Taylor Swift’s VMA Performance: Experts Analyze ‘Innocent’

'Sometimes forgiveness is the sweetest revenge,' one expert says.

Revenge is a dish best served cold — unless you’re country darling [artist id="2389485"]Taylor Swift[/artist], in which case you warm that dish up in the microwave and slather some honey on it before you fling it into the world.

We’ve spoken to fans and Swift’s fellow Video Music Awards attendees to gauge their reactions to her new song, “Innocent,” which she debuted at the big show Sunday night. Now, we turn to some music-industry experts to get a sense of whether Swift succeeded in exacting sweet revenge on Kanye West for last year’s VMA incident .

Veteran country-music journalist and CMT editorial director Chet Flippo said he was not at all surprised by the way Taylor handled herself at the show. “Everyone was waiting to see how she would do it, and that’s what she does: She writes songs based on what’s going on in her life,” Flippo said of the ballad, which mixed forgiveness and pathos with a touch of pity. “It’s not unique. Some of the best country music writers do that, but typically those songs are self-directed and not about someone else.”

Flippo said Swift’s ability to address her feelings about a real person in an artful way puts her in the tradition of such country legends as Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams — who also occasionally wrote openly about others — while placing her in the minority of most contemporary country songwriters. “There aren’t many writers today who do that, because there’s so much co-writing in Nashville done with old-timers, and they tend to deal with generalities,” he said. “Especially on songs that are written to be country hits, which tend to be uptempo and happy.”

Though the tune fell flat with some critics, Flippo said it resonated with Swift’s audience, and with him. “For me, the song works,” he said. “Three’s a section where it could be interpreted to be about herself on Grammy night when she had pitch problems , but obviously most of it is directed at Kanye, and I think it worked because a lot of her fans didn’t like her being attacked, and they wanted to see something done about it. It’s her effective way of addressing it. Sometimes forgiveness is the sweetest revenge, and it’s what she achieved.”

Jeff Rabhan, chair of recorded music and an arts professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, agreed with Flippo that Swift achieved sweet revenge in the song but said she also did something else that was important for her. ” I think if you’re Taylor or if you were watching, where she shines is onstage, and it was wise of her to shape her response to this situation musically,” said Rabhan, a 20-year veteran of the music business who has worked with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Lil’ Kim, Linkin Park and Jennifer Lopez. “It showed tremendous maturity to use that as a forum, rather than doing an interview or going online, rather than giving that quick reaction.”

He also liked how she delivered the comeback in an artistic, entertaining way that kept the message positive and professional, which he said was a very smart move. “That’s the safest, smartest position and the best position she should take,” he said.

And, most importantly of all, by waiting to comment and doing it in song one year to the day of the incident, and on a night when West would also be performing, Swift and her team shrewdly capitalized on the still-simmering hype about the 2009 bum-rush. “The comparison that comes to mind is the Dixie Chicks,” Rabhan said of the country trio, who waited almost three years to release “Not Ready to Make Nice,” a response song to the venom they faced after singer Natalie Maines made critical comments about then-president George W. Bush.

“It felt like, ‘We’ve all moved on except for you,’ ” he said of the reaction to the Chicks’ biting song. “I don’t think people have moved past this one, and they were waiting for a response, and it was very effective.” As for the “Innocent” lyrics , Rabhan said they were interesting in that they put the blame squarely on West for setting himself up for ridicule (“I guess you really did it this time/ Left yourself in your war path/ Lost your balance on a tightrope/ Lost your mind trying to get it back”).

“She talks about how when you’re a kid, things are easier, because your parents can help you out, but when you’re an adult, you have no one else to blame but yourself and there are repercussions,” he said of lines referring to “lunch box days” and a pointed lyric about being “32 and still growing up now.”

The forgiveness, he noted, comes in the line in which she sang, “Who you are is not what you did/ You’re still an innocent,” which he said “is about how we all have our moments.” From a musical standpoint, Rabhan said the song was just OK, but that wasn’t really the point.

“It accomplished everything it needed to,” he said. “She didn’t need a hit, she needed to get a message across, and she did.”

What did you think of Taylor’s new song? Let us know in the comments!

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