Taylor Swift rocks Bridges for ‘Storytellers’

The 2500 fans who crowded into Bridges Auditorium Monday, the majority of whom were Claremont Colleges students, were feeling pretty lucky. After all, they nabbed free tickets for one of the biggest musical events to hit town in recent years.

Harvey Mudd College students had collected a record number of Facebook votes in a contest sponsored by Chegg textbooks. As a result, Mudders were named the hosts of a taping of VH1’s “Storytellers” starring country-crossover sweetheart Taylor Swift. The special concert will air on VH1 on November 11 as part of the promotion for Ms. Swift’s latest album, Red, due in stores October 22.

Every HMC student and faculty member received a ticket for the gig, and students and staffers at the other Claremont Colleges were allowed to register for a ticket drawing, with one-in-4 odds of landing a seat.

Considering 22-year-old Swift’s popularity, passes for the taping of the show—combining performance with stories of the moments behind the music—were hot tickets. They were coveted, swapped and, according to reports by students, sold in some cases for as much as $200.

The high black-market price was matched by a theater that looked like a million dollars. Bridges Auditorium was souped-up for the taping, with colored lights in shades of pink, red and blue illuminating the lofty, Zodiac-painted ceiling. There were Boho-style Victorian sofas for Ms. Swift and her band to sit on, flanked by birdcages filled with fairy lights. Hanging chandeliers and sheer curtains featuring damask-style detailing lent a lavish feel to the stage. 

Ms. Swift’s band was equally lush, with 4 backup singers, a violinist, a drummer, a bassist and an array of guitarists backing her with a veritable wall of sound.

Ms. Swift was greeted with adulation on the part of Claremont College students, whose adolescence coincided with the singer-songwriter’s rise to fame. Some bore handmade signs with slogans like “Taylor, my love for you is Red.”  Her entrance was preceded by chanting: “Taylor, Taylor.”  

While she exhibited the chops of a musical superstar during her performance, there was little of the diva in Ms. Swift’s presentation.  She wore the same, simple white A-line dress throughout, albeit embellished by the presence of an ever-changing assembly of striking instruments, ranging from acoustic guitars in silvery glitter, red and blue to a banjo. 

In addition to winning the right to host Swift’s performance, the Harvey Mudd music department was presented by a representative from the event’s sponsor, Chegg, and Ms. Swift with a check for $10,000.

“Storytellers” tapings are usually intimate affairs, with 150 guests or less. They also don’t usually encompass an entire college campus community. Ms. Swift acknowledged the singularity of the occasion, saying she loved the audience and opting to engage in a question-and-answer session with audience members.

“Storytellers” producers injected a touch of TV artificiality when they organized the crowd for some reaction shots before the concert. Once Ms. Swift took the stage, however, all artifice disappeared. She nailed her playlist, ranging from older favorites like “Ours” from her self-titled debut album to her latest hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

Ms. Swift writes her songs as answers to things that impacted her life. For instance, “Mean,” from her 2010 album Speak Now—which has become an anti-bullying anthem—was written in response to a critic who “absolutely hated me.”

The result is a song that had show attendees singing along: “Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean/Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.”

The infectious “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was born out of a moment when Ms. Swift was approached by a friend of an ex-boyfriend while she was recording. He blithely informed her that he had heard they would be reunited soon. Her response bloomed into a song that is a musical celebration of getting over someone who is wrong for you. Swift enlisted the audience to help fulfill a daydream: She wanted to have the experience of singing the song and seeing an entire audience raise their hands, like passengers in a roller coaster, yelling “Whee!” each time in the chorus where she yodels the word we.

One student asked Ms. Swift if she regretted missing out on the college experience. She admitted to some longing for campus life. “I live near a big college and I sometimes walk across the campus, carrying books I’m not reading,” she joked.

The truth is, however, she has known since she was a kid what she wanted to do with her life. She couldn’t be happy if she weren’t on stage night after night, sharing her musical stories.

Just like Ms. Swift had a story, every member in the audience had a story of what brought them to the show.

Laura Hermelin, the mother of 2 sixth grade girls at Chaparral Elementary School, shared hers.

Her daughter, Alyssa and Annette, who are less than a year apart in age and are in the same grade. A mutual friend with a parent who works at the Claremont Colleges called the girls to inform them that she had one extra ticket. She couldn’t decide which of the Hermelin girls to invite.

The girls performed an impromptu coin toss, with the older girl, Alyssa, wining the ticket. Annette, her mother reported, ran off to her room, crying. 

Touched by her younger sister’s disappointment, Alyssa fibbed to her friend, saying that Annette won the coin toss. After telling Annette that she could go to the show, Alyssa, who her mother reports is a super fan when it comes to Taylor Swift, also retired to her room, sobbing.

After Annette headed for Bridges Auditorium with her friend, Ms. Hermelin suggested to her older daughter that they head down to the venue to see if they could hear any of the music from outside. There, they encountered a member of Claremont Colleges security, who asked mother and daughter if they had tickets, because he had 2 extra passes.

A delighted Alyssa dashed into the taping, where she was greeted by her sister and friends like a celebrity, Ms. Hermelin said.

In fact, happy endings were the order of the day as a satisfied crowd left the theater, many wearing red T-shirts commemorating HMC’s hosting of the “Storytellers” taping and promoting Ms. Swift’s upcoming album.

Long after the few community members in attendance had driven away, Claremont Colleges students could be seen walking in groups towards their respective colleges, many of them raving about Taylor Swift’s performance or singing a snatch of one of her songs.

—Sarah Torribio



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