There’s a commonly held assumption, a reasonable one, that the well-oiled PR machines that pass as American Royalty have their publicity figured out. Celebrities will make mistakes in public, sure, but with a good team on hand, the chances are that the greatest blunders will be blunted. And when it comes to carefully-orchestrated releases, like earth-shatteringly huge albums, public relations nightmares will be worked out ahead of time.
But the festering enmity between Kanye West and Taylor Swift over the lyrics to “Famous” challenges this assumption. And GQ’s excellent profile on Kim Kardashian West, published this morning, dives into it with an almost disturbing amount of detail.
A refresher: when Kanye West released The Life of Pablo—possibly the most talked about album of the decade so far—one of the first things that jumped out was that line in “Famous” in which he took what, at best, seemed like a low shot at Taylor Swift. “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” he drawled. “Why? I made that bitch famous.” Pablo was an album full of contradiction; that’s what made it interesting and that’s why receiving such a sharp dose of nastiness while the glory of “Ultralight Beam” sunk in made some sense. But there was an understandable backlash against the line.
Kanye responded on Twitter—because where else?—by first saying that “I did not diss Taylor Swift and I’ve never dissed her…” He then launched into a three-point defense of the line. “First thing is I’m an artist and as an artist I will express how I feel with no censorship,” “2nd thing I asked my wife for her blessings and she was cool with it.” Then, importantly, he said that he “called Taylor and had a hour long convo with her about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings.”
3rd thing I called Taylor and had a hour long convo with her about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 12, 2016
Which seemed, frankly, like some bullshit. She released a statement at the time saying that she never approved the track or the line and that she “cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message.” It implied that a phone call had taken place, but explicitly disagreed with Kanye’s memory of what had happened.
And it’s never really been cleared up. So GQ went in.
For starters, Kardashian West says in the profile that Swift “totally knew that that was coming out. She wanted to all of a sudden act like she didn’t. I swear, my husband gets so much shit for things [when] he really was doing proper protocol and even called to get it approved.”
More than that, she insists that there’s video evidence of the phone call. Kanye, she says, has a videographer filming his every move during the recording of every album. So the phone conversation is on record. Oh, and Rick Rubin was there and he can attest to it too, apparently. The trouble stems from the fact that, according to Kardashian West, Swift’s people “sent an attorney's letter like, ‘Don't you dare do anything with that footage,’ and asking us to destroy it.”
So GQ reached out to Kanye’s representatives to ask about the footage and the letter from the attorneys. West’s people responded by confirming that both existed, but declined to show either of them to the publication.
Yes, that seems absurd. But it gets so, so much better. Because when GQ reached out to Swift’s people asking whether or not they did sanction the track, they received a statement so packed full of passive-aggression that it would make Tom DeLonge blush. It starts by saying that, “Taylor does not hold anything against Kim Kardashian as she recognizes the pressure Kim must be under and that she is only repeating what she has been told by Kanye West.” So Swift understands why Kardashian West is wrong—it’s because the poor thing has been misinformed by her hubby.
“However,” it goes on, “that does not change the fact that much of what Kim is saying is incorrect. Kanye West and Taylor only spoke once on the phone while she was on vacation with her family in January of 2016 and they have never spoken since.” OK, so they’re not pen pals. Duly noted.
Then there’s some exposition: “Taylor has never denied that conversation took place. It was on that phone call that Kanye West also asked her to release the song on her Twitter account, which she declined to do.” Now, this bit sounds perfectly in keeping with Kanye’s wishes. Had Swift released the track through her Twitter account, it would have turned into a piece of performance art, one that Kanye himself is prone to shoot for.
But, no. “Kanye West never told Taylor he was going to use the term ‘that bitch’ in referencing her. A song cannot be approved if it was never heard. Kanye West never played the song for Taylor Swift. Taylor heard it for the first time when everyone else did and was humiliated. Kim Kardashian's claim that Taylor and her team were aware of being recorded is not true and Taylor cannot understand why Kanye West, and now Kim Kardashian, will not just leave her alone.”
That last line really pushes this whole thing into new territory. Because if Taylor Swift really does just want the Kardashian-West household to stop publicly pestering her, if she really didn’t approve that line, if this whole thing is just a case of Kanye West using the singer as a ploy to gain attention without consent, then it’s just a case of unnecessary nastiness.
But, hell, the whole thing leaves us none the wiser. Why would the West camp maintain that there’s video footage without releasing it? Maybe because they think that some people will roll with the notion that this is still some sort of bullshit performance art regardless of Swift’s explicit statements to the contrary. That Kanye West, what will he come up with next? we might ask collectively, completely ignoring the fact that, in truth, he’s using Swift’s fame to boost his own personal brand here, not the other way around.
The profile has other weird and charming details about the relationship between the two—Kim, apparently, forgets to forward emails from designers on to Kanye and this “drives him crazy.”
But the standout here is the rampant absurdity of the “Famous” controversy. The two artists have seemingly used more lawyers than a Vegas divorce court throughout this odd little tiff. Nobody can agree on what took place and both are claiming that they’re being undone by unreleased evidence. It is pure spectacle—video footage, attorneys, Rick Rubin—despite Swift’s desire for it not to be.
Maybe, hiding in the middle of all this, there’s an important question to be pored over, one that deals with consent, artistic license, the role of law in art. But, more likely, it’ll be crushed beneath the weight of a hundred thousand tweets.