Rosario Dawson introducing Taylor Swift’s performance of “Innocent” at the MTV VMAs, September 12, 2010. (Youtube)
(Chris Pine followed up with: “Tonight she continues that same tradition with a song she wrote early this year, for her upcoming album, Speak Now.”)
What Dawson says here is true, but I think it dangerously changes how we understand Swift’s music, and the way it works. Swift’s songs are certainly diaristic (in style), and they’re frequently inspired by real events, though, an awful lot of artists write songs that are, to some extent, inspired by real events, and they’re not treated as gospel retellings the way Swift’s are. (For instance, “We Walk,” by R.E.M., has a chorus inspired by an ex-housemate of Michael Stipe, who had a habit of narrating her journeys through their home, but we don’t consider this a Song About Michael Stipe’s Life In A Share House.) And also, Swift encourages us to understand her songs as being based on real events, either because they often are, or because contemporary understandings of pop music tend to see young women as having less agency and she has to use her songwriting as an indicator that she’s not a dupe or a pawn. (It’s probably both.)
So knowing that “Forever and Always” was about Joe Jonas, or that “Hey Stephen” is about a real Stephen and that “Teardrops On My Guitar” is about a real Drew helps Swift insist that she should not be dismissed just because she’s young and a woman and wears a pretty dress on stage. And, continuing this trend, Speak Now is to be an album in which, “Each song is a different confession to a person.” In Swift’s words: “In the past two years, I’ve experienced a lot of things that I’ve been dying to write about. A lot of things I wanted to say in the moment that I didn’t.”
So what’s the problem with considering these songs to be “stories right out of the pages of her diary”?
The problem is that it de-emphasizes the fact that regardless of the real events that may have contributed to their creation, these songs are stylized representations. This is an inherent quality of pop music; it’s better at speaking figuratively and hinting at feelings than delivering unvarnished reportage. This is to its benefit; it means that though a song like “Hey Stephen” gains an edge of postmodern complexity by breaking the fourth wall with the lyric, “Those other girls … would they write a song for you?” but it also is stylized enough that it can be about any boy on whom a listener might have a crush, even non-existent boys, and even for us listeners who don’t have crushes on boys.
And Swift encourages this. Her songs are frequently cinematic in that they present a series of scenes rather than follow the style of the ballad, which tends to narrate events according to the oral tradition. Her lyrics are more like the storyboard for a film than they are words on a page. At times she makes this obvious by actually singing editing instructions: “Flash forward and we’re taking on the world together” in “Mine,” for instance, “I close my eyes and the flashback starts” in “Love Story,” or “Music starts playing like the end of a sad movie” in “Breathe.” The result is that each of her songs sounds like a self-contained, fictionalized vignette, wholly confined to its own world. In real life, Joe Jonas could meet up with Stephen, but Swift’s music compartmentalizes them as characters with no greater chance of meeting one another than Tony Soprano has of meeting Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
As I mentioned yesterday, via an Ian Cohen quote, the VMAs are an event wholly because of MTV’s insistence that they should be an event. And since Kanye’s stage crashing at the 2009 VMAs became a part of broader pop consciousness, there was no way the 2010 VMAs could allow itself to ignore it. The show’s raison d’etre is to be an event, and when it succeeds in that endeavor, it must remind us of that success so that we understand it is an event. So Kanye and Taylor both showed up with their contributions to the wholly contrived next chapter in the saga. Kanye’s was more successful because he already has a reputation as an egotist, so his song about wearing the black hat had the benefit of being vague. Swift, however, had a ludicrously portentous introduction that functioned as a “Previously at the VMAs…” recap, and her presentation was serious and dramatic. It didn’t really work because a song about making mistakes and overcoming them might be serious and dramatic, but a song about something that happened at an award show cannot be. (When Kanye raps about his behavior at award shows, he scolds himself for treating them as something serious.)
But “Innocent,” although it’s About Kanye, doesn’t really have much to do with Kanye or award shows. Apart from the line “Thirty-two and still growing up now,” it doesn’t mention him. (And that line is awkward; it is far more tolerable for an 18 year old to empathize with being 15 than it is for her to speak knowingly about being in one’s early thirties.)
If this were just another Taylor Swift song, that would be OK. It could disassociate itself from real life the way “Hey Stephen” does, and become a song about believing the best about someone. In time it probably will. It has a pretty tune and some nice lines about tightropes and still-bright streams of light. But we all know the story of Kanye West and Taylor Swift, and while the song is so tightly tethered to an event made for gifs and tweets, it can’t effectively function as a song.
Sure, Swift must have known what she was getting into by writing this song and unveiling it at the VMAs. As a promotion of her forthcoming album, it was shrewd, whether she intended it to be or not. But, really, by playing at the VMAs, which, by their very nature, would consider her performance a reaction to last year’s show, there was no real way she could provide a great performance.
She was in a bind; she’s a big star with a new album, so she needed to be at the show. The show exists to treat itself as a big deal, so she had to comment on the big deal that happened at last year’s show. And there was no way to comment on that big deal that wouldn’t seem a touch naff. I just hope that this will allow the whole silly thing to be put to rest, so that we can go on relating to Swift and West in the most enjoyable way possible: by listening to their records.