The Gems of Taylor Swift’s Awkward-Yet-Admirable Live Album

Perhaps my favorite part of the advent of Spotify has been the easy access to live albums. While they’ve been a slightly strange investment before – you want to buy recordings of people singing the same songs you already own studio versions of? – having them at your fingertips gives listeners a chance to enjoy them with much less commitment. I would never buy Taylor Swift’s live album, for instance. I’m not a huge Swift fan, though I like way more of her songs than you would expect of someone who’s lukewarm on the formerly country songbird. But while bored on a Wednesday night, I gave it a spin – and found plenty worth loving.

In truth, Taylor Swift doing a live album sounds dicey. Her live voice has never been her strong suit, and it’s easy to knock her as a better songwriter than singer (though that’s a pretty weak burn – you could say the same of Carole King). But she’s in pretty good voice here, and there’s something charmingly ambitious about her decision to do one. Good for you, Tay! Don’t let the haters get you down.

Of course, being Taylor Swift, she manages to make things awkward several times on the album. This is a tour through those odd – yet sort of delightful – highlights. Use the Spotify playlist below to listen along.

This is Speak Now live, and that’s a good thing
Unpopular opinion: Taylor’s third album, Speak Now, is far and away her best. Red has its moments, but ultimately strays too far from her storyteller roots and basically shrugs at the very idea that she was ever a country artist. Fearless is a bit overbaked, with more good ideas than good songs. (Taylor winning Album of the Year for that is the music equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence winning her Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook.) And Taylor Swift, her debut, is sweet but musically immature.

Speak Now is Taylor’s sweet spot, full of killer ballads and fun upbeat jams. It feels like the most accurate distillation of her brand – the sometimes outgoing, sometimes moody girl who just started out with some teardrops and a guitar. It’s the album that can best support a live treatment, and luckily, she sticks with Speak Now pretty closely here. (She does wisely leave “Innocent” on the shelf, her weird response to Kanye West’s VMAs rant where she talks about how Kanye used to catch fireflies, or something.)

She doesn’t shy away from the great-but-long songs
As I mentioned, there are some great ballads on Speak Now, but they are LONG. “Last Kiss” has an amazing slow burn effect, but with emphasis on “slow,” because it is six minutes long. “Dear John,” Taylor’s melodramatic kiss-off to John Mayer (always a good time) is almost seven minutes long. At 5:52, “Enchanted” is positively quick in comparison. Luckily, Taylor has apparently never met a long song she didn’t want to sing in concert; she does all three, and quite well to boot. Special recognition for the killer “Last Kiss” performance.

Her medleys and covers
No concert is complete without a cover or two – just ask Kelly Clarkson – and Taylor delivers here. Some are better than others – while her “I Want You Back” is adorable and kicky, her cover of Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” is just as white as it sounds. She also does a medley of her songs about being sorry (her only apology song ever, “Back to December,” and her Joe Jonas middle finger “You’re Not Sorry”) with a few lines of One Republic’s “Apologize.” It is far better than it has any right to be.

The cuckoo “Bette Davis Eyes” cover intro
Confession: This is totally the raison d’être for this post – if you haven’t been listening to the other songs as we’ve gone along, stop everything and listen to this one. Here, I’ll even give you a video:

Oh my God, where to begin? First, it’s amazing that Taylor is educating us all on all the great Los Angeles music we’ve been missing in our lives. As my friend Audrey put it, she has an “I’m about to read you a bedtime story” voice going on. Now, I’m not gonna hate on Taylor for teaching tweens and teens about Kim Carnes and, later, the Jackson 5. But it is important to remember that Taylor herself is younger than these songs, so her teacher-esque approach is strange.

Then, there’s the absolutely ridiculous way she even pronounces L.A., which I couldn’t figure out but my friend Carly nailed:

Note that Carly’s right – she says almost the exact same thing before her “Drops of Jupiter” cover. It’s all really awkward, though she actually does a lovely (if totally Swiftian) cover of “Bette Davis Eyes.” That’s probably the best way to sum up Taylor Swift’s live album: kind of lovely, yet kind of weird.

In fact, that’s pretty much the best way to sum up Taylor Swift. And for all her nonsense, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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