What started as a holiday special at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City has become a phenomenon that may last through the spring.
The “Taylor Swift Laser Show” at the LSC’s Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium couples the singer-songwriter’s chart-toppers with an intergalactic visual feast, including laser animation and floating lyrics against a night sky backdrop. It plays Saturdays and Sundays at 4:20 p.m. through the end of February but could be extended to March.
“I knew the show was a hit when we had hundreds of people come out on Christmas Eve,” says planetarium director Michael Shanahan. “Traditionally, that has been a day when people don’t go out much. During the holiday break, we added shows and every one of them was sold out.
“Part of it is Taylor Swift’s popularity. Her music appeals to all ages. Kids want to hear Taylor Swift and parents have these memories of going to laser shows when they were young. It is also wonderful and shocking in a good way to see a real renaissance in laser shows overall that I would not have anticipated 10 years ago.”
Shanahan says Swift’s success at LSC reflects the singer-songwriter’s mass appeal, along with a growing appreciation of laser shows in general. Technological enhancements enable planetariums to create modern spectacles that go far beyond bubbly colors above a la laser Pink Floyd from the 1980s. Although laser shows are typically associated with classic rock, planetariums like LSC’s are spotlighting a range of music from country to hip-hop to EDM.
Boasting one of the largest planetariums in the world, the LSC has created laser tributes to Bad Bunny, Prince and My Chemical Romance. Shanahan says he is not giving up on the monsters of rock but wants to experiment with contemporary artists. Although Swift may not seem to be an obvious candidate for a psychedelic light show, Shanahan says the planetarium is the perfect place to hear the singer’s tales of dubious men and crushing heartache.
“Swift’s music has a storytelling nature and vivid imagery,” says Shananan. “It was a natural fit to be able to tell certain elements of the story using lasers.”
The LSC Swift show was announced in November, the same month the singer’s fans crashed Ticketmaster, trying to get tickets for upcoming tour — which includes three May shows at MetLife Stadium, just a few marshy miles away from the planetarium. For people who didn’t score tickets to see Swift live, the laser show offers a concert vibe sans the stratospheric ticket prices. Admission is $8.
“It’s an alternative Swift experience that is special and unique,” says Shanahan. “We’re bringing back that experience of being together as a crowd and bonding through the music of an artist. This is a way to experience an artist’s music that is not as expensive as going to a concert but is elevated above just watching a video on your computer screen. It is a way to have a deeper, more intense experience with an artist whose music you love.”
Shanahan acknowledges that people have an array of options for entertainment at home, including video games and streaming services. But these can be solitary activities that don’t hold a candle to the communal experience of seeing a concert, watching a laser show or going to the movies. He says the laser show will help people discover new things in Swift’s music.
“It’s a really immersive event,” says Shanahan. “You’re in a giant dome with lasers combined with video effects shooting across the ceiling and a high-quality 30,000-watt sound system. This brings out different details in the music. They were always there, but you may not have noticed that line in a song until you saw it brought to life in the laser show.”
The laser Swift setlist includes exuberant faves like “Shake it Off” and moodier songs like “You’re on Your Own, Kid” from her 2022 album, Midnights. The show was created by planetarium associate Xaq Rzetelny.
“It’s tempting to just pick the most popular songs, but some songs don’t necessarily lend themselves to the energy or flow of a laser show,” says Rzetelny, who also created a laser showcase for Bad Bunny. “I’ll listen to the first 30 seconds of a song and think about what it feels like. If it’s a calm instrumental section, maybe I want a slowly undulating abstract graphic. If it’s big and dramatic and has a prominent guitar, maybe I want to show aggressive electricity, with a swinging guitar in front.”
His proudest Swift visual effect occurs during “You’re on Your Own, Kid.”
“Throughout the song, I keep returning to the graphic of a kid fading into the background as if she’s overlooked, forgotten,” says Rzetelny. “Then at the end of the song, for the finale, the same kid appears again but this time morphs into an abstract graphic, conveying the feeling of the end of the song.”
Shanahan’s favorite moment occurs during the finale song, “Shake It Off.”
“It’s the closing song in the show and the lyrics of that song are so famous,” he says. “When we put the ‘haters gonna hate’ images on the dome, the whole audience erupts in applause.”
Next month, LSC may or may not host a special laser Pink Floyd show to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album, The Dark Side of the Moon.
“The band announced on their website that there is gonna be this planetarium show,” says Shanahan. “They said fans should contact their local planetarium. But no one had told us about it so we were getting all these phone calls.”
Shanahan jokes that the LSC has a long-running rivalry with the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He hopes that Pink Floyd will choose Jersey over the Big Apple but some fans apparently would prefer a Manhattan show.
Shanahan read a tweet that said, “Dear American Museum of Natural History, please run this Pink Floyd show when it comes out. I don’t wanna have to schlep over to New Jersey.”
For information, tickets and updates, visit lsc.org.
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