It feels like a waste of words to summarise the latest episode of Keeping Up With Kanye vs Taylor – a legendary and fluctuating feud dating back to the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards – because if you’re reading this, you already know what went down. But, for the sake of posterity, and to help illustrate some points later on, I’ll summarise recent events.
Back in February, a track from Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo caused more controversy than the rest of the record. The song “Famous” opened with the line, “For all my Southside niggas that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous”. This was a lyric, claimed Kanye, that Taylor had signed off on in an hour long courtesy phone call in which he asked for her approval.
In response to the ensuing and perhaps understandable uproar, Taylor Swift released a statement via her publicist saying she had not approved the song, she had not even heard it, and had instead been approached to release it on her Twitter page, which she declined to do. Furthermore, said Taylor’s rep, she actually cautioned Kanye about releasing such a misogynistic track. She then went on to make a thinly veiled jab at him in her Grammy Awards speech, after becoming the first female artist to win ‘Album Of The Year’ twice, stating: “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”
But Kanye, and those around him – including his wife Kim Kardashian West, The Breakfast Club radio DJ and human soap-box Charlamagne Tha God, and even Ken Erlich, the executive producer of the Grammy Awards – all stated at one point or another that Taylor had not just approved the track, she had helped to rewrite it, and what’s more, they had videotape of the call to prove it. If what they were saying was true, one could imagine the absolute fury involved: Here was Taylor Swift, who had for years very successfully used Kanye as a foil to help her play the underdog, reneging on a hard-won truce to do the same shit all over again.
After simmering down, the story bubbled over again when Kim took to GQ to reiterate that the tape existed, that Taylor had approved the track, had agreed to be in on the “joke”, and then lied about it publicly. Taylor’s response, again via her rep, was to condescendingly dismiss Kim as only knowing what Kanye told her, claiming that Taylor “cannot understand why Kanye West, and now Kim Kardashian, will not leave her alone.”
Now to the events of Sunday night, where, in a perfectly orchestrated takedown, Kim waited for an episode of Keeping With The Kardashians to air before leaking the footage of the phonecall via her Snapchat. Twitter erupted, #KimExposedTaylorParty trended, and Taylor was trapped in what seemed to be a complex and rotten lie. On World Snake Day, no less. What a finale. It was the season ending blockbuster that music fans had been awaiting.
Taylor was quick, almost too quick, to post a statement to her Instagram page, writing: “That moment when Kanye West secretly records your phonecall, then Kim posts it on the Internet.” (Sidebar: who is still using the “that moment” meme in 2016?) Doubling down on her assertion that she never heard the song – specifically the lyric “I made that bitch famous” – she accused Kim of character assassination and asked to be excluded from the narrative that she had never asked to be part of.
The use of the word “bitch” in the lyrics to “Famous” has been the most contentious point, especially in light of the new video evidence. And it’s worth noting that it’s a word that has often plagued Kanye, dating back to 2012 when he openly debated its use in hip-hop in a long Twitter post, asking: “Is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” Before concluding that perhaps the word was now neither positive nor negative. Amid criticisms when TLOP dropped in February this year, he decided to defend it again, writing on Twitter: “Bitch is an endearing term in hip hop like the word Nigga.”
Nobody can begrudge Taylor Swift for being pissed off that she was called a “bitch”, endearingly or not. Although after watching the video evidence, it’s a little hard to countenance that “bitch” would be where Taylor draws the line, after signing off on the line that they might have sex – but this just layers assumptions upon assumptions. What we can unpack following Kim K’s big reveal, is the way in which Taylor’s team continually denied any claims that she had been approached for approval on “Famous” in any way.
In the wake of Kim’s Snapchat exposè, thousands of Twitter folk and assorted #squad members jumped to Taylor’s defence. “Isn’t there better things to use our voices for?” lamented Selena Gomez. “Sure, what about black lives matter?” asked a fan. “So if I tweet a hashtag I save lives? I could give two fucks about sides” Selena responded in a now deleted tweet.
“Why are we so desperate to tear down successful women?” asked a very popular piece on The Guardian, remarking that any criticism of Swift simply boiled down to “themes as old as the Bible: suspicion of successful women, resentment of unapologetic women, a need for women to know their place.” But the reductionist notion that this is all about Taylor being a woman – rather than about her being manipulative or caught in a lie – simply underpins the lazy and prejudice ‘victim and aggressor’ narrative that has always been the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Kanye West and Taylor Swift story.
Run it back to 2009, and the moment that started it all – when the VMAs didn’t award Beyonce with ‘Best Pop Video’ for the best choreography this side of “Smooth Criminal”, and instead gave it to Taylor Swift for the straight-to-video teen movie piece of humdrum that was “You Belong With Me”. Black excellence thwarted by white mediocrity again, as Kanye would state later on: if “you see Beyonce dancing in heels and shit” and still don’t give her that award, people just aren’t gonna bother. (We’re now living in a world where Meghan Trainor has a Grammy, so you can draw your own conclusions as to whether the record industry collectively decided to lower the bar that night.)
Whatever the case, Kanye – in flagrant black Kanye mode – standing on stage that night, effusive, mic in hand, while a meek, blonde, whiter than white Taylor Swift dithered in the background, is an image that has embedded itself at the core of both of their careers for the best part of a decade. The chronicle of Taylor, the innocent white girl, and Kanye, the bullying black demon.
Kim’s reveal doesn’t so much weld Taylor to the narrative as liberate Kanye from the anti-ness that she has launched her career off the back of. When it suited, Taylor was a victim of Kanye. When that no longer suited, she endeavored to ingratiate herself with him – she invited him to dinner, she publicly thanked him for a gift of a floral arrangement, she stood side by side with his wife as he performed at the BRIT Awards – and when he received a Vanguard at the same awards show that started the drama, it wasn’t one of his many friends or peers that handed it to him, it was Taylor Swift. This shifting narrative is one that Taylor has actively participated in, perpetuated and leveraged to her personal advantage. So that’s perhaps why retconning herself as an unwilling passenger in light of the “Famous” lyrics doesn’t wash in an Internet age of eternal memory.
In the statement Taylor released after her phone call with Kanye was leaked, she stated that she’d been the victim of “unwanted narratives” and “character assassination”. Yet when it comes to those two terms, no one is more of a pro than Taylor herself. In fact, “character assassination” and “narratives” have essentially been laid at the foundation of her entire career. Take, for example, Joe Jonas – who she went on The Ellen Show to eviscerate for breaking up with her in a 27-second phone call (“Phonecalls can only last as long as the other person is willing to talk.” – Joe Jonas) and then his next girlfriend, Camilla Belle who was the subject of Taylor’s blisteringly slut-shaming song “Better Than Revenge”. From John Mayer, who was “humiliated” by her track “Dear John”, to Harry Styles, who was the subject of digs beginning with the Grammys performance of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (where she imitated Styles) through to the conspicuously named track “Style”, culminating in the ultimate mean girl takedown of Katy Perry in the song “Bad Blood”, Swift has always inserted other artists into her narrative without their consent.
When the shoe went to the other foot, Kanye called Taylor as “a good person and a friend” to ask for her blessing regarding the lyrics on “Famous”. Taylor appeared to give her approval, then turned her back on Kanye and her word, shifting the narrative back to her advantage. For seven years, she has relied on the fact that, historically, a white woman will always be taken at her word over a black man. You could say she was relying on it to ride her out on this “Famous” controversy, and, until Kim put the receipts on the table, it was working. Don’t get me wrong, there is no glee derived from tearing down women, but there is vindication in seeing someone – who has been disingenuous and hypocritical at best, manipulative at worst – being played at their own game.