How 2023 Became the Year of the Surprise Song
Artists like Taylor Swift, 5 Seconds of Summer and Fall Out Boy have spun simple changes to their setlists into unpredictable segments, finding new ways to make each show unique for fans in attendance or watching from home.Photo by TAS2023 via Getty Images Music Features Taylor Swift
Partway through the shows on their recent tour, 5 Seconds of Summer played a video. In it, drummer Ashton Irwin starts by saying, “Look, so we know a lot of you come to our shows wanting to hear your favorite song.”
“And a lot of the time, we don’t play that song,” bassist Calum Hood continues.
“So tonight, we’re gonna change that,” adds guitarist Michael Clifford.
“But we’re gonna leave it all up to chance,” vocalist Luke Hemmings says.
And then, the real-life members of 5 Seconds of Summer would, literally, roll out a giant inflatable red die, with a different song name on each side. They would toss it out into the crowd and start a timer. The crowd had to get the die back on the stage before the timer ran out, and the group would then play the song it landed on. The stakes were high: If the die did not make it back to the stage in time, the band would choose. The six songs—“English Love Affair,” “Heartache On The Big Screen,” “Heartbreak Girl,” “If You Don’t Know,” “Voodoo Doll” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger”—were all bonus tracks, B-sides or early release rarities. The die had the potential to grant a lot of fans the chance to hear a song they might otherwise not get to see the band perform live. It added a level of interactivity and unpredictability to the show—and served to alleviate some of the possible setlist disappointment.
Choosing a setlist is a difficult balancing act, and it’s impossible to please everyone—especially the longer an artist’s discography grows. Swapping out songs and making changes to the setlist is a fact of touring. But this year, artists like 5 Seconds of Summer found a way to make it more exciting, transforming a small segment of the set into a unique moment—and fans online were able to join in the fun, too.
Perhaps the best-known example of this phenomenon has been Taylor Swift’s surprise songs on her ongoing Eras Tour. The show is organized so that each portion of her set is dedicated to a specific album, going through all of her albums (apart from her self-titled debut) non-chronologically. Prior to this tour, she hadn’t toured four of her records, as the planned shows for the Lover cycle were postponed and then canceled because of the pandemic and, since then, she has released three additional albums of brand new material. This structure does give the show some predictability, since she’s going to play the hits and singles from each record—and, with so many albums, that leaves little room for non-single tracks, vault tracks or songs that didn’t appear on any of the nine albums she’s been playing. But these were all fair game for the acoustic set.
Each date, Swift typically played two acoustic surprise songs: one on guitar and one on piano. “I wanted to assign the acoustic set as a place where I would challenge myself to play songs that I don’t normally play live or songs that I haven’t played live in a long time or songs that I haven’t played live in an acoustic way,” Swift said onstage. “So it’s been equally exhilarating and terrifying because it’s different… two every single night.” (The concept isn’t entirely new for Swift: In the past, she performed one acoustic surprise song during each stop on her Reputation Stadium Tour.)
Swift described the selection of surprise songs as a “very imprecise science.” Initially, she said she wasn’t going to repeat any songs she had previously played during the acoustic set but had since added some exceptions: She would repeat a song if she made a mistake or if it was off of Midnights, and she will be repeating songs when she continues the tour next year. Sometimes the songs involved guests, notably, folklore and evermore collaborator Aaron Dessner from The National, and she and support act Gracie Abrams performed Abrams’ “I miss you, I’m sorry,” between the surprise songs during the Era Tour’s July 1st stop in Cincinnati.
Fans (and publications) have been tracking which songs have been played and which ones haven’t—and it helped to see which songs were still up for grabs for the 2023 shows. Fans watched livestreams on TikTok and stayed up late to find out what the surprise songs were. Since Swift wasn’t repeating surprise songs this year, the performances of those songs were more exclusive—another reason for fans to tune into live streams, even if they were also attending in person.
I can’t wait for the Eras Tour to switch to EST so I can find out the surprise songs at a reasonable time
— hannah said dont go (@hantalkstaylor) March 25, 2023
Like Taylor Swift, Fall Out Boy also dedicated a specific part of their set to surprise songs—with a twist. Their shows on So Much for (Tour) Dust feature multiple set changes and segments, including a giant dog head and a disappearing act, but the portion that drew fan attention was when Fall Out Boy projected a magic 8-Ball onto the top of the stage. Bassist Pete Wentz would ask the ball questions, including, “Should we just call it a night right now?,” “Should we play one off a record called Folie à Deux?” and “Should we play one we’ve never played before?” and the 8-Ball would reply with responses like “concentrate and ask again,” “my reply is no” and “without a doubt.” These questions would lead up to a surprise song or two.
“The magic 8-Ball cannot be bartered with, it cannot be intimidated, most importantly, it never lies,” Wentz said onstage. “So the question would be, do we really lie the fate of the set in this children’s toy from the ‘80’s? Or is this just some dumb fucking gag?” If it was a gag, fans were eagerly watching.
There are spreadsheets documenting the song changes across Fall Out Boy’s recent tour legs, since this wasn’t the only part of the setlist up for readjustment. Fall Out Boy regularly switched out songs elsewhere in the set, particularly during a piano medley. “Once the song gets out from the magic 8 ball, then it can get played anywhere so… some of those songs will get repeated into the sets,” Wentz said in an interview. The band even made their own magic 8-Ball and featured it on merch.
having followed the fall out boy magic 8 ball song religiously since their tour started, i think i finally know what it feels like to care about a sports team
— bears in trees are shining ✨ (@bearsintrees) July 27, 2023
The idea of a surprise song makes it more likely a fan will get to hear their favorite track or even get to see a live debut. As well as adding something unique and new to each show, it serves as a way to give diehard fans something they’ll remember. It’s a treasure trove for longtime, devoted listeners. Thanks to social media and setlist.fm, fans often know the setlists ahead of time and can easily look up which songs were played at any tour date. That, along with fans often watching live streams of shows, has removed some of the mystery surrounding live shows, and these surprise songs are a way of bringing it back. And it’s proven to be something the fans who aren’t able to attend the shows can participate in.
There are fan-made Spotify playlists for the Eras Tour surprise songs and the magic 8-Ball songs, and concertgoers post their videos to social media. It’s a communal experience for fans, and organizing a livestream or tracking the songs serves as a way for fans to help other fans. This is an extension of the form of community created at shows, as Swifties famously made and exchanged friendship bracelets at tour dates. The online aspect allows fans who can’t make it to join in, which is valuable as tickets are becoming more inaccessible, with ticket prices increasing and demand making it harder to secure tickets. That’s also all the more reason for artists to make each show stand out with some unexpected twists.
It’ll be interesting to see if and how other artists innovate their setlists, and whether they’ll offer their own spin on surprise songs. For example, The Wonder Years will be rolling out a wheel for their upcoming New Year’s Eve show in Philadelphia. “We decided to introduce one other fun wrinkle to the night: The Wheel of Rarities™️,” the band said in an Instagram post. “We’re gonna be playing the hits but every few songs, we’re gonna spin the wheel and play whatever rare TWY song it dictates.” Magic 8-Balls, wheels, dice—there’s no telling what will wreak havoc on the setlist next, and what songs fans will see when they wake up and scroll through social media the following morning, if they haven’t already stayed up late to find out.