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The Curious Case of Taylor Swift and Kanye West

Thomas Keith

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—a global pop star who has created dozens of top hits for themselves and others and who happens to be a thin skinned narcissist decides to wade into the most tumultuous political climate in modern American history and go directly against the people who made him/her famous to begin with. Sounds like a compelling story right? Perhaps even courageous to take stand when it would be easier not to? But, this being America in 2018, the results are confounding at best.

Before he donned a MAGA hat and maniacally ranted in the oval office with his poli-sci tutor Candace Owens, the most famous political soapbox Kanye West ever stood on involved accusing George W. Bush of not caring about black people during a national TV telethon raising money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Less famously, he for years talked about AIDS being a man-made disease, and once nearly changed his name to Martin Luther the King as part of a Louis Vuitton campaign. So suffice it to say, Kanye West is prone to indulging in any impetuous political thought that may happen to cross his mind.

For the sake of full disclosure and context, I should say on the record that until his second to last album ‘The Life of Pablo,’ I was an absolute Kanye disciple. I believed he was a genius and perhaps, along with Q-Tip, the best and most innovative beat maker in the history of hip hop. It was amazing how often I’d hear a song by Lil Wayne or Jay-Z that I absolutely loved and find out that Kanye made the beat. I defended him through all the bad opinions, all the Kardashians, and especially in his fundamentally millennial celebrity feud with Taylor Swift following the VMA’s and his….ummm…”unplanned “appearance.

Before she was advocating for LGBT rights and confessing to being not only aware of, but appalled by, Senator Marsha Blackburn’s policies and voting record, Taylor Swift was the most famous political mute in the country. She was far and away the most prominent celebrity whose vote could seemingly have gone either way in the 2016 presidential election. Her base was country music fans, but as she became more identifiable as an adult who lives in Manhattan, than as a young woman from Nashville the cries for her to declare a side became harder and harder to ignore. I imagine it was hard for Taylor Swift, a woman so acutely aware of seemingly everything that has ever been said about her, to ignore this particular criticism.

Now to be fair and provide equal context, I should say on the record that I cannot stand Taylor Swift. I find her to be vain even for a pop star. Songs like Shake it Off, about her haters, incense me. She’s become the biggest pop star in the world by saying how mean people are to her and it just grates on me; she somehow gets under my skin. Am I hypocrite for holding this opinion? Absolutely, 100%, Yes. I am the kind of music nerd who complained that Britney and Christina and the boy bands didn’t play their own instruments or write their own songs. Taylor Swift does both of those things. I complained that pop music was generic and soulless and plastic. She writes very intimate and personal songs. I adore male hip hop artists who complain about haters easily as much as she does, and when the whining comes from them, I do not ever think about it. Taylor Swift has also championed other musicians, written songs for them, covered their songs and been a generally very good colleague by every account I’ve heard. Still she bothers me—something about listening to a millionaire, and a beloved, well—born pop star who can snap her fingers and sell out a football stadium complain about how she’s treated in the press just kills me.

As someone who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and The Beatles during the “W.” era, I often longed for artists to get political in their music. There was no shortage of musicians who were personally outspoken, but political music by relevant artists had basically ceased to exist. Artists like Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen who were both clinging to the idea that they might still be current were all too eager to write about the times, but for me they never landed. World Wide Suicide by Pearl Jam might be the most disappointed I’ve ever been while listening to a song by a formerly great artist (I’m leaving out the song Freedom that Paul McCartney wrote for his post 9/11 benefit concert because my shrink says its best I pretend that it never existed.) In the years since, flaccid, generic protests songs such as the quintessentially uninspiring John Mayer easy listening classic Waiting for the World to Change,and Macklemore’s Same Love have replaced cutting social commentary. For every artist like Kendrick Lamar who can still be sharp and clever and relevant, there are dozens who can’t and shouldn’t try.

One of the reasons I think it is so easy to be hard on Taylor Swift is that if the board of directors of Walmart could genetically engineer an artist who could still move music in 2018, it would look a lot like her. Still I have to tip my hat to her. At the peak of her powers, and after staying silent for so long, she stepped out in genuine and specific way. When she spotlighted the treatment of women with a lawsuit that won her one single dollar, it was a truly courageous and I think important move. She chose to speak up because even in this day and age some jerk-off local morning DJ thought he could grab the ass of the biggest pop star in the world with impunity because she’s a woman. And in nine cases out of ten, he’d probably be right, but he picked the wrong one. She highlighted Marsha Blackburn as someone who is especially harsh on immigrants and sexual minorities and even though her endorsement didn’t push the Democratic challenger over the edge, she took the risk. She will lose fans. And she will lose more if she speaks against Trump. I imagine the Dixie Chicks are a formative group for her and what happened to them for speaking was severe and immediate. She stuck her neck out and we shouldn’t be disappointed in the end that the endorsement of a pop star doesn’t by itself swing a senate race.

Kanye’s motives are more complex. He is not at the apex of his talent or fame or relevance. He has a history of mental health and addiction issues, and whereas Taylor Swift for a long time walked a temperate line to maintain her political anonymity, Kanye has always been a provocateur. Stirring the pot is not always a noble pursuit especially in times of fear and uncertainty. Kanye’s recent retreat from politics tells me that he has reached a point on the path he was going down and he did not like what he saw in the distance. He could feel himself, I imagine, being co-opted, being assigned a meaning he had not intended and if there is anything Kanye West is not, it someone with the desire to be put in a box. The most pinpoint analysis I’ve seen on Kanye West’s strange visit to “Trumpland” and right wing America came from his friend Jonah Hill who said, “He better land this…or apologize.” And I think we’ve gotten the closest thing to that Kanye is capable of.

I find it endlessly interesting to consider what would’ve happened if Kanye had decided he was a republican at the peak of his powers, and not just “Trumpia”n, but a real republican. What if he said on the 808 & Heartbreak tour he needed to protect his money from the tax and spend liberals? Protecting your earnings isn’t, technically speaking, something rappers are uncomfortable addressing. How would the universe have reacted to him if he had endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama? I have a feeling the reaction would’ve been harsher, more damaging and more immediate. America’s favorite thing is tearing people down at their highest point. Kanye’s slightly washed up status has, in my opinion, spared him a harsher fate. Whether he deserved that fate or not is in the eye of the beholder.

To that same point, what if Taylor Swift as a world-beating teenager with a Nashville twang had endorsed Obama? Would she have survived to reach the crescendo of her powers and become the most successful crossover country artist of all time? I don’t know, but I certainly have my doubts. As much as I don’t like Taylor Swift’s brand and as much as I have fairly or not judged her for political cowardice, I always knew it was unfair. Any artist has the right to let their art speak for him/herself, and she did that for a long time. And tellingly, that was the one line of criticism she never addressed in song or in person. She never said people are assigning me unfair expectations and she could have.

I don’t necessarily respect Kanye West any less for his epic swing and miss at the MAGA hatters or the Tea Party. In the end, he just proved that being a musical genius doesn’t mean he’s a genuine or reliable narrator even for his own beliefs. Some men just want to watch things explode. Some men believe all press is good press. Contrarily, I absolutely respect Taylor Swift more for using her voice at personal expense when she could be silent no more and in the end, despite all the talk and think pieces, it doesn’t change the way their music sounds. At least not to me.

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