Taylor Alison Swift cannot be called psychedelic. She traffics in concrete scenarios and writes and performs with an emphasis on clarity. There’s not a lot of fluff in her songs, nothing is loose, and nobody jams. Everything exists to serve the story and the star. Swift has become world famous by matching tales of young love, first heartbreak, and sexual awakening to music that amplifies the single-minded intensity of the narrator.
In other words, she’s just about the last singer on earth whose songs you’d expect to hear at a laser show. Swift is so popular, though, that somebody with a beam machine was bound to try. “Laser Taylor Swift” will light up the dome at the Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium at Liberty Science Center (222 Jersey City Boulevard) from now until January 1. The show includes a fan-favorite fairy tale from her Nashville period, a few titanic pop songs recorded with the ruthlessly economical hit machine Max Martin, two newies from Midnights, her moody 2022 set, and “Christmas Tree Farm,” one of her many loosies, and a song appropriate to the season. As the songs play, they’re accompanied by brilliant flashes, electric squiggles, chromatic swirls, and illustrations in light on the interstellar-black theater ceiling.
It’s a relatively brief encounter. Seven songs in less than a half hour might seem awfully parsimonious to those who remember the sprawling Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd laser shows that rocked the Museum of Natural History in New York City in the 1980s. The designs aren’t terribly trippy, and the projections don’t aim to overwhelm, or stun, or blow minds. Many of the laser sequences feel more decorative than transportive. But once the beat kicks in, and Swift begins to sing, none of that matters. Her material is so well written and so effectively performed that it banishes any misgivings about the appropriateness of a visual accompaniment usually associated with monsters of rock. Swift, the show makes clear, has become a monster of (pop-) rock herself, and if the magnitude of her ascension to the canon requires ratification by lasers, by all means, bring on the lasers.
As all fans know, to listen to Taylor Swift is to agree with her. It’s to share her sense of outrage at those who’ve done her protagonists wrong, hang on each detail, and root for her, even when she is, as she described herself in a recent song, the anti-hero. So powerful is the tractor pull of Swift’s musical storytelling that it re-arranges the world into one that just so happens to have Taylor Swift at its molten center. A planetarium, it turns out, is an appropriate setting to encounter such a universal perspective. It’s egomaniacal, sure, but all the greatest rock stars and pop-rock projects are. Other laser shows shot for a fusion of sound and sight to create a single oceanic swell of sensation. “Laser Taylor Swift” is not like that. Swift’s songs are always the lead, and the lights, brilliant as they are, are the support. The intense focus of the beams and the brightness of the designs become metaphors for the star’s sense of purpose, her alacrity and self-possession, and her total dedication to hard-selling the hook.
Those qualities come through with every line. The flash of the lasers, then, feel not overwhelming but inevitable, like visual echoes of the concepts in the songs. For laser shows, that’s unusual. At the original “Laser Floyd,” for instance, most of the designs on the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium were non-representational. They were mesmerizing arcs of color, crosshatches and swirls, endless regressions and photon tunnels meant to make the attendee feel like he was falling through innerspace. “Laser Taylor Swift” contained some hypnotic designs, like the pulsing doughnut of light that hovered overhead during “22.” But most of the memorable sequences in the show were icons etched in laser light. That meant hearts (some of which, naturally, were broken), stars, pretty girls in moving neon, flames and fireworks, fine-line cityscapes, and above all, words — Swift’s own words, projected on the ceiling in a virtual entreaty to the audience to sing along. “Laser Taylor Swift” underscored the fundamentally discursive nature of the superstar’s project. She’s here to tell you something, and she’s not going to let you go until you get the message.
Some of this literalization in laser was silly. When Swift describes herself as “lightning on my feet” in the irresistible “Shake It Off,” we did not need to see a bolt with legs. The chorus of “Blank Space” is terrifying enough in its naked hunger; spelling it out in ten-foot letters on the cosmos felt downright tyrannical. Baskets of Floydian light woven from hundreds of quivering strands are intrinsically cooler than glowing pictures of Taylor Swift’s face. But Taylor Swift, as she’s told us many times both implicitly and explicitly, isn’t about cool. She’d never have connected with millions upon millions at a time as insecure as ours if she was. The scenes in laser that her songs inspired aren’t always stylish, but they’re often emotionally resonant anyway. For “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” a remarkably candid new song that re-tells Swift’s story in typically dramatic verse, a pensive little girl disintegrates into pure light. It’s a better, more striking image than anything I’ve seen in any of Swift’s recent videos.
The music at the Chalsty Planetarium could’ve been louder. Swift’s songs are designed to withstand stadium treatment, and those who’ve seen her at MetLife and the local arenas are accustomed to volume. Nevertheless, Taylor Swift’s music doesn’t need to be booming to feel immersive. All you’ve got to do is surrender to the sentiment, the sound, and the story. After a few pandemic years making cottagecore, she’ll be back on the road this summer. For now, you can follow the lasers.