much if you feel misunderstood by a lot of people who don’t know you, as long as you feel understood by the people who do know you, who will show up, people who see you as a human being, so thank you, thank you, thank you, for taking the time to get to know me, for seeing me as a human being. That’s you, you did that.”

No one knows Swift fans better than Swift does — and the opinions of those outside her circle no longer matter. When she exited the stage and the crowd filed out, a final slide was left on the screen: “and in the death of her reputation, she felt truly alive.”


Reputation Tour Set List

…Ready For It?
I Did Something Bad
Love Story
You Belong With Me
Look What You Made Me Do
End Game
King Of My Heart
Shake It Off
Dancing With Our Hands Tied
All Too Well
Black Space
Bad Blood
Should’ve Said No
Don’t Blame Me
Long Live
New Year’s Day
Getaway Car
Call It What You Want
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things