Tuesday, July 19, 2016

special comment: #kimexposedtaylor and pop culture authenticity

I started to feel physically ill when I started drafting this Special Comment. It's the same sinking feeling that happens whenever I have to even mention the Kardashians in anything I create, acknowledge how so many people find their utterly brainless TMZ-baiting trash so damn captivating. Even though anyone with a functioning brain stem can tell you that none of it is remotely close to real or has produced anything beyond cheap gossip and ruining the lives of people who should rightly know better at this point. Oh, don't get me wrong, I get the attraction to it - people like vapid drama, especially when it seemingly comes at the expense of the rich and famous - but even without seeing a single episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and contributing to the downward slide of humanity towards Idiocracy, at this point it should be blatantly obvious to everyone that they're more shrewd than that and are making millions off of the public not knowing any better - or caring, which is arguably even worse.

Enter into the conversation Kanye West, an artist who has spent his career making alternatively brilliant and idiotic material both in his art and in public. And say what you will about Kanye, there doesn't seem to be anything calculated about his persona - he'll say and do things without filter or abandon, such as rush the stage at the VMAs in 2009 to snatch a pointless award out of the hands of a stunned young pop country artist to defend the artistic merit of Beyonce's 'Single Ladies'. It was one of those moments in pop culture that's so rare, not only because it was genuine but because it simultaneously shifted the artistic trajectory of two different artists who would rise to become the biggest acts in modern pop culture. Kanye West would become a pariah before coming back with the sort of critical acclaim that has become less and less deserved for the sparse gems between the steaming mountains of bullshit, whereas Taylor Swift would pivot towards deeper authenticity before constructing a much more sleek pop artifice that would come to dominate the charts. And I should note that Kanye West and Taylor Swift at the thematic roots got their critical acclaim for the same reasons: supposedly being 'real' in an era when nobody else was, Taylor about her relationships and Kanye about every half-genius, mostly mad thing that spewed from his mouth. Hell, you might even argue that Kanye could have considered them 'kindred spirits' in art, maybe one of the reasons that spurred the already infamous lines on his song 'Famous': 'I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous'. 

There is a lot to unpack here, so let's endeavor to focus on the actual art and start with the context of 'Famous' itself. The song's concept is meant to address Kanye's relationship with fame itself and how his own creativity now feels stymied thanks to the echo chamber of celebrity. Now thematically this is material Kanye has explored before: you could very much argue that Yeezus thematically was Kanye owning all of the grotesque assumptions people made about him in graphic detail. 'Famous' is more exultant, more celebratory, and a moment where Kanye owns the freedom of being able to get away with anything... so why not bring up the moment which catapulted him into pop culture ubiquity and mention one of the two famous women who have always fascinated Kanye - and one of those women is not Kim Kardashian. Because let's get brutally honest here: for as much as Kanye seems to claim he loves his wife and mother of his children, he sure as hell doesn't seem to treat her with tremendous respect. From guest appearances like 'THat Part' on ScHoolboy Q's last record to the remix of 'Drunk In Love' from Beyonce and Jay Z to his own album The Life Of Pablo, for as much as Kanye claims he fights for his family, he sure as hell doesn't have much of a problem airing he and Kim's dirty laundry in public and creating a mountain of evidence for her divorce attorneys...

But Kim has remained with Kanye, and this is where things get murky indeed, because I have no clear way of discerning Kim Kardashian's motivations. This is a woman who hit her first peak in fame off of a sex tape - of which Kanye also won't shut up about - and then married and divorced someone else within months of each other in a televised wedding which earned her even more. Is the relationship she has with Kanye West 'real' or simply another calculation to stay in the main spotlight all the longer as Kylie and Kendall Jenner seem to be eclipsing her? Frankly, I have no idea - she seems to have no problem with Kanye's antics, even bailing him out of his tremendous debt after he ranted about it on Twitter in the notoriously messy Life Of Pablo release. It seems clear that if Kanye can generate the headlines, she's going to find a way to cash in on it. And that takes us back to 'Famous', where despite Taylor's initial denials, Kanye did apparently call her ahead of time to get permission for those lyrics that drove this controversy... which according to the Snapchat recording captured by Kim, Taylor did grant. So why did Kim wait until now to finally leak this information, tease the rollout through both mentions in a GQ article and in line with a new episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians - finally hitting a boiling point when it comes to the accusations of misogyny leveled at her husband, or a carefully timed publicity launch to push her own name to the spotlight and strike a blow at a woman who she might well consider a rival for dominance of pop culture, a pop star who might just be in a position of weakness?

Because let's get real here: this story really isn't about Kanye or even Kim so much as it's about Taylor Swift, one of the reigning pop stars of our time and yet in the past weeks has received a significant amount of negative public attention. I'm not going to get into the 'he-said/she-said' of the Calvin Harris situation, except for two points: one, I completely believe the rumour that Taylor Swift ghostwrote 'This Is What You Came for'; and secondly, Harris exposed that there's a certain amount of calculation when it comes to Taylor Swift's feuds and personal relationships. And while there were definitely hints of that creeping into her writing as early as Red, that level of cold calculation is all over her image and business practices: the collecting of celebrities identifying as feminists in her social circle, the trademark enforcement of fragments of her lyrics, the feud with Spotify and fight against YouTube to wring out even more money despite the fact she's one of the most highly paid musicians in the world. And all of that is enough to easily buy the belief that if Kanye asked permission for the 'Famous' clearance, she might have given it only to rescind it later to push her message and further keep the publicity engine going with the majority of her singles out of the limelight. And hell, it would even be plausible given the other element of her public persona: her inability to take any criticism well, with the existence of 'Shake It Off' being all the evidence that we need there. And as you can see her public statements shifting with more evidence coming in, there seems to be a number of possibilities of what is really happening.

1. Kanye West calls, Taylor Swift gives approval to a part of what she hears, and then loses her temper when Kanye doesn't play her everything and leaks the song with the additional line 'I made that bitch famous', the one where she seems to have taken the most issue. This is Taylor Swift's story as of now, and by Occam's Razor, this seems the most likely, but given how tightfisted Taylor is with her image and persona, I'd be shocked to hear that she didn't get the whole song, if only just to get additional context.

2. Kanye West calls, Taylor Swift gives approval to everything, and then when the song is released she backtracks in order to save face or feed into the publicity machine around her image. She says she never got the approval, which pisses off Kim so just when Taylor is perceived to be at her weakest - off tour, no major songs on the radio, public opinion turning against her after the Calvin Harris situation - she leaks the call. Taylor Swift frantically revises her statement to include that Kanye actually had asked for approval, and it all looks suspicious as hell and at the very least damaging towards Taylor Swift.

But this raises a major concern I haven't seen addressed much in this conversation - namely that what Kim Kardashian did, particularly if it was without Taylor Swift's consent, was explicitly illegal. Under the California Penal Code S.632, it is expressly illegal to record or eavesdrop on any confidential communication, which includes a telephone call. And since Kim released Snapchat evidence of her doing just that - and that Taylor Swift has an army of lawyers ready to take down everything in their path - it would seem monumentally stupid for Kim to do this, especially as given she has been involved in reality television for over a decade, she'd probably be aware of the laws surrounding recordings like this. And come to think of it, Taylor Swift would probably be aware of them too, so why hasn't she threatened legal action, simply branding it 'character assassination' (NOTE: apparently her legal team has gotten involved now, and we're now in the murky area of wire-tapping law and whether it crosses state lines, which could lead to all sorts of precedent-driving controversy - lovely, and also not entirely relevant because Taylor herself never pushed that angle in the Instagram post, when she easily could have done so)? Well, that takes us to...

3. Everyone has been on this long-form publicity stunt from the start, with Kim and Taylor  privately hoping that that the other gets caught more in the blast radius. And while at first this seems absurd, the more you start to untangle it things start making sense. Feuds in this vein are a prime way to keep you name in the limelight - hell, look at the feud with Katy Perry, or the boy band wars, or any time a music marketer has tried to position two band in competition to spur the fandom to action - and Taylor Swift is a natural candidate for involving herself, given her and Kanye's history, only further enhancing that appearance of authenticity. And it seems to work to everyone's advantage: everyone gets media cycles, Kanye gets the controversy he needs to obscure a notoriously messy release and lackluster singles that might even get a boost along the way, Kim gets some petty revenge on Taylor and a chance to reassert her commitment to a marriage that looks less and less stable, and Taylor gets the sort of media attention between album cycles that...

See, here's the wrinkle in this scheme: Taylor Swift's greatest strength in her art is her authenticity, or at least the illusion of that. Even despite the list of songwriters and producers behind her, there's always been the understanding that at the root of her modern American dream girl persona there's something real, that she holds to real convictions. Now any music critic would have been questioning that as early as Red, I've been predicting the Taylor Swift backlash was only a matter of time since episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN nearly a year ago, and you could definitely make the argument that with the infighting and Calvin Harris' accusations, Taylor Swift's illusion of authenticity is at its weakest. And this conversation with Kanye West, it's a peek behind the curtain and takes a hammer to that illusion and a celebrity controversy that has been propped up to print free money for years, an excuse for people to start talking, articles to be written, clicks to be pulled, and videos like this to be made. Which, if you saw Kanye's video for 'Famous', that was the entire point: a snapshot and a bed full of naked celebrities figures you'd never expect there - including Taylor and Kim - and all of it made from the grainy camera of a voyeur - the audience. It's a moment of insight from Kanye that I'm almost entirely convinced is accidental, but he's always been walking the thin line of an idiot savant. He's always been the wild card, but if the rollout to his last album proved anything, it's shown that while you can't control him, you can still nudge him enough in the right direction to make money off of him. 

And yet all of those figures are not the real bodies - they're hollow and plastic, all artifice, only given life when the audience chooses to believe in it and all serving to rake in the publicity. Just like the reality television where Kim Kardashian made her fame, just like the celebrity feuds that might start with the germ of something real but have long been replaced by those seeking to monetize every inch of it. Just like Taylor Swift, who might have been running a consistent four year con on a fanbase who thought they could relate to her and has been betrayed step-by-step... that is, providing at this point she or they even care. Because by watching that snapchat feed, by retweeting the hashtag, by sharing the Instagram posts, by writing the thinkpieces, by watching this video... you're part of it too. After all, we're all just setting up the cameras - you're the one looking through.

1 comment:

  1. "Episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN nearly a year ago" - Would you by any chance be talking about the one where What Do You Mean debuted at #1 after the VMAs, and alongside it Wildest Dreams came with is video and there was the controversy about it taking place in Africa with almost no blacks?