Buckle Up: The Kanye West/Taylor Swift Feud Will Continue Until the End of Time
On Sunday night, a new Kanye West video arrived—albeit one without any minimalist dance-moves or nude Trump-rumps. Instead, the jittery, low-light Snapchat footage, captured and released by Kim Kardashian West, shows the musician hunched over an iPhone, reciting a few lyrics from his then-unreleased “Famous” to a voice on the other line: “For all my Southside n—–s that know me best,” West says slowly and somewhat awkwardly, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.” The Taylor being name-checked, obviously, is Taylor Swift, whose long-running spat with West has grown so swollen and gaseous, it’s probably visible from space. But what happens next threatens to make their endless back-and-forth even more overheated: After West finishes his over-the-phone demo, which was supposedly recorded several months ago, we hear a young, pleased-sounding female voice note that the verse “[is] like a compliment, kind of.”
That voice purportedly belongs to none other than Swift herself, who seems to be signing off on a song—or at least part of a song—she and her reps have publicly decried for nearly half a year. It’s the latest turn in a squabble that has found the two most powerful and talented musicians in the world engaging in a back-and-forth via pretty much every form of digital and legacy media imaginable, including Twitter, Instagram, awards shows, reality shows, magazine profiles, and even snake emojis. Not so long ago, pop titans got in their licks granting meow-y interviews or writing directly worded (and mostly terrible) songs; West and Swift have engaged in all of this, but for the most part, their conflict is more innovative and forward-thinking—a never-ending series of implied middle fingers and side-eye glances and nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs that’s revived and amplified every few weeks via some new medium. It’s childish behavior that seems to be constantly maturing—that’s like a compliment, kind of—and the newest volley, which finds Kardashian West unspooling her own Snapruder footage, might be the savviest move yet.
First, though, some lowercase-h history: The latest flare-up between the two stars began in February, when West debuted his album, The Life of Pablo, via the streaming service Tidal. Within hours, “Famous” was seized upon by listeners, who used social media to call out/kvetch about/spoof its line about Swift—a lyric that was followed by West’s infamous/outlandish claim that “[he] made that bitch famous.” For those of us who thought the sturm und dang between West and Swift had all but cooled down after their 2009 MTV Video Music Awards run-in—which was so high-profile that even President Obama weighed in—the Taylor take-down in “Famous” was a bit of a surprise. Until, that is, you remember that West and Swift are among the most media-literate figures in the world, well aware of how their every statement, whether in the form of a fauxMG awards-show face or a sad-sack zipline photo, is ingested and transmogrified on the web. There’s no doubt a lot of genuine outrage and confusion between them. But judging by how long and deep the “Famous” narrative has played out, and the number of venues within which it’s been told, they also both know that the more public the spat, the better.
And in the weeks and months after the premiere of “Famous,” West and Swift—and their respective family members and reps—have been everywhere. Here’s a timeline of the dustup, truncated in the effort of brevity/sanity: First, Swift’s brother, Austin, released an Instagram video in which he threw away a pair of West’s very pricey Yeezy 350 shoes. Then, following a TMZ report alleging Swift had given her “thumbs-up” for the song, Swift’s PR team released a statement denying that claim, and emphasizing that Swift had specifically never approved the “bitch” line. Then West tweeted a long explanation-slash-defense for the line, in which he invoked DMX (a classic debate-team move). That response no doubt helped provoke Swift’s first (and so far only) in-person volley, which took place a few days later, at the Grammy awards: As she accepted her Album of the Year award, Swift took the stage and told approximately 25 million viewers that “there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, take credit for your accomplishments, or your fame.”
Amazingly, we are not out of the woods yet, as that was just part one of the showdown. Part two includes the leaked Saturday Night Live audio of West calling Swift “fake-ass”; his “Famous” video, in which wax figures of West and Swift lying naked together in bed; the GQ cover story on Kardashian West, in which she claims there’s footage of Swift approving the tune (and which prompted another denial from Swift’s camp); and last night’s episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, in which the whole “Famous” squabble is addressed by the titular family (and which was preceded by Kardashian West tweeting out a slew of snake emojis, possibly in reference to another Swift feud, this one with former boyfriend Calvin Harris).
Then, shortly after Kardashians aired, Kardashian West released the Snapchat snippets of West and Swift talking on the phone. (Swift, as you can probably guess, is unhappy about the leak, releasing a statement via Instagram that calls the clip “character assassination,” along with the comment, “That moment when Kanye West secretly records your phone call, then Kim posts it on the Internet”). The offending footage is haphazardly edited, and will likely only reinforce whatever you already think of each artist: If you believe West is a hurtful misogynist, the fact that he never mentions the “bitch” line to Swift will only give you more ammo. If you think Swift has been disingenuous about what she did and didn’t know about the song ahead of its release, listening to her (supposed) approval just serves as mere reaffirmation.
Still, the fact it took so long for this feud to migrate to Snapchat—after playing out on everything from Tidal to Twitter to the pages of GQ—is surprising: For a public figure looking to lob an attack, Snapchat has an built-in passive-aggressive vibe. It’s not a megaphone like Twitter, nor does it have the (supposed) intimacy of Facebook. You have to do a little bit more work to find someone on Snapchat, even a big name like Kim Kardashian West, so when she releases footage clearly intended to vanquish her very equally public foe, the result feels less Gotcha, sucka! and more, Oh, look at what little ol’ me did here. Oops! Well, it’ll all just disappear anyway, right? And for Kardashian West, a very smart person who understands modern media better than most media employees (read that GQ piece; it’s great), taking some of the action to her Snapchat account (which she plugged on Twitter last night) only boosts her digital portfolio further.
Perhaps most importantly, though, last night’s video is proof that the West-Swift conflict will keep going on forever. The great pop-feuds of the 20th century—Vidal vs. Buckley, Kaufman vs. Lawler, T. Keith vs. D. Chicks—took place across a variety of media (magazine interviews, TV appearances, sometimes the occasional public debate), and all were egged on by editors or producers with a vested interest in keeping the flames going. But those battles all had some sort of conclusion, or at least a slowing-down, that gave some sense of finality to the proceedings. Swift vs. West, though, feels perpetual. Their fanbases have come to expect narratives that play out over the course of years, not weeks or months. And every periodic update, no matter the size, now gets tossed into a needy, needling 24-hour news cycle in which dramas are packaged and distributed in every format imaginable. The skirmish between West and Swift will (maybe) simmer down soon—only to be resurrected again on some new platform, maybe even one that hasn’t even been invented yet. Perhaps the two performers expected it would go this far; or perhaps even they’re freaking out a bit about how big it’s gotten. But either way, together, they made that snit famous.