Taylor Swift’s “Innocent”: Not about Kanye
Thanksgiving Break 2017. On a chilly overcast Wednesday afternoon, I’m chilling on the couch, laughing at the ridiculously hilarious shit that Bill Walton monologues while totally oblivious to the collegiate basketball occurring in front of his eyes. Being entertained by Bill Walton’s antics during the Maui college basketball tournament is a yearly tradition of mine every Thanksgiving break. While relaxing to some basketball, I anticipate the return of the last Bailey family member. I arrived home from school after my junior year on Sunday afternoon, but this was the first year that I arrived home from college without the presence of my sister Lauren. She started her freshman year of college in August; and unfortunately, she did not receive the luxury of a full week of Thanksgiving break.
Suddenly, I hear the crack of the first step of two-step stairs before the door. A second and a half later, the ADT system lets me know that someone has graced my presence. Before I can turn around from the living room couch and greet my baby sister, my Mom has already grabbed her full to the brink laundry basket to stuff her entire college wardrobe down the washer’s mouth. I rise from my comfortable position and walk toward the kitchen and the garage door. Luckily, there was a commercial break, so I was not going to miss any Bill Walton commentary.
“Hey, how’s it going? Glad you are home.” (This sounds so robotic, but I don’t remember what I’d actually after not seeing her for awhile.)
Our conversion continues for a few minutes. Mainly catching up. I have not talked to Lauren for a little while. There are some important events that have happened recently that we need to discuss.
“Alright, have you listened to it? What are your thoughts?”
“Oh yeah! I’ve some thoughts about the new album.”
Of course, we were referring to Taylor Swift’s new album reputation that had been released not long ago. Lauren and I bond over many different aspects of life. Music-wise, Taylor is the one artist we both really love. She has been a Swiftie since Drew made Taylor cry on her guitar way back in 2006. Of course, I missed the initial stop on the Taylor train. The first stop on that train was mainly females as Taylor’s music related more to them (but there would be plenty more stops on the Taylor train in the future). Since I was a guy, it really was not cool to like Taylor’s music especially being a guy in the middle school years. You had to listen to Lil Wayne or Kanye West to be a real bro. Honestly though, I did not really care for Taylor’s music when her first 3 albums came out. I began dabbling in Red. Lauren really loved that album and played it all of the time. In fact, she even attended the Red concert Tour when Taylor played at the arena formerly known as Conseco Fieldhouse with a FREE ticket from one of her friends. Looking back now, I am so jealous when Lauren reminisces about hearing “All Too Well” during that Taylor era. I began to like Taylor’s music as she began her transition into pop music on Red. Songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” played consistently, but I actually enjoyed them because they were both BOPS.
1989 officially certified my Swiftie status. The whole album is one continuous BANGER. I’ve been a proud Swiftie ever since. Even though I lagged on the Taylor Train, I have extensively streamed her first three albums along with the rest of her catalog. As I have matured and especially my emotional intelligence has matured, I can really connect to all of Taylor’s albums now.
Alright, I can get into a rabbit hole when I start discussing Taylor Swift. I will definitely write additional posts about Taylor and her music. But, tonight, I will focus on a certain connection between two of her songs.
The first song is a song that most people believe is about one man: Kanye West. That song is “Innocent” off of Taylor’s 3rd album Speak Now. The Kanye narrative really ruins the greatness of “Innocent.” Taylor wrote this song less than a year after the disastrous 2009 VMA Awards, later performed the song at the VMAs the next year, and included the lyric “32 and still growing up now (Kanye was 32 years old at that time). The song was about Kanye.
Around a year ago, Lauren and I were both at home (like the rest of the world). We had many late night talks before hitting the hay including a lot of Taylor talk. One night, I brought up the song “Innocent”. I had grown to love the song musically even though lyrically I could not disassociate the song with the Kanye incident. I asked Lauren her thoughts about the song and quickly realized that she was totally unaware of the Kanye incident (hmm…interesting).
“I’ve always thought Taylor is singing to her future self in her early 30s. She is forgiving herself for her future mistakes.”
…I had not really considered that translation of the song’s lyrics. “Taylor is writing to her future self.” I always assumed that Kanye was the sole inspiration of the song, which (very likely) could be true. This interpretation of the song did not hit me right away while listening to “Innocent”. It was not until folklore came out that summer and after multiple listens to the song “mirrorball” did Lauren’s interpretation of “Innocent” really enlightened my understanding.
“mirrorball” is the 6th track off of Taylor’s Grammy-winning folklore album. It’s definitely not a song that immediately stood out during the first listen. Songs like “betty”, “the 1”, and “august” were immediate favorites of mine after the first listen. Throughout the last year and many many folklore run-throughs, “mirrorball” morphed into my absolute favorite and a consistent top ten spot (my top ten changes weekly) on all-time Taylor songs.
The lyrics on “mirrorball” are so beautifully written and sung, yet convey foundational truths in the flaws of human nature. Everyone wants the spotlight at some point or time in their life. We want people to see us. We want people to laugh at our humor. We want people to comfort us when we are hurting. We want to fit in. We are all the personified mirrorball in some way. We are all beautiful and have incredible qualities and talents, but we TRY too hard to mold ourselves for others. Everyone is susceptible, especially Taylor.
Upon hearing the bridge to “mirrorball”, the little light bulb in my noggin powered on. I’ll include the bridge lyrics below:
“And they called off the circus
Burned the disco down
When they sent home the horses
And the rodeo clowns
I’m still on that tightrope
I’m still trying everything to get you laughing at me
I’m still a believer but I don’t know why
I’ve never been a natural
All I do is try, try, try
I’m still on that trapeze
I’m still trying everything
To keep you looking at me”
Taylor is known for her incredible bridges and “mirrorball” is no different. I underlined the phrase “I’m still on that tightrope” for two reasons. First, the entire idea of the song can be summed up in that single 5 and half word (contractions = 1.5 words) phrase. “I’m still on that tightrope.” I feel that. I catch myself doing things where I am just hoping someone is watching. I am doing something that is definitely not the real me. At any point in time, that artificial me will eventually crash and burn. The artificial me can keep a balance for a while on the imaginary (but very much real) tightrope, but I’ll eventually fall off. I know I’ve struggled with showing off the artificial me around others, but it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one that struggles with the artificial versions of themselves.
I know I am writing very vaguely about the struggle with my artificial self, but it is really difficult to explain to someone else. Everyone who struggles with this has unique reasons why they struggle, and explaining it will likely not make any sense to someone else. The real struggle is in the individual person’s own head. It’s better to let others know you are struggling rather than try to explain the reasonings why. Support is a better antidote than an explanation.
Back to the song lyrics. I also underlined “I’m still on that tightrope” because it connects back to the song “Innocent” and my original argument. I have not discussed the lyrics to “Innocent” yet, but Taylor uses the same analogy as “mirrorball”. Here is the opening stanza to “Innocent” followed by the closing couplet:
I guess you really did it this time
Left yourself in your warpath
Lost your balance on a tightrope
Lost your mind tryin’ to get it back…
….Lost your balance on a tightrope, oh
It’s never too late to get it back
All I could do was smile after hearing “Innocent” in a post-”mirrorball” world. Everything that the wise Lauren had spoken finally clicked, and I’m totally convinced that this song is not necessarily about Kanye, but about Taylor herself. Judging by her songwriting and a quick Google search, Taylor clearly scored a 4 (The Individualist) on the Enneagram test. Taylor is extremely self-reflective and honest with herself. However, she has always struggled with her own self-image, which is really showcased in the Miss Americana documentary on Netflix. All of these themes related to her 4 Enneagram are distinctly visible in her music as all of her music has been very personal.
She has always “been on that tightrope” throughout her life up to the point of writing Speak Now in 2009/2010. Her career was moving at sonic speed, and she realized that she was going to keep struggling with her own self-image in the future. Since she is so self-reflective, she can be really hard on her own mistakes. She needed to write something that she could go back to in the future to remind herself to give herself grace and forgiveness. It’s like an exercise my class would do in elementary school. We would write a letter to our future selves with whatever advice we may have had at that time. One of the letters I wrote revolved around my future career as a big-shot roller coaster designer and engineer (my life did not quite turn out that way). Taylor was slightly older and more mature than me, and she could see a more accurate version of her future. She did not know details of this future. It was kind of vague, but she knew that she would find herself on that tightrope again. The lyrics to “Innocent” are pretty vague except for the reference to age 32 (the age of Kanye West (and John Mayer too) at the time). However, returning to “mirrorball”, Taylor was right around that age 32 (age 30) when she wrote that song. Taylor is so aware of her own lyrics and the Taylorverse that she was likely planning to return to this “tightrope” idea from “Innocent” at age 32. However, her struggles with self-image likely surfaced during the pandemic and Miss Americana documentary. She had a lot of time for song writing ideas and creativity during the pandemic that she returned to this “tightrope” idea a few years early.
I’m really diving into this theory and reaching, but after hearing “mirrorball”, I can only hear Lauren’s interpretation of “Innocent”. That’s the beauty of Taylor’s writing and music. It all depends on how you interpret the lyrics. Taylor does have a history of outing people in her songs especially if you look into the code on the liner notes of her physical albums. The liner note from “Innocent” damages my argument: “Life is full of little interruptions.” This sounds like a reference to Kanye’s interruption at the 2009 VMA’s. However, this is a phrase of wisdom that applies to any dealing with issues with self-image. There are always challenges that we encounter that act as obstacles to our self-image. They can be extremely dangerous and damaging to someone struggling with self-image because they can interrupt daily life and cause us to “get lost in our own head”. These interruptions detract us from being our authentic selves and cause us to reconstruct an artificial image of ourselves that we want everyone to see. This is the point that Taylor really fixates on especially in “mirrorball” and “Innocent” as well. It’s a reminder to me to recall my childhood days when I lived carefree without the constant need to showcase my self-image to others. That innocence is still within me and still within everyone. Accepting the authentic versions of ourselves, faults and all, is the key to return to the innocence.