Over the weekend, Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s 2016 phone call about the song “Famous” leaked. By Monday night, Swift’s longtime publicist Tree Paine commented, as did Kanye West’s publicist Kim Kardashian West. And I would also like to comment: thank you to this group of people, and whoever the brave leaker is, for allowing us all to bury our heads in the past while we avoid the realties of the present. These are the heroes we need at the front lines, the the thought leaders who can build the structures of the past so that we may tour them again. We don’t wish to stay back there, of course, because lord knows things were pretty bad then, drama-wise and otherwise. But for a brief reprieve, it really does the trick.
So here is a recap that begins way back in 2009, in the throes of a recession—a recession brought on by corporate overreach rather than by a deadly virus pandemic and corporate overreach. It’s the MTV Video Music Awards, and Taylor Swift has just won best female video. Kanye West gets onstage in the middle of her acceptance speech and says, “I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” Shock, dismay, then-president Barack Obama saying West was a “jackass.” Cut to 2014, Kanye and Kim get married. Cut once more to 2016, when Kanye releases the tune “Famous,” featuring the lines, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.”
After the song came out, West tweeted that they had had a conversation in which Swift approved of the lyric. Paine, Swift’s publicist, denied the claim saying, in part, “Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account.” She also noted that “that bitch” was never a part of the conversation. Kardashian West seemed to understand the comment not as, “Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask about a tweet,” but as “Kanye did not call.” So in a 2016 GQ profile on Kardashian West, she took umbrage with Swift acting as though she didn’t know what was coming on the song. And then on fake holiday “National Snake Day” (July 17, 2016), she shared part of the phone call on then popular Snapchat. In the select sound bites that she broadcast, it sounds as though Swift gave a kind of “you do you” approval for West’s line about having sex in “Famous.” The exchange was recorded, Kardashian West said, because everything in West’s life is recorded.
And then, just this past Friday, someone somewhere leaked the entire phone call.
Kanye doesn’t look great here. He does a few potentially manipulative maneuvers like saying how great his wife thinks the line is. Swift sounds as though she’s trying to stand up for herself without telling Kanye what he can and can not do, however passive aggressively. She says, “It’s just kind of like, whatever, at this point. But I mean, you’ve got to tell the story the way that it happened to you and the way that you’ve experienced it. Like, you honestly didn’t know who I was before that. Like, it doesn’t matter if I sold 7 million of that album [Fearless] before you did that, which is what happened. You didn’t know who I was before that. It’s fine.” (Narrator: It wasn’t fine.)