Ranking Taylor Swift’s All-Time Best Live Performances
It is an objectively good bit when Taylor Swift, near the beginning of every concert, cocks her elbow to hold her microphone at the ready, then pans across her doting assemblage and tells them something they already know.
“Hey, I’m Taylor!”
Yes, Tay, it said that on the ticket. Now, it is an apt reintroduction.
A global superstar saying hello to 50,000-plus fans like she’s meeting each and every one of them over lattes exists at the intersection of massive and intimate, where Taylor Swift’s shows thrive. Plus, it has been awhile. Swift’s long-awaited Eras Tour kicks off Friday, marking her first concert dates since 2019 and first tour since the 2018 Reputation Tour (Lover Fest, the four-show mini-tour Swift planned in 2020, when she probably would have introduced herself again and brought out who-knows-what pyrotechnics, deep cuts, and surprise guests, was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic).
She’s kept plenty busy in the meantime—releasing five albums (three original and two rerecorded), a concert film, and the All Too Well short film, for which she won a Grammy—but there’s something special about a Taylor Swift live show I think we’ve all been missing. The wait is nearly over, but, until then, enjoy this highly subjective but also totally correct ranking of her five best live performances ever.
Honorable Mention: “Bad Blood” and “Should’ve Said No” mash-up, the Reputation Tour
We will get to the fact that she spends the first 90 seconds of this number floating over the venue in a giant snake endoskeleton in a moment. First, a note about the process here: We’re not including covers, though if you’re asking, my favorite is a tie between the version of Phil Collins’s “Can’t Stop Loving You” she did for BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge and just these vocals on repeat. We’re also not going to mention parodies. Why? Because I’m already cheating and including an honorable mention outside the top five because I want to talk about this mash-up from the Reputation Tour.
It’s a clear example of the time-honored Taylor tradition (Taylordition?) of taking one of her lesser works and improving it live. I am not speaking of “Should’ve Said No,” an early classic, but of the song that takes the lead in this mash-up, “Bad Blood”—which rhymes “bad blood” with “mad love” and, despite Kendrick Lamar’s best efforts, never approaches dynamism in its studio recording.
But tell Swift one of her songs doesn’t work, and she’ll find a way to switch it up and prove you wrong. (The best pure example of this is her performance of “Out of the Woods” at the Grammy Museum in 2015, which removed the bad production and percussion that made the original sound like something off the Lion King soundtrack and better revealed Swift’s cinematic lyrics.)
“Should’ve Said No” does a lot of the heavy lifting here. It’s a juicier melody to begin with, but Swift takes it a step further by tweaking the melody for the live arrangement so that it packs an even greater punch.
In the studio arrangement, Swift sings the same notes on the line “You should’ve said no” as she does on “You should’ve gone home.” In the live medley, the melody drops so that the phrase ends with “home” on a D instead of an E. In the harmonic world of that song, the D is what gives the listener that major-chord dopamine hit and a sense of resolution. You hear it eventually on the studio version, but hearing it sooner intensifies the payoff, particularly as part of a medley where the arrangement moves quickly from each section. It’s the type of attention to detail Swift probably doesn’t have to pay at this point, except that, to her, the details are basically the entire point.
That’s not to say that “Bad Blood” isn’t doing any of the work. It ties the older track in with something more recent and better suited to the snakes-and-stones aesthetic of the Reputation Tour. It’s the right platform for her band, which shows off on the synthesizer and sneaks in a little banjo for old times’ sake. And even if “Bad Blood” isn’t the greatest song, it’s still a big one, one that allows for light shows, dancers flipping from the rafters, and, yes, Swift being deposited on stage by a chariot made of snake bones. Iconic.
5. “Death by a Thousand Cuts (Live From Paris),” the City of Lover concert, 2019
I deeply regret this exercise for putting me in a position where I have to choose between this live cut and the version of “Cornelia Street” from the same show in front of 2,000 fans at the Olympia theater in Paris, where Swift performed a 16-song set list in one of the few shows she was able to do promoting the Lover album. (“Bonsoir Paris! Je suis Taylor, enchantée!” was how she introduced herself in this one.) The whole show was an elite vibe, but the highlight was a six-song acoustic session in the middle of the show focused on tracks from Lover, which Swift used to demonstrate how they sounded in their original forms. “With this album, everything I wrote, I wrote it with one instrument,” Swift told the crowd. “I wrote with my guitar or with my piano, so I thought to myself that I wanted to try them out for you, sing them the same way tonight, live, because this is my first time playing them in front of you.” It’s just her, singing and strumming in a spotlight, listening to the crowd sing the words with her. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” gets the edge here for the way she sings “not my baby” in the second chorus.
4. “Better Man,” The Bluebird Cafe, 2018
In 2016, as she sat atop the pop universe after 1989, Swift wrote a country song called “Better Man” for the group Little Big Town, and their recording of it spent two weeks at no. 1 on the Billboard country charts. She won Song of the Year at the Country Music Awards for writing it and was nominated for a Grammy. Solid flex.
In 2018, Swift performed the song as a surprise guest at the Bluebird Cafe, the famed Nashville music club she played at as a teenager before getting her first record deal. She sang it with just a guitar alongside Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Craig Wiseman, and, suddenly, it felt obvious Little Big Town was just borrowing something Swift so clearly owned. The “middle of the night” references and the way her voice trembles over the words “We might still be in love if you were a better man / You would have been the one if you were a better man” is pure Taylor—she packs the entire narrative weight of a song into the final couple of lines. Swift and Wiseman followed up the performance by doing shots of Fireball. Solid flex indeed.
3. “I Knew You Were Trouble,” the Red Tour
The year was 2013, and we had reached the auteur period of Taylor Swift’s live shows. She was playing stadiums, not arenas, at this point and had learned to take full advantage of the tech, production, and design elements available to her. This performance includes: a violin solo and gymnastics routine intro, a costume change, an entire masquerade ball of dancers, smoke, a light show, a guitar solo, a throne, and a garment that can best be described as a bustle.
What’s cool, though, is that it’s still true to what made the studio version of this song, which was released as a single in October 2012, so good. It’s incorrect to call the moment that the beat dropped on “I Knew You Were Trouble” truly revolutionary—Britney Spears leaned hard into dubstep on “Hold It Against Me” nearly two years earlier—but it was a significant moment in Swift’s musical evolution. This Red Tour version gives the bass plenty of time to wub, then adds to it with all the production elements and lots of vibrant harmonies when the chorus comes back around. Swift earns degree of difficulty points here too, because the jumpy melody of this song makes it a sneakily tricky one to sing live.
This song came about three-quarters of the way through the set list and was followed by “All Too Well,” which hit like a ton of bricks and is only excluded from this list because the studio versions, both the original and 2021’s 10-minute version from Red (Taylor’s Version), hit like two tons of bricks. Together, these two songs form the clear emotional peak of the Red Tour. Both were brought back for various award show performances and tours, with good reason—the version from the 1989 World Tour could easily have gotten the nod just on the merit of the high note before the final chorus—but the Red Tour rendition deserves special recognition for being all about that bass.
2. “Long Live,” the Speak Now World Tour, Gillette Stadium rain show, June 25, 2011
I’m convinced Taylor Swift has her own weather patterns. Rain, pouring rain, rain on pavement, and various other forms of precipitation have come up at least 23 times in her songwriting catalog. In “Forever & Always,” it rains inside someone’s bedroom (fix your plumbing, Joe Jonas). So it shouldn’t be a shock that downpours seem to follow her tour bus.
“Long Live” is a great live song, whatever the weather. It’s an ode to the fans and a triumphant promise to cherish the connection between performer and audience. It was only right, then, that when the skies opened up into a downpour—at what was then the biggest venue she’d played as a headliner—Swift looked out at the crowd and decided that if they were staying, she was too. For about 30 seconds, she just stares, jaw dropped, shaking her head slightly in disbelief. This performance is lost to the streaming world other than in a few grainy YouTube videos. What those clips lack in audio quality, they make up for in footage of a 21-year-old realizing, in real time, that she was actually living out her dream.
1. “Wildest Dreams” and “Enchanted” mash-up, the 1989 World Tour
It is telling that this epic five-and-a-half-minute medley is fundamentally simple. Swift sits at the piano and starts performing “Wildest Dreams,” a song about wanting to be remembered fondly by someone who’s no longer in your life. (It’s a stunning song, also featured in a Grammy Museum rendition that’s nearly as good as this one.) The synths and some backup vocals come in to support her eventually, and the song starts to build, but there still aren’t a lot of bells and whistles.
She sounds great. Swift has had some shaky moments with live vocals in the past, but her voice has gotten stronger and steadier as she’s progressed through her career. You can hear the product of that work in the bridge of “Wildest Dreams” (“You’ll see me in hindsight”) and in the notes she holds toward the end.
After the second “Wildest Dreams” chorus, she transitions into “Enchanted,” a song off Speak Now about meeting someone for the first time and wanting them to be part of your life. Once the two songs combine, the shape of the story gains dimension, and the whole performance starts to expand until, four minutes into the performance, she goes full Lizzie McGuire Movie, rips off her floor-length tulle skirt, and finishes the medley while strutting down the stage’s runway into the crowd wearing a glittery bodysuit. And it is sparkling. Don’t you let it go.