Stars, they’re not like us at all. Except for when it comes to loving drama.
By now, if you care about either Taylor Swift or Kanye West, you have sought out the full transcript of their phone call regarding West’s The Life of Pablo song “Famous,” a snippet of which Kim Kardashian leaked via Snapchat in 2016. Here’s the short of it: Swift expressed rightful disgust at the song’s most controversial lyric—“I made that b***h famous”—which she claimed West never warned her about in their phone call. When Kardashian leaked part of their conversation, many took it as proof that Swift was lying. But West didn’t mention the line in question in Kardashian’s clip, and indeed, the full transcript obtained by Variety shows that he said nothing about calling Swift a “b***h” while they were on the phone.
The newly vindicated Swift addressed the transcript diplomatically on her Instagram story, while Kardashian attempted to dismantle her argument and defend herself and her husband in a Twitter tirade. Just another day in the lives of the rich and famous. But for Kardashian to suggest that “honestly, nobody cares” about her and West’s ongoing feud with Swift is a tremendous miscalculation. Millions of fans care. Swift cares. Kardashian cares. West especially cares—because he needs Swift.
Since West released The College Dropout in 2004, his reputation for paradigm-shifting music has been matched only by his insatiable appetite for controversy. West doesn’t just need Swift; he needs anyone who can function as either a target or conduit for his outrage. Over the years, that list has included George W. Bush, Amber Rose, Nike, Donald Trump, and of course, Swift. Sometimes West’s outbursts align with his fans’ values, and they place him on a pedestal as a genius and spokesperson for the culture. Sometimes they’re baseless provocations that are just too loud to ignore. Either way, when it comes to courting controversy, West has always been a shameless opportunist who makes brilliant music—sometimes because of these feuds, sometimes in spite of them.
Swift has served as West’s muse for perhaps longer than anybody except his late mother, Donda. Their phone call about “Famous” bore the weight of seven years of history, and both artists assumed their well-worn roles in the exchange: West was brash, flippant and scatterbrained, while Swift was meek and thoughtful, offering genuine feedback about West’s fledgling business ventures. Perhaps she had to adopt that posture as a successful woman in a music industry that loves to award men who behave badly, or perhaps she felt forced into that role when West upstaged her before an audience of millions when she was 19 years old.
The latest wrinkle in the Swift/West feud exposes the frivolity of celebrity culture. Tens of thousands of people in the United States alone have contracted coronavirus, entire industries have collapsed in a week, and these people want to sit in their mansions and fight about a four-year-old phone call? Swift acknowledged this frivolity in her response, downplaying the feud and linking to various charities to which she donates. Normally this performative do-goodery might elicit an eye roll, but Swift just struck a crucial blow in the biggest celebrity grudge match of the decade, and for her not to rub salt in the wound when it would have been so easy is admirable. Kardashian, on the other hand, perfunctorily acknowledged the countless people suffering around her before launching into a self-aggrandizing tirade that nobody asked for, all while pretending Swift strong-armed her into it.
It’s hard to blame Kardashian; she is a reality TV star, after all, and controversy is her highest currency. West is too, by proxy, and provocation has kept him in the spotlight as he’s made some of the worst music of his career over the last two years. It’s telling that The Life of Pablo is the last album on which West perfectly balanced his identities as an artist and a celebrity. His fraught relationship with Swift kept him tethered to some semblance of reality, which allowed him to make music that was simultaneously poignant and preposterous. Since then, West’s stardom and penchant for controversy have eclipsed his artistry; right-wing politics apparently don’t make for a productive muse.
Of course, as far as real life goes, none of this means a damn thing. Swift, West and Kardashian all know that. As an act of celebrity pageantry, Swift wiped the floor with West and Kardashian this time, proving that tact occasionally pays off in the long run. But as cogs in the same celebrity machine, they’re all winners, because they’ve made headlines once again. West, in particular, has repeatedly used his decade-old feud with Swift as fuel for incisive, transcendent art—and as a distraction when the art started to erode. The two artists will be forever caught in each other’s orbits. Kardashian may honor her promise to never speak on this feud again, but her husband has never been one for self-restraint.
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