For my daughter, Sophie, it was like finding the goose that laid the golden egg. "Today was a Fairytale," Taylor Swift was singing from the stage at Staples Center, and Sophie, age 11, was singing every word along with her, waving a colored light stick back and forth above her head. Her grin was electric, her attention sharply focused; she wasn't missing anything.
For the last year or so, Sophie has been a Taylor Swift obsessive ("I am Taylor's No. 1 fan!" read the sign she brought to the concert with us), which made the show April 16 its own kind of happily ever after — or, as Sophie informed me, "the most important night of my life."
Partly, this had to do with Swift, who Sophie likes both because of her music and "because she's not afraid to talk about what happened in her life." Partly, it had to do with the fact that we were not just seeing the concert but reporting on it, and were therefore invited to a backstage meet-and-greet.
Sitting in the hospitality room deep in the belly of Staples Center, Sophie looked as if she couldn't quite believe where she was. Normally, she's a chatty kid, full of excitement and stories. But waiting for the main event, she was quiet, watchful, taking it all in. Then Swift entered, wearing a simple yellow dress, to thank us all for coming, and Sophie's face uncurled.
Sophie is a big fan of pop music. Last summer, I took her to see the Jonas Brothers, and she listens to Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, all the Disney stars.
But there's something different about her feelings for Swift, something I recognize from my early days as a music fan. Beginning when I was not much older than she is, I was a rock 'n' roll fanatic: first, the Beatles, and later everything from the Grateful Dead to Led Zeppelin to the Clash, as if, in the intersection of all those clanging guitar chords, I might learn some lesson about how to live.
For my daughter, Swift offers a similar connection, one that transcends fanhood for identification instead. At Staples, she laughed when the stage patter turned toward bad boyfriends, and shrieked when Swift played songs such as "Should've Said No."
It doesn't matter that Sophie's still too young to have a boyfriend; in her eyes, all this makes Swift a figure of empowerment, a role model in a certain sense. "I like that she writes songs about her boyfriends," Sophie told me. "It shows that she was sad but she got over it."
I don't want to make too much of this, although in our culture of flash and excess, there are worse messages for Sophie to internalize. But I don't want to minimize it either, for I remember how I used to feel about the musicians I idolized. Because of that, I can relate to her devotion, to the idea that seeing this concert felt like the most essential, vital thing she'd ever done.
That's why on Friday night, I watched her as much as I watched the action on the stage. Our seats were close. You could almost feel like you were part of it, which is, of course, the essential illusion of pop. You connect with a performer through the music, and yet at the same time, that performer remains just the slightest bit distant, just the slightest bit larger-than-life.
For Sophie, that is part of the attraction; she was there for the show. She liked the costume changes, liked the fact that Swift kept changing her guitar. When Swift opened with "You Belong With Me," Sophie admired what she called her "band-geek outfit," a kind of majorette costume that she shed partway through the song to reveal a sparkly dress.
Yet most of all, she liked the music, which, even I'll admit, is not half-bad. What Swift has over the other performers to whom Sophie listens is an understanding of the art of songcraft; she's like the Sheryl Crow of the tween set. I was astonished to see a lot of older people at the concert — not just teenagers and college kids, but adults my age, couples out on a Friday night. This says something about her sustainability, and also about her appeal.
As for the performance, I'm going to leave that to Sophie, since she's the fan. Swift played most of Sophie's favorite songs, including "Forever & Always," "Fearless" and "Teardrops on My Guitar." She spent a while in the middle of the show singing from out in the audience, which Sophie thought "shows she wants to meet her fans."
Throughout the evening, there were videos that served as connective fiber, mock interviews and skits. The sets, Sophie thought, "were really cool," and if she wished there had been a few more costume changes, her only real regret was that Swift didn't play enough from her first album.
But then again, Sophie prefers the second album, "Fearless," because it has a better mix of styles.
Sophie told me all this after the concert, chatty again in the car. As she talked, I felt as if I had found the golden goose myself. It may have started out as Sophie's evening, but driving home, I understood that I had been given something irreplaceable and rare.
"Today Was a Fairytale," Swift had sung. And listening to my daughter, I knew that she was right.