vulture investigates

Now That No One Cares Anymore, Who Was Right in the Kanye-Taylor Feud?

Who was right? And more importantly, who was wrong? Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

I don’t know if you noticed, but something amazing happened this week. Locked at home in a quarantine that shows no sign of ending any time soon, the nation was primed for a silly bit of celebrity gossip to distract us. And yet, when Taylor Swift and Kanye West reignited their now decade-old feud, the response from the public was a resounding, “Anything but that!” Millions of people are stuck inside with nothing to do but stare at their phones, and yet, I get the sense that most of them would rather go out and lick a grocery cart than hear any more of this increasingly legalistic back-and-forth about who said what to whom regarding the opening lines of a rap song released in February 2016 — an epoch so far back in time, Flo Rida had a top-ten hit.

Remember, this feud once inspired so much passion that all of Hollywood, from the A-list down to the C, was forced to take sides. It was like the Civil War: brother against brother, pop star against pop star, Chloë against Khloé. Now it is just a depressing memento of a bygone, slightly decadent age, like Britney Spears’s 2001 VMAs performance, but without any actual snakes.

However, the fact that this feud no longer arouses any passion, any ire, any emotion whatsoever, makes now the perfect time to relitigate it once and for all. Let’s pore over all the public statements, all the tweets, all the leaks, and finally get a clear and objective answer to the question that ended so many friendships: In the end, which of these two whiny millionaires was right? Call us the FDA, because we’re investigating old beef.

Part I: What Happened on the Phone Call

The feud burst back into the news this week with the release of additional footage of the infamous January 2016 phone call between Swift and West regarding his reference to her on his track “Famous” off his album The Life of Pablo, released the following month. As much of the dispute hinges on rival accounts of what exactly went down on this call, I originally planned to include the whole transcript in this post, but then it turned out to be a 20-minute conversation full of tangents about Nike, the Grammys, and the time Kanye said he was going to run for president. So instead I’ll just give you a bullet-point summary.

• Kanye begins the call asking if Swift wants to be involved with the official social-media debut of the song, which we’ll later learn has the working title “Hood Famous.” As he transfers her to speakerphone, Swift says she thinks that would be a little confusing: “People would be like, why is this happening?” The reason why, Kanye tells her, “is it has a very controversial line at the beginning of the song, about you.” Every time he’s about to tell her what it says, he starts to stall or change the subject; he is visibly nervous about actually saying the line. Taylor picks up on this: “Is it going to be mean?” He assures her it’s not mean.

• Finally, Kanye tells her the line: “To all my South Side n- - - -s that know me best / I feel like Taylor Swift might owe me sex.” Taylor is relieved that it’s not mean. She tells him she expected the worst: “The buildup you gave it, I thought it was gonna be like, ‘that stupid dumb bitch,’ but it’s not.” She tells him that she needs to think about it before giving a definite answer, and reiterates that she doesn’t think the launch thing is a good idea. But overall she sounds positive. “I definitely think that when I’m asked about it, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m a big fan, I love that, I think it’s hilarious,’” Swift says. After they talk more about how her being part of the launch could be misinterpreted, she again signals her approval of the line itself: “It’s like a compliment.” Kanye backs down on the issue of the launch.

• Kanye then tells Taylor about another draft of the line that he threw out because his wife didn’t like it: “To all my South Side n- - - -s that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.” (This is the line that would ultimately make it into the song.) Swift is neutral about which one he uses: “They’re both edgy.” She says she thinks “the feminists are gonna come out” if he uses the “owe” version but ventures that he probably doesn’t “give a fuck.” Ultimately, Taylor tells him to “go with whatever line is better. It’s obviously very tongue-in-cheek either way.”

• After this, the conversation warms up. Kanye is relieved Taylor is okay with the line; Taylor is grateful that Kanye reached out to check. Both sound happy they’ve put any discord behind them and can be friends again. But then Kanye springs it on her that there’s a second reference in the song. “What if later in the song, I was to have said, ‘I made her famous’?” he asks. The mood gets slightly colder, as Swift clearly doesn’t love this line. “It’s just kind of like, whatever,” she says. She tells him to speak his truth, but there’s a little bit of an edge to the conversation now: “Like, you honestly didn’t know who I was before [the incident at the 2009 VMAs]. It doesn’t matter that I sold seven million of that album before you did that — which is what happened — you didn’t know who I was before that. It’s fine.” It does not sound really fine. But then she turns on the warmth again. “I can’t wait to hear it,” she says.

• Crucially, despite how this new video has been billed, it is not the full, unedited conversation. Shortly after this, Kanye tells Taylor he’s going to send her the song so that they can make sure everything is cool. The video cuts a few seconds later. The rest of the conversation in the video doesn’t touch on “Famous,” and it abruptly cuts off before the end of the call. Notably, it does not include the portion of the conversation Kim Kardashian would later release on her Snapchat, in which Swift says, “It’s awesome that you can be so outspoken, like ‘Yeah, she does, it made her famous!’” It is also unclear from the video whether West did indeed send Swift the song, but he does not appear to have.

Part II: What Everyone Said About It Later

What Taylor Said: West would perform “Famous” for the first time at the Life of Pablo launch event at Madison Square Garden in February 2016, a night that birthed the latest iteration of the feud. The song’s opening was exactly as West said on the phone call, with one crucial addition: “To all my South Side n- - - -s that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” TMZ reports the existence of the call on which Taylor was given a heads-up, but Swift’s team issues a denial. “Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account,” her longtime publicist Tree Paine tells the Times. “She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message. Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric, ‘I made that [expletive] famous.’”

Was This True? Team Swift’s first statement contains four assertions. Two of them are true: Kanye’s first request on the call was to ask her to launch the song on her social media, and Taylor was not informed of the version of the song that called her a bitch. But the other two are stretches. The call also included an element of Kanye asking Swift’s approval, if only in subtext, and though Swift hedged on giving a definitive yes, she did signal her support for the line. And while it’s possible that Taylor gave Kanye a stronger warning on the portion of the call we haven’t heard, the only cautioning about misogyny in the 20 minutes we do have is her brief note that feminists might get mad at him, and in context, Taylor is presenting that as something separate from her own opinion, which is positive.

What Kanye Said: In a series of since-deleted tweets, West defends himself. “I did not diss Taylor Swift and I’ve never dissed her,” he said. He reiterates that he had called Taylor to tell her about the line and that “she thought it was funny and gave her blessings.” Besides, the word “bitch” was “an endearing term” in hip-hop. Oh, and the whole thing was Taylor’s idea in first place: “It’s actually something Taylor came up with … She was having dinner with one of our friends [whose] name I will keep out of this and she told him I can’t be mad at Kanye because he made me famous!”

Was This True? One part was: On the call, Swift did say she thought the line was funny, and did appear to give her tentative blessing. But the rest is a mix of half-truths and outright falsehoods. On the phone, Taylor clearly stated how relieved she was that the line did not call her a “bitch”; Kanye elides the fact that the version she gave her blessing did not include that word, glossing over the addition with a feeble excuse about it actually being a compliment. And the notion that Swift “came up with” the line strains credulity. On the call, Swift is noticeably less jazzed about the line saying Kanye made her famous; Kanye claiming she said something similar to an unnamed third party is either a terribly mangled game of telephone, or, more likely, a complete invention.

What Taylor Said Next: The war of words escalates a few days later at the Grammys, where Swift uses her Album of the Year win for 1989 to address the feud again. “As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there, there will be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” she says. “But if you just focus on the work, you will look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there.” This is widely assumed to be a shot at West.

Was This True? Much will hinge on whether Swift’s umbrage at the Grammys was genuine or not. Without access to Taylor Swift’s interior life, this point is unresolvable. But it feels plausible that after the “bitch” switcharoo, her feelings about the song would turn significantly more negative.

What Kim Kardashian West Said: The feud goes dormant for a few months, until Kim Kardashian reignites it in a June 2016 GQ profile that touches on the furor over the “Famous” line. “She totally approved that,” Kim tells the mag. “She totally knew that that was coming out. She wanted to all of a sudden act like she didn’t.” Kardashian West adds that Swift’s outrage on the “bitch” issue was likely disingenuous: “He’s called me a bitch in his songs. That’s just, like, what they say.” She also says Swift told West that she would speak out in support of the song if asked, only to “completely [diss] my husband just to play the victim again” at the Grammys. Most explosively, she says Swift’s lawyers sent a letter telling Kanye to destroy footage of the phone call.

Was This True? Again, Team Kanye tells the truth about the phone call, but mixes in some willful denial. Kim waves away the reasonable interpretation that Swift was upset about the “bitch” line with the specious reasoning that, since she’s not offended by the word, no other offense could be genuine. This assumption of bad faith colors her judgement of Swift’s Grammy’s speech: Because she’s unwilling to entertain the possibility that Swift’s feelings were indeed hurt, the only possible explanation for the gap between Taylor’s private and public statements about the song is that Taylor Swift is a lying backstabber.

What Taylor Said Next: In a statement to GQ, Team Swift does not address the claim that they sent a cease-and-desist letter about the tape. They do, however, claim that “much of what Kim is saying is incorrect.”

Kanye West and Taylor only spoke once on the phone while she was on vacation with her family in January of 2016 and they have never spoken since. Taylor has never denied that conversation took place. It was on that phone call that Kanye West also asked her to release the song on her Twitter account, which she declined to do. Kanye West never told Taylor he was going to use the term ‘that bitch’ in referencing her. A song cannot be approved if it was never heard. Kanye West never played the song for Taylor Swift. Taylor heard it for the first time when everyone else did and was humiliated.

The statement also claims that Swift did not know the phone call was being recorded, and ended with a plea for sympathy: “Taylor cannot understand why Kanye West, and now Kim Kardashian, will not just leave her alone.”

Was This True? This is all mostly true. Kanye did ask Taylor to release the song on Twitter, which she declined to do, and she was not informed about the “bitch” line. But we can see how Swift’s initial statement muddied the waters. She says now that she “has never denied that the conversation took place,” but since her earlier half-truth that “Kanye did not call for approval” was widely taken as a denial that any sort of conversation about granting permission for the line took place, this feels like a slight stretch even though it’s technically true. And while it is also true that Taylor never officially granted permission because Kanye didn’t send her the song, her fallback position, that therefore anything she said on the call shouldn’t count, will leave her dangerously exposed in the event that portions of the call become public.

What Kanye Did Next: Later that month, Kanye intensifies the feud by releasing the “Famous” music video, which features nude wax sculptures of various celebrities sleeping together in a bed. Swift is among them.

Was This True? True or false is sort of moot, but these are clearly not the actions of someone who is trying to de-escalate a situation. (Swift, for her part, does not respond to the bait.)

What Kim Did Next: In July 2016, the whole thing comes to a head when Kardashian West leaks excerpts from the phone conversation on her Snapchat. Taylor’s positive statements about the song become public for the first time.

Was This True? The Snapchat excerpts paint a vivid picture, but it is not the whole picture. It’s a highly edited selection of Taylor at her most complimentary and Kanye at his most obsequious. Crucially, it does not reveal the “bitch” switcharoo, or the initial awkwardness around the “made her famous” line. Nevertheless, Team Kanye embraces the strategy of treating the footage as total vindication. And since Taylor has been so cagey about her initial support, it’s taken that way by the public.

What Taylor Said Next: In an infamous Notes App screenshot, Taylor attempts to get the last word:

Where is the video of Kanye telling me he was going to call me “that bitch” in his song? It doesn’t exist because it never happened. You don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called “that bitch” in front of the entire word. Of course I wanted to like the song. I wanted to believe Kanye when he told me that I would love the song. I wanted us to have a friendly relationship. He promised to play the song for me, but he never did. While I wanted to be supportive of Kanye on the phone call, you cannot “approve” a song you’ve never heard. Being falsely painted as a liar when I was never given the full story or played any part in the song is character assassination. I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.

It doesn’t work. The statement is either laughed off, or else examined for further signs of nefariousness. With the general consensus that she is a lying snake, Swift retreats from public life for more than a year, finally emerging in 2017 with Reputation, a concept album about the scandal. “Therein lies the issue / Friends don’t try to trick you / Get you on the phone and mind-twist you,” she sings in one track.

Was This True? It’s a little depressing to remember how much mockery this statement received at the time, as it seems a fairly honest account of what went down. (Minus the “never asked to be a part of” bit, which overlooks the whole “Innocent” saga.”) But by now it was clear Swift was on her heels. As she herself said on the phone call, she was already primed for a fall from grace — she’d been way overexposed after the 1989 tour, and after her Twitter spat with Nicki Minaj over the VMAs, her star image had obtained racialized notes of self-interest and treachery. In an atmosphere like that, the mere existence of “secret receipts” becomes damning evidence, no matter what’s actually in them.

Part III: So, Who Was Right?

Neither Swift nor Kanye was completely innocent in the affair. Both offered half-truths and lies of omission to make themselves look better; both played with harmful stereotypes (the predatory black man, the duplicitous woman) to make the other look worse.

And Swift certainly mishandled her initial response. Had her February 2016 statement said something like, “We talked about it, and I said it was okay, but he didn’t tell me about the ‘bitch’ line and I found that really disrespectful,” could that have headed off much of the trouble Swift found herself in July? By issuing a categorical denial that she’d ever given anything close to her approval of the song, she set herself up to be unmasked as a liar when the call was leaked. So why didn’t she hew closer to the truth? My best explanation, having been in these kinds of emotional confrontations before, is that when you are in the middle of them it is very easy to dwell endlessly on all the wrongs the other party has inflicted on you, and very hard to recall your own contributions to a situation. Having been burned by the “bitch” issue, Swift saw no other option than to go full scorched-earth, which ended up backfiring.

But the “bitch” issue was not a sidebar. It was a legitimate grievance. Swift made it clear on the call that she was okay with any reference as long as it wasn’t insulting, and no matter what Kanye’s own opinion was, she said in plain English that she considered “bitch” an insult. Kanye either did not pick up on this, or chose to ignore it to suit his own needs. Furthermore, as the one releasing the song, Kanye bore more responsibility for any rifts it created. He did not embrace this responsibility as he should have. He took Swift’s tentative approval as blanket 100 percent support, while abandoning his own promise to send her the track. Nor did he do any work to repair the friendship once it became clear that Swift was unhappy with the song. Rather than call her again to sort the situation out, his initial response was to deny that Swift had a right to be offended, then paint the entire thing as her idea — the biggest lie of the entire saga.

It’s interesting to recall the ten years of ups and downs in the Kanye-Taylor feud, and see how sympathy in the matter has gravitated towards whichever of the pair is currently enjoying more professional success. Swift initially triumphed in the court of public opinion, but by the time Kanye released My Beautiful Dark Fantasy, wasn’t she milking it a little too much? When she was winning a Grammy, the “Famous” line was clearly misogynist. When people got a little sick of her, suddenly she was a lying manipulator. Now that Kanye has flirted with Trumpism and released a string of sub-par albums, while Swift has successfully completed her second woke re-brand, the world is primed to be on her side again. Which is good, because after painstakingly going over all the evidence, we can conclusively say: In the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Taylor Swift was right.

That’s all.

So, Who Was Right in the Kanye-Taylor Feud?