Kanye’s “Famous” video is high art. It also feels like a gross, voyeuristic invasion of its subjects’ privacy. Both of those statements can be true, just as Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s interpretations of the same phone conversation can be true.
But when has the literal truth ever meant anything in pop music? Like in politics, reality TV, drag, or professional wrestling, it’s all a performance. The only truth that matters is emotional. Pop songs aren’t about the lyrics, but how convincingly you can sing them. And Kim Kardashian might be a terrible singer, but she just taught the entire pop world a lesson in beef.
Kim’s Snapchat story has already become the millennial Zapruder film. Did Taylor really give “Famous” her permission before its release? It sure seems that way. The video doesn’t contain the entire conversation, so maybe there’s some crucial piece of context missing. Still, two things are inarguable.
Firstly, Kanye’s rarely seemed more gracious. He tells Taylor, “What I give a fuck about is just you as a person, and as a friend… I want things that make you feel good. I don’t wanna do rap that makes people feel bad.” We accuse celebrities — and it’s always the ones we don’t like — of being disingenuous, engineering publicity stunts solely for the money or the attention, whatever that means. Great pop music can be calculated and authentic, provocative and emotionally affecting. But when Kanye says “Relationships are more important than punchlines”, you can tell he means it.
Secondly, Taylor isn’t feigning politeness. Her press statements painted a picture of disgust, but in the video, her initial response is anything but emotional. “I’m like, this close to overexposure”, she says, a rational assessment of how the public will respond to the song. Everything else she says is positive, relaxed, spoken without hesitation. “Go with whatever line you think is better. It’s obviously very tongue in cheek either way. And I really appreciate you telling me about it, that’s really nice!” By the end of the video, Kanye and Taylor agree on the song’s intent, and she implicitly agrees to support him. “It would be great for me to be like, ‘Look, he called me and told me about the line before it came out.’ Like, joke’s on you guys, we’re fine.”
While the conversation’s straightforward, Taylor’s press statements since have been full of holes. What she objects to is, supposedly, being called “that bitch” in public. So was it “tongue in cheek” in their conversation, but misogynistic on the song itself? Memories distort, but the video’s objective. Maybe her emotional response was authentic, maybe she manufactured it to claim a triumphant moment at the Grammys. But without acknowledging her and Kanye’s conversation from day one, it’s looked like she has something to hide. A truth told badly might as well be a lie.
Kanye’s always practiced radical honesty, often to the detriment of his reputation. The Snapchat video shows a gentler side of him, one that’s nonetheless consistent with his unfiltered public persona. But because it was Kim who uploaded the footage, it’s no longer about Kanye getting back at Taylor. It’s about a wife defending her husband. Kim gets to both take the heat, and claim the victory. All Kim had to do was hang Taylor with her own rope, by releasing footage of her being really nice to Kanye. Is that so cruel?
Taylor Swift’s songwriting, her greatest gift, is built on emotional honesty. She writes her version of the truth, as all songwriters do — but she’s been playing games through her songs for years. Look at “Dear John” — a wounded confessional, and a barely veiled screed at her ex John Mayer. In 2010, she was the underdog, he the smarmy, manipulative jerk. No one, least of all Taylor, took his feelings into account. It was the first in a long series of, as she’d later call Kim’s actions, “character assassinations”.
By 2014’s “Bad Blood”, the tables had turned. The incident that inspired the song — a quarrel with Katy Perry over shared backup dancers — happened behind the scenes, but it was Taylor who made it public. Was Katy in the wrong? Who cares? “These two-faced popstars thrive on drama!”, Taylor seemed to be saying, on a single whose publicity campaign was built on drama.
The vulnerability of Taylor’s most introspective songs — “Back to December”, “Begin Again”, “Clean” — no longer exists in her public persona. She portrays herself as untouchable, above the bullshit of the tabloid media. Kim’s exposed Taylor as a fellow player of the game , but what’s worse — Taylor’s still denying it. Her Instagram statement ends, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.” Never mind that both she and Kanye used that narrative to make themselves more sympathetic. In the feuds that Taylor constructed, she claimed the moral high ground every time. If the objective facts didn’t matter then, they sure as hell don’t matter now. With one Snapchat story, Kim served comeuppance for everyone Taylor Swift’s ever publicly shamed.
Fame isn’t a court of law, and it’s not Game of Thrones either. It’s professional wrestling, where the stars can feud over anything, the audience suspends disbelief in order to enjoy it, and no one’s ever really hurt. This loss could be the catalyst Taylor Swift needs. Each of her album cycles have been set off by some kind of self-examination, leading to newfound personal growth. Maybe not tomorrow, but in a year, she’ll wake up and laugh about this, like she learned to joke about the VMAs. Or maybe she’ll come back with a single twice as petty as “Bad Blood”, and we’ll love it, because popstars don’t have to be relatable. They only have to be compelling. Either way, the audience wins.
“Blank Space” and “Famous” are two sides of the same coin — no two videos depict fame in the 2010s more vividly. Kanye and Taylor might be doomed to do this forever. But it’s not a blood feud, it’s a symbiotic relationship. They continue to push each other to new heights, creatively and personally.
What are the lives of rich celebrities for, if not our entertainment? Whether it’s because of a sex tape, calling out the president, or being interrupted during your acceptance speech, it doesn’t matter how you become famous. Embrace your reputation, and you can survive anything. That’s the beauty of being publicly shamed: it certainly can’t get any worse.
Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. He tweets at @Richaod.