What do you recall about the feud between Kanye West and Taylor Swift? Maybe something about a misogynistic lyric in West’s 2016 song “Famous,” or Swift’s subtle-but-scathing swipe at the line at that year’s Grammys — or, later, Kim Kardashian’s claims that the track had Swift’s prior approval. Surely the snake emojis ring a bell — there were lots of snake emojis. If the specifics have gone fuzzy, the general contours seemed clear to many observers at the time: Taylor Swift did something bad.
The two stars’ clash was a hotly debated subject that drew ardent fans on both sides. But in the year that followed, a conventional wisdom settled into place — one rooted in the public personas in which, fairly or not, each of the artists had been cast. In one corner was West, still widely seen as the righteous crusader who had confronted hip-hop’s history of homophobia and boldly declared “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” a decade earlier. In the other was Swift, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed icon at her peak of fame — and one whose career-long apolitical stance was rapidly being reforged in the crucible of Trump-era politics to fuel baseless conspiracies that she was a covert Nazi.
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This was the context into which Swift returned in the fall of 2017 with Reputation, a pop follow-up to her megahit 1989. It was critically lauded for its typically Swiftian “ingenious hooks,” as Rob Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone, as well as for being the first Swift album to truly be in conversation with its pop contemporaries. To many online commentators who remembered her conflict with Kanye, however, Reputation rang as an exercise in solipsism, tone-deaf to the political crisis in which it arrived.
What a difference six years makes. Some of it comes down to the particulars: We now know, for example, that the recording in which Swift seemed to have signed off on the infamous “Famous” lyric had been doctored. But that doesn’t fully explain why public opinion on Kanye and Taylor has almost completely reversed since then. Swift has revealed herself to be a passionate Democrat who’s as vocal about pressing political issues as many of her peers. West, meanwhile, embarked on a steady descent into MAGA-land, then accelerated into a full sprint toward far-right hate speech. Now that we know the rapper who made a sex doll out of Swift in the “Famous” video wants to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” maybe it’s time to finally give Swift the win.
To understand the heated Swift vs. West debates of 2016 and 2017, it’s worth unpacking the conditions that led to them. Swift was riding high on 1989, the record-smashing album of shimmery synths and surging drum loops that catapulted her into true pop stardom. She frequently posted Instagram photos with her model-heavy celebrity girl squad, whom she feted at an opulent Fourth of July party at her Rhode Island beachside mansion each summer. Swift had even formed a fragile friendship with West and his new wife, seemingly eager to bury the hatchet after the 2009 VMA episode in which West interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech to inform the award show’s nine million viewers that Beyoncé had “one of the best videos of all time.” Barack Obama had called West a “jackass” over his antics, but Swift didn’t escape backlash, either, fueled in part by a growing sense among detractors that she leaned too hard on damsel-in-distress victimhood and #GirlBoss energy.
Then came “Famous.” The first single off West’s 2016 Life of Pablo crassly suggested that he “and Taylor still might have sex” because “he made that bitch famous.” Swift shot back when she accepted her Album of the Year Grammy for 1989, calling out the “people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments.” Kardashian later confronted Swift’s remarks in a June 2016 interview with GQ, claiming Swift “totally approved” the lyric but nevertheless “completely dissed my husband just to play the victim again.” Then, Kardashian released what looked like indisputable proof: a recording of the phone call in which Swift appeared to consent to the lyric. Swift said she “would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” but the narrative had been set. #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty became the Number One global trending topic on Twitter. “Do you know how many people have to be tweeting they hate you for that to happen?” Swift would later reflect in the 2020 documentary Miss Americana.
All of this unfolded against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and thriving neo-Nazi fantasies of Swift harboring far-right beliefs. The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist blog, claimed without evidence that Swift was an “Aryan goddess” and “secretly a Nazi” who was “simply waiting for the time when Donald Trump makes it safe for her to come out.” Shadowy, fascist-aligned meme accounts posted images of Swift alongside quotes from Adolf Hitler. Far-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, writing in Breitbart, dubiously declared her an “alt-right pop icon.” Swift, meanwhile, had never been more silent: Her latest bruising brush with the Wests had seemingly sent her into hiding. “Nobody physically saw me for a year, and that was what I thought they wanted,” she would later explain. But instead of self-preservation, people misread Swift’s actions as political indifference — or even tacit agreement with her conservative fans.
2016 had not ended on a particularly high note for West. He claimed to be $53 million in debt. Critics declared his New York Fashion Week show for Yeezy, his high fashion line, “boring” and “worse than bad.” He canceled his Saint Pablo tour early — but not before he ranted about his support for Trump during a November show. None of West’s losses or political missteps, however, translated into Swift’s redemption in the eyes of her harshest critics. From the moment she wiped her Instagram clean and replaced it with that glitchy snake video in August 2017, the perception for many was still that Swift was entirely absorbed in her petty celebrity battles. “Look What You Made Me Do,” her first single from Reputation and widely interpreted as a shot at West, only reinforced that mood. “I have no idea what Swift’s politics are,” wrote Vulture’s Mark Harris at the time, “but I’ve heard enough of her songs over the years so that of course I know what her politics are: I win, but for the record I’m the victim of haters and losers.”
Looking back, such analyses read like hangovers from the West feud, ignorant of both Swift’s recent actions that year and the broader cultural shifts afoot. That summer, Swift had won a lawsuit against a Denver DJ who had groped her in 2013. A few weeks later, The New York Times would publish its explosive exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s assaults against dozens of young, vulnerable women. That December, Time magazine would hail Swift as one of the “silence breakers” at the dawn of #MeToo (an honor that sparked yet another controversy, since Swift’s political silence had been viewed as self-imposed). The #MeToo era reframed the conventional wisdom on power dynamics and toxic masculinity. In hindsight, was it ever fair for West to call up a younger female artist and ask if he could tell the world she owes him sex for her fame?
What Swift learned from her voluntary exile was that it was better to say more than less — and she took steps to make sure people never misunderstood where she stood politically again. She made her first official political endorsement in 2018, for the Democratic candidate in Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race, and followed up with an endorsement of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020. She spoke openly about her regret for not endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016: “Totally,” she told Rolling Stone. “I regret a lot of things all the time.” She wrote her first overtly political songs — first, the allegorical “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” about her own political coming out story, and, later, a one-off single, “Only the Young,” about the 2018 Parkland school shooting. When the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade this past June, Swift wasted no time in issuing a statement. “I’m absolutely terrified that this is where we are — that after so many decades of people fighting for women’s rights to their own bodies, today’s decision has stripped us of that,” she tweeted the day the decision came down.
As for West? His image as a righteous crusader was already showing its age in 2016. In the intervening six years, it’s completely imploded. What began as a rambling onstage endorsement of Trump’s candidacy took a sharp nosedive toward right-wing hate and anti-semitism — a choice that has cost him his Twitter account, his agent, and a coterie of lucrative endorsement deals. His dramatically self-destructive turn in 2022 recasts the lines in Swift’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” another one of Reputation’s West-tinged diss tracks, as almost prescient: “Because you break them, I have to take them away.”
The “Famous” lyric and the music video portraying Swift and others as sexualized wax figures look different, too — like dark, noxious actions from a supremely troubled artist. Taylor, maligned by critics for playing the victim, actually was one. “They decided in 2016 that absolutely everything about me was wrong,” Swift later recounted to Rolling Stone, in the cover story where she finally broke her silence about the controversies of that year. “If I did something good, it was for the wrong reasons. If I did something brave, I didn’t do it correctly. If I stood up for myself, I was throwing a tantrum. And so I found myself in this endless mockery echo chamber.”
Reputation, meanwhile, has seen its own, well, reputation thoroughly redeemed. The project solidified her now-longstanding production partnership with Jack Antonoff and embraced an edgier pop sound that’s now as signature to her aesthetic as her bright red lipstick. Its lyrics reached a new level of piercing precision, laying the groundwork for the story-saturated Folklore and Evermore and the haunting introspection of Midnights. The songs on Reputation, from the fluttery romance of “Delicate” to the indelible hook of “Getaway Car,” rank among her very best. And the world tour, replete with stories-tall snakes along the stage, broke records as the highest-grossing North American tour of all time. Today, adoration for Swift has reached an almost “unmanageable size,” as she recently put it — a level of popularity that broke Ticketmaster during sales for her upcoming Eras tour and forced Congress to hold antitrust hearings on the ticketing giant. At the time, Reputation was blurred by the lens of a misunderstood controversy that tainted how much of the world viewed Swift. All these years later, it’s an album whose merits, like hers, speak for themselves.
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