In what quickly became the most talked about Snapchat since DJ Khaled got lost at sea last December, the did-she-or-didn’t-she-know feud between Kanye West and Taylor Swift over lyrics in the rapper’s celebrity takedown-themed track intensified this week with help from Kim Kardashian West. But this one, for the first time, flipped the usual script.
Suddenly, instead of the Taylor Swift-as-innocent-victim, Kanye West-as-egomaniacal-villain narrative that arose in the aftermath of West’s infamous interruption of Swift’s MTV VMAs acceptance speech in 2009, each artist’s role became more ambiguous. Kardashian-West’s video showed Swift approving the “sex” lyric on “Famous” (though not the “bitch” line) and referring to it as a compliment. The video ripped open the debate about who was right, who was wrong, who was lying — and who might come out of this looking better.
“I’m on team They Both Win,” says crisis manager and Fifteen Minutes PR founder Howard Bragman. “But this is going to be one of those great music feuds that’s going to go on until their death. We live in this strange world where the truth doesn’t matter anymore. Look at the presidential race, where somebody steals a speech and they go, ‘No we didn’t.'”
Seven years ago at the VMAs that started the feud, West was already a lightning rod known for speaking his mind, for better or worse. But his interruption caused a tidal wave of bad publicity, sparking several public apologies; even President Barack Obama called West a “jackass” over the incident. But Swift seems unlikely to face a similar lasting backlash, according to several industry pundits and insiders.
“We’re talking about the three most media-savvy stars in the world,” says veteran publicist Susan Blond, president of the Susan Blond Group. “Kim shouldn’t have leaked it, Kanye shouldn’t have recorded it, and Taylor should know ‘off the record’ doesn’t exist. [But] their careers won’t be hurt. People love controversy, and this trio really knows how to play the game.”
Several people acknowledged that Swift, previously seemingly impervious to negative publicity, finally took a hit by changing her story as the back-and-forth drama has played out over the past six months. But it’s unlikely to stick, many said. “This hurts Taylor Swift, but only in the now,” says celebrity gossip purveyor Perez Hilton. “Her likability has taken a hit and, more troubling, so has her credibility. But all will be forgotten as soon as she releases her next hit album. And she will!”
That’s a sentiment shared by many, who note that Swift has made a career out of taking slights and turning them into chart-topping songs.
“I had a Program Director who always used to say, ‘Hits cure everything,'” says KAMP Los Angeles DJ and Hilton podcast co-host Chris Booker. “I think the music always speaks louder than the story. Unfortunately, [Taylor is] on a music hiatus and this story is gonna sit for a little while. Does it put a little ding in her armor? Yeah, a little bit. At some point you have to stop trying to control the narrative. I don’t see anything wrong with what’s going on, I just think it’s petty.”
West, who has long been painted as the villain in this situation, can see some benefit from the video’s release, says author/entrepreneur Karen Civil. “It helps Kanye [by giving] him validation. Taylor, who was invincible before, is starting to see the backlash. But like she always does, she’ll give us a great album from this. This is content for everybody. I think it works in everyone’s favor.”
Each artist’s core fan bases quickly took a side, an expected reaction for two superstar artists. “Women are firmly planted in Team Swift; she can do no wrong by them,” says one Nashville insider. “The Venn diagram overlap of fans may shrink though. Such is our polarized age.”
Representatives from West’s team declined to comment on the video or the resulting fallout, while a source within Swift’s campaign dismissed the incident: “We’re not even talking about it and are not concerned about it.” But with the MTV VMAs coming up Aug. 28 — the scene of the first salvo in this duel — at which both are expected to be nominated, will there be more fireworks in the future?”
“Both are real talents and will be fine,” one chart-topping hitmaker says. “Ultimately, great songs win over press drama.”
A version of this article was originally published in the July 30 issue of Billboard.