The careers of Kanye West, hip-hop’s Fresh Prince of Provocation, and Taylor Swift, the “underdog” turned long-legged-clique commander, are by now inexorably linked. And in the years since that fateful evening in 2009, when the words I’mma let you finish, but… were forever immortalized in Internet lore, the two had reached a détente, culminating in Swift awarding West with the lifetime achievement award at last year’s VMAs, while poking fun at their Hennessey-induced onstage clash: “To all the other winners tonight, I’m really happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but Kanye West has had one of the greatest careers of all time,” exclaimed Swift.
Cut to today, and the pair is once again at odds. The acrimony stems from a line on “Famous,” a track off West’s new album The Life of Pablo: “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,” he raps.
West claims he not only cleared the line with Swift in advance but that she in fact conceived it, while Swift’s rep said that she did nothing of the sort, and even cautioned West about the song’s “strong misogynistic message.” Either way, it prompted Swift to fire back at West while accepting the Grammy for Album of the Year:
“As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I wanna say to all the young women out there: 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 if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
To add insult to injury, days later a secret recording of West ranting on the set of Saturday Night Live—which aired two days before the Grammys—leaked, with the rapper calling Swift a “fake ass” and proclaiming he was “50 percent more influential than any other human being,” including the late Stanley Kubrick, Paul the Apostle, and the Pablos, Picasso and Escobar. This prompted Nielsen Talent Analytics to release a study concluding that only 24 percent of U.S. adults consider West to be “influential” versus a whopping 55 percent for Swift.
According to Forbes, “Nielsen’s numbers are derived from weekly surveys of approximately 1,000 U.S. consumers who are asked their opinions on 50 personalities. These figures are also used to concoct the firm’s N-Score, a syndicated tool used to measure endorsement potential for entertainers.”
So, yes, Swift’s “endorsement potential” certainly exceeds that of West—she’s a populist white pop performer who dresses like one of the ladies from the movie Pearl Harbor, while he is a Muhammad Ali-esque system-challenging shit-stirrer in a black leather kilt who is equal parts compelling and confounding, known as much for his boastful antics as his bracing beats. But influence shouldn’t be measured in album sales or brand-friendliness, but in how an artist has affected change in the culture. And it’s here where Swift falls far short of West.
And it’s here I should also mention that I’m a fan of both West and Swift, and have attended numerous concerts by each—including a particularly amusing episode wherein my brother and I were the only twentysomethings amid a gaggle of parents and young girls during a taping of Swift’s Live on Letterman performance while promoting her album Red. But the mythos surrounding Swift, one she’s taken pains to cultivate, and which is central to her post as a role model for millions of young (mostly white) girls, has always been murky.
According to the Swift fairy tale, she is the consummate underdog, an outsider who grew up on a Christmas tree farm and was mercilessly bullied and rejected, but never gave up on her dream of music superstardom. The reality is a bit different. That Christmas tree farm Swift grew up on in Pennsylvania was actually purchased from one of Swift’s father’s clients (and the family summered at their oceanfront mansion in Stone Harbor, New Jersey). You see, Swift’s father is a very wealthy senior vice president at Merrill Lynch—and the descendant of three generations of bank presidents—while her mother worked at a mutual fund and is the daughter of a rich oilman.
When Swift was 13, her parents brought her to New York City and introduced her to manager Dan Dymtrow, who landed the singer-songwriter meetings with the top record labels, as well as a modeling gig as part of Abercrombie & Fitch’s ‘Rising Stars’ Campaign. In the photo, a tall, slender Swift is portrayed balancing an acoustic guitar with one hand and dabbing her eye with the other; it’s the birth of the Swiftian persona, the unpopular geek who deserves your sympathy… while modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch in the eighth grade.
Dymtrow landed Swift an artist development deal at RCA Records, but Swift left the label for Big Machine Records—a tiny imprint that her father helped kick-start with a six-figure investment. He then transferred to the Nashville office of Merrill Lynch, and moved the family to a lakehouse mansion in Tennessee, in order to help foster Swift’s burgeoning country music career. A then-16-year-old Swift’s self-titled debut album was released in 2006 to massive acclaim, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, this is not to say that Swift isn’t a musical prodigy—she is, winning a talent contest to open for Charlie Daniels at 11, and taking home first prize in a national poetry contest at 12—but she is also, in many ways, the living embodiment of white privilege.
One of the standout tracks off her eponymous debut album, “Picture to Burn,” is about her freshman ex—the most popular guy in school who left her for another gal who’d later become his wife. It contains the unfortunate line, “Go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / That’s fine / I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” Of course, she was only 16 at the time—it’s no Justin Bieber KKK anthem—and Swift has since evolved considerably on the issue, coming out in favor of marriage equality. There are other past follies, of course, from posing with a guy wearing a swastika shirt, to shooting down the question of whether she’s a feminist, to perpetuating the Madonna/Whore complex, but such peccadilloes come with growing up in the public eye.
More worrisome, then, is the way Swift approaches current issues, not by shining a light on the issue itself, but by redirecting the focus back on her. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the U.S., Swift rejoiced by quoting a line from her own song; in her video for “Bad Blood,” she claimed to promote “sisterhood” by assembling a squad of heavily armed A-list friends to vanquish a Katy Perry surrogate; and when Nicki Minaj criticized the VMAs for its historical bias against black artists—which has been well-documented—Swift made it all about herself, accusing Minaj of not supporting other women (reminder: Swift’s nominated video was about recruiting a group of celebrity pals to destroy Katy Perry). Recently, she donated $250,000 to Kesha—while broadcasting the act, and the dollar amount, to the public. It’s a fine gesture, of course, but also a calculated one that’s deflected attention away from Kesha’s horrifying case and toward Swift’s altruism.
West has done many things to earn the ire of the aforementioned pols, from his outrageous awards show antics, to slut-shaming ex Amber Rose (though not before she slut-shamed his wife), to this insane tweet that he has yet to clarify:
The awards show incidents have earned West the most criticism, and there have been many: storming out of the 2004 American Music Awards after losing Best New Artist to Gretchen Wilson, hijacking the stage at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards when bested by Justice vs. Simian for Best Video, the ’09 VMAs incident with Swift where he demanded justice for Beyoncé, and last year’s Grammys, where he bemoaned the fact that Beyoncé lost Album of the Year to Beck.
Here’s the thing, though: While West’s methods were questionable, they were not without purpose. West is well aware of the prejudice guiding these awards shows, particularly the VMAs and Grammys. In the case of the former, for example, of the 32 Video of the Year winners, black artists won only eight; five of the 30 winners of the lifetime achievement award have been black artists; and a black artist has never won the VMA for Best Pop Video. In 2007, the VMAs refused to let a scorching-hot West open the ceremony, opting for a years-dormant Britney Spears instead. “Maybe my skin’s not right,” West said in frustration. Maybe he had a point.
At the Grammys, 10 of the last 11 Album of the Year winners were white, while West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, failed to even be nominated in the category. Similarly, Swift has two Album of the Year wins, while Beyoncé has zero. Taylor Swift sounds like this. Beyoncé sounds like this. I mean, this is an awards body that once gave Best New Artist and Best Rap Album to Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar.
Kanye West is, at his core, about challenging systems that have been unwelcome to African Americans, whether it’s Silicon Valley or the arena of high fashion. When West is denied entry, he tends to lash out in the form of boasts, restoring his damaged ego. In some ways, he’s carrying the torch of his father, a Black Panther dedicated to fighting the power, as well as that of his mother, an English professor who was consumed by her son’s fame.
Unlike Swift, who only took stands on issues like gay marriage and feminism once the celebrity tide had already turned, West has been an important crusader for social justice.
In August 2005, while promoting his sophomore album Late Registration, West took part in an MTV special called All Eyes on Kanye West. There, he spoke out against homophobia in hip-hop, relaying a story about how his entire attitude toward the LGBT community changed when his cousin came out.
“It was kind of like a turning point when I was like, ‘Yo, this is my cousin. I love him and I’ve been discriminating against gays,’” West said. He further lamented how hip-hop is about “speaking your mind about breaking down barriers, but everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people.”
“Not just hip-hop, but America just discriminates. And I wanna just, to come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, ‘Yo, stop it.’”
Again, this was in 2005—before even Hillary Clinton was turned around on gay rights. (West later became an important voice for trans acceptance, too, helping wife Kim Kardashian come to terms with her stepfather Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn.) One month later, on Sept. 2, 2005, during the NBC charity special A Concert for Hurricane Relief, West condemned the media for the way they were portraying the black victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media,” he said. “You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal aid] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help—with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way—and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us!”
And then, the kicker: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
George W. Bush later called the moment an “all-time low” in his presidency—which ultimately said more about him than West, that being insulted over his handling of Hurricane Katrina was worse than the people’s misery, or the devastation caused by the War in Iraq, or the millions of lives ruined by torpedoing the economy.
Kanye’s Katrina moment also came just as YouTube and Facebook began to catch on and, according to The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith, served as an eye-opening one for a generation of Americans:
“With these new technological possibilities, and the most succinct political statement of the year, West was able to further ingratiate himself with a generation of young people who already loved his music, but who now had, in him, our first relatable expression of black rage on a national stage.”
Now that is influence.