As a young concert going aficionado (seriously, I’ve seen Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and the Rolling Stones all within the last year. Jealous?) I think arguably the two largest tours within the last year, Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour, and Beyonce’s Formation world tour, both equally mind-blowing and successful shows. Both women have incredibly different approaches to showmanship. Can we discover whose show is best?
At one end of the spectrum, we have Tay-tay in all her dating revenge/best friend/kick back against the cool kids glory, who’s risen to the top of the music ladder and wants to welcome her fans into her youthful pop playground: #Squad Goals.
On the other end we have the indomitable Queen Bey, ever evolving, and ever present pop goddess, ruling the Bey-Hive with the grace and poise of a seasoned professional. #Bowdownbitches
Production Value & Set Design
T-Swift’s massive show had the most production value my eyes have ever had the pleasure of devouring: Massive set changes (including a set piece of NYC), programmed wrist-bands for every audience member that changed color in time with specific songs, and a surprise musical guest every night (and if you follow her on instagram, you’ll see that the visitors got more famous the longer the tour went on. I’m a little sad Justin Timberlake wasn’t Chicago’s surprise guest). At certain intervals during the show, we get video clips including interviews with her posse of celebrity friends discussing Taylor’s persona as a fun, carefree goof, who just wants to embrace girl power, bake cookies, and hang out with her cats. In the moment, you feel the rush becoming one with the massive sea of lights, and think that apart from the multimillion dollar record deal, and slew of famous boyfriends, that Taylor is just like all of us.
Beyoncé’s set on the Formation World tour is much more pared down—if one can call a 70 foot cube that projects video clips on all sides pared down. The screen more than anything else acted as a marker for the storytelling shifts of the concert, the same way that Lemonade is broken up (and if you haven’t seen it yet, stop what you’re doing right now and bear witness) playing clips from Lemonade and various glamour shots of Beyoncé. During the show, Beyoncé only had four costume changes, all mirroring different outfits from the film. The focus in this show really was the Queen, at a major point of growth in her career, with Bey thanking her audience for allowing her to grow, for growing with her. Despite her humble remarks, we all know who runs this world (hint, it ain’t Jay-Z).
There were some set pieces like a wading pool for Beyoncé and her dancers to dance barefoot in during the power anthem “Freedom,” some fireworks at the end of the show, as well as some well-timed confetti cannons that went off during the first verses of “Party.”
In a moment during her career in which she’s leaving the the country music world in the dust to become a full-on pop star, Taylor Swift chose to focus mainly on tracks from her most recent (completely pop) masterpiece 1989, saying in interviews that she’s taking her cues from performers like Madonna. She wants her fans to associate this album with this specific tour—a magical moment in time.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, takes her set list cues from legends including latter-day Prince: only playing sections of her major songs in her set list, allowing her to create a rather expansive trek through her almost twenty year career (yes, it’s been that long, and for all you Destiny’s Child fans out there, yes, I screamed like a maniac when she busted out “Independent Women”) while also slaying the Bey-Hive with a handful of songs from Lemonade and Beyonce.
Taylor’s approach attempts to create the intimacy of an inner circle with her fans. Everyone who’s come out for the night to hang with Tay is made to feel they are now and forever a member of her squad (not sure if I’m tall enough to roll with that crowd. They’re all leggy models, and I’m 5’1 on a good day), and by giving glimpses into her inner world, she wants us to know that she is just like the rest of us.
Beyoncé’s approach in many ways seems more classic—short dialogues with the audience that are meant to amp up the crowd and keep the energy in the stadium alive. For example, when she opens with “Formation” Beyoncé creates tension with the crowd by saying “If you came here to slay say “I slay,” if you slay all day everyday say “I slay,” if you know who you are and are proud of where you came from say “I slay!” Or during a song like “survivor,” she asks the crowd “do we have any survivors in here tonight?” All of which makes the crowd (read me, but also the crowd) lose their minds. Never has it ever felt so electrifying to shout “I SLAY,” at the Queen’s command.
There’s more artistic distance created between Beyoncé and her audience here, where Bey becomes the uber entertainer. She’s there to be our role model—someone for us to aspire to be, and not our best friend. Unfortunately for Tay (and no hate, love that girl), I think this approach is actually more effective in terms of a concert—it creates less dead space (for Taylor, long intervals where she’s making a long speech at her audience instead of carrying on with the show) during the show and makes the set fly—you can’t believe this experience has ended.
Does Bey slay Tay? Does Tay slay Bey? At the end of both of their concerts, that matters less than thinking about the ways both of these artists at the top of their game choose to approach performance and engage with their fans. Both women are fierce entertainers, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ll come up with next.
Would you rather roll deep with Swift’s Squad, or worship the Queen in the Bey-Hive?
–Katie Sterr is a writer and editor living in Milwaukee.