11th February, 2016. Kanye Omari West, the celebrious rapper, songwriter, producer, designer and general point of contention for the “civilised” world, takes to the stage amidst the roaring cacophony of a packed Madison Square Garden. Rihanna’s husky tones echo across the enraptured crowd, before a bass heavy beat and the unadulterated whooping of the happily rich and famous surges into being. Finally, with a great sense of gravitas, kanye spits the now (rather ironically) infamous lyrics of Famous into the ether-
Almost laughably, it wasn’t the use of taboo, the sexual content or the misogynistic implications that made these 3 line so controversial- It was the very combination of Swift and West, coupled with their long and bitter history (as referenced in the line ‘I made that bitch famous‘), that sparked the irrepressible bout of social media fueled mass hysteria that followed.
When considered subjectively, away from the melodrama of the 2009 VMA’s, there is nothing surprising about Kanye’s lyrics.
In a rather rambling yet illuminating twitter rant following the incident Kanye said himself that ‘bitch is an endearing term in hip hop like the word Nigga‘ which, arguably, is true- the term is at least common place in Hip hop culture, regardless of whether it is necessarily endearing.
A more evidentially supported interpretation of the phrase’s usage within Hip hop would be that it acts as a tool of sexism and misogyny, being directed at both “weak” (effeminate) men and insubordinate women, as is more prevalent within today’s average societal usage of the word. This interpretation was rather damaging to Kanye’s claim of supposed hypocorism, and was continually used to fuel anti Kanye sentiment during the period of unrest surrounding the ‘Famous‘ incident. However it’s undeniable that ‘bitch’ has in some ways been reclaimed by some female elements of today’s youth, particularly female rap artists, and is a rather unremarkable element of Hip hop culture. This diminishes it’s significance, or its weight per se, as a piece of taboo language and suggests that perhaps Kanye really wouldn’t consider his use of ‘bitch’ to be malicious, but more as a kind of statement of amity; in theory, Kanye and Taylor were close enough to refer to each other using taboo colloquialisms.
This assumption of familiarity is further supported by Kanye’s tongue in cheek ruminations over whether ‘me and Taylor might still have sex‘, which suggest both a current and a former sense (supposedly pre 2009) of intimacy and informality within his relationship with Taylor, created by the adverb ‘still’‘s connotations of a continuation.
Just like the use of taboo, sexual content is somewhat desensitised within Hip hop music. If anything, Kanye’s use of relatively acceptable vernacular (or at least the absence of taboo) concerning sex with Taylor holds a sense of politeness, and even an element of respect- at least within the context of Hip Hop’s discourse community.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kanye’s attempt at playful banter ( at least in theory) was lost in translation. Whether due to the outrage caused by a different cultural interpretation of taboo, or the implication that Swift’s rise was due to Kanye’s actions in 2009, or simple anti-Kanye sentiment, it was made abundantly clear that Taylor Swift, her publicist and her fans were not best pleased.
The initial response came not from Taylor, but from her publicist, creating a suitably professional (if potentially cowardly) front and removing Taylor from the direct line of fire. This level of professionalism was somewhat undermined by the mode of the announcement however, which was a hastily posted screencap of an email on her publicist’s Instagram (@joncaramancia), posted just minutes after the Madison Square Garden performance.
The tone of the Email itself was highly formal, utilising hyper correct grammar and avoiding contractions eg. ‘Kanye did not’. This was perhaps as an attempt at overt prestige, placing Taylor above Kanye both linguistically and morally. This assumption is further supported by the content of the email, which nicely followed the already established ‘victimisation of Swift vs villification of Kanye’ narrative present within nearly all their interactions.
The Email plainly states that Kanye ‘did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single “famous” on her Twitter account‘. The use of the conjunction ‘but’ highlights the converse nature of the two clauses, intending to emphasise the difference between Kanye’s claims and the truth spoken by Taylor’s publicist. The connotations of the verb ‘ask’ also suggest that Kanye is an inferior musician/media presence in comparison to Swift, and would benefit from her help.
This sense of a conscientious, all powerful Taylor is echoed by the connotations of Taylor ‘cautioning‘ Kanye ‘about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message‘, with the verb ‘caution‘ suggesting a voice of reason and moral concern from Taylor- this reinforces the “righteous and wrongly attacked” image Taylor routinely utilises.
Theoretically, the publicist’s response was more than acceptable- however as the feud progressed, it became necessary for Taylor herself to join the fray. Taylor’s final words on the subject (posted on her Instagram from a screencap of her iPhone notes) were plain, if indignant. In response to Kanye’s lyricism, and criticism concerning details that came to light within Kanye’s twitter rant and other associated social media actions, Taylor stated ‘you (Kanye) don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called ‘that bitch’ in front of the entire world’.
This calculated and powerful statement clearly aligns with the aforementioned negative interpretation of bitch, heightened by the impersonal connotations of ‘that‘ as a determiner- the lack of acknowledgement of Taylor as a person/woman created by ‘that‘ could easily be interpreted as implicitly misogynistic. Taylor insinuated this point expertly, in order to create a negative representation of Kanye as unfeeling and intentionally malicious. This is created (in part) by her accusation of Kanye as trying to ‘control‘ her response-the verb control also has connotations that could be implicative of misogyny, particularly in the context of a man controlling a woman. The adjective ‘emotional‘ itself creates a sense of strong linkage between the negative taboo of ‘bitch‘ and a suitably heartfelt response, thus creating yet more connotations of a deep grievance orchestrated against Taylor on the part of Kanye. This also adheres to the “victimised Taylor” narrative.
This is echoed by the line ‘he promised to play the song for me, but he never did… you cannot approve a song you haven’t heard‘. The connotations of the adverb ‘never’ hold a sense of accusation, whilst Taylor’s use of personal pronouns and direct address create a sense of closeness to Kanye, which, in the context of the situation, fabricates an idea of personal hurt and betrayal. Taylor’s use of definitive statements with no room for leeway (eg. ‘you cannot‘) also adds an air of absolute certainty, with no foreseeable loop holes- By specifically referring to listening to the song Taylor removed herself (or at least attempted to remove herself) from the incriminating (and in some ways proven) points raised in Kanye’s response and the following “character assasination“orchestrated by Kim Kardashian.
Kanye’s initial response (in his trademark colloquial, train-of-thought style “rant”) came via twitter, approximately a day after the Instagram post from Taylor’s publicist. Initially, Kanye attempted to justify his work with claims of artistic integrity and realism, stating ‘First thing is I’m an artist and as an artist I will express how I feel with no censorship‘. Both Swift and Kanye use first person pronouns in order to emphasise their points by adding a sense of personal connection, however Kanye appears to be far more defiant in his response than Taylor- this certainly supports him in avoiding the “indignant and wrongly victimised” approach that Taylor routinely utilises, even if at times it seems a little far fetched; Kanye clearly (and apparently wholeheartedly) states ‘I did not diss Taylor Swift and I’ve never dissed her…‘ despite his interruption at the 2009 VMA’s, which was almost universally recognised as a definite sign of disrespect.
He does defend himself however, disregarding the accusations of misogyny with the statement ‘2nd thing I asked my wife for her blessings and she was cool with it‘. This logic does appear to be somewhat flawed (one woman speaking for the whole of womankind?), but the linguistics of the statement itself is very interesting. Kanye appears to take little time in formulating his responses, as is illustrated by the graphological feature of double spacing in between the words ‘thing‘ and ‘I‘ and ‘wife‘ and ‘for‘ within this tweet. This could be an intentional graphological feature, however double spacing isn’t a typical feature of idiolects, and the double spaces don’t appear to fall at the natural rest points or clause changes of the sentence. This therefore suggesting that the double spacing was simply a mistake due to hurried typing, which is completely at odds with Taylor’s pre-written and considered response. In fact, Kanye deliberately steers away from the vast majority of repeated themes found in Taylor’s responses, and in their established relationship. Kanye actively confronts his traditional role as the villain within West-Swift interactions, stating ‘stop trying to demonize real artist Stop trying to compromise art‘. One can only assume the singular form of the noun artist rather than the plural was accidental, suggesting that Kanye cares very little for grammar,despite his extensive and rather intelligent vernacular. It could suggest that Kanye and by extension, his fan base, are generally more descriptivist in their approach to language, as is suggested by the desensitization of taboo within Hip hop.
Regardless of Kanye’s rejection of Hyper Correct grammar, it becomes highly apparent (from his third tweet onwards) that someone is lying.
‘3rd thing I called Taylor… about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings‘.
For the vast majority of Taylor’s fan base (and essentially anyone who wasn’t a Kanye fan) this seemed to be akin to the ravings of a mad man, particularly considering Kanye’s declaration that he wanted ‘to be the creative director of Hermes‘ in the same twitter rant.
However, Kanye’s declaration did directly contradict the claims of Taylor’s publicist, which stated that Kanye ‘did not call for approval.’ To make matters worse for Taylor, Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian then released what would be regarded as damning evidence, via a series of snapchat recordings of the phone call between Swift and West- Is this call for a shift in the Villain-Victim narrative.
Realistically, “exposing” Taylor via the mode of Snapchat was in fact the least damaging way in which Kim could have done so, due to the difficulty of saving videos (or in this case, evidence) off of the app, and the fact that snapchat videos are only available to the general populace for 24 hours. Despite this nicety, the evidence provided by Kim was rather condemning.
Within the phone call, Kanye seems to be genuinely nice and respectable, telling Taylor ‘relationships more important than punchlines, you know‘, when referring to his lyrics- The noun ‘punchline‘ also has clear connotations of comedy, reinforcing that Kanye did not mean the lines maliciously, but more as an in-joke. Kanye is also adamant that he needed to tell Taylor and receive her blessings, saying ‘I just feel like I had a responsibility to you as a friend‘ and ”I don’t wanna do rap that makes you feel bad‘. His continual emphasis on the nouns ‘responsibility‘ and ‘friend‘, and his repeated use of the verb ‘feel‘ creates a sense of deep caring and sincere concern, due to their semantic field of friendship and positive emotional connotations. This level of emotion is emphasised by Kanye’s almost hesitant way of speaking, which is visible in his use of hedging in the forms of pauses and hesitations such as ‘uh‘. It also appears to be present in Kanye’s divergence from standard English and hyper-correct grammar, however this could also be due simply to his own individual idiolect/ethnolect, rather than any emotionally driven reasoning- A prime example would be Kanye’s divergence from “formal english” and use of taboo for emotional emphasis, in the line’– give a fuck about–is you as a person’.
Interestingly, Taylor’s language is far less indignant and righteous during the phone call in comparison to her later interactions with Kanye. At points she sounds almost simpering, perhaps due to her heavy repetition of the intensifier ‘really’ and the verb ‘appreciate‘, which has connotations of thanks and admiration. this is obvious throughout the initial stage of the recorded conversation, as Taylor repeatedly states positive, grateful phrases such as ‘ I really appreciate you telling me about it! That’s really nice… asking if I’m ok with it, I really appreciate it…‘. Taylor even agrees that the line is comedic-if provocative- saying ‘it’s obviously very tongue in cheek either way‘.
From all the evidence presented within the call it appears clear that both sides of the conversation are suitably happy with the lyrics and the actions of their other. In the last shared Snapchat clip Taylor herself says ‘there’s not one line there that hurts my feelings‘, which certainly suggests a general contentment, or at least resignation, with the lyricisms. A few elements of the conversation piqued the interest of fans however, due to their exact wording or the theorised purpose of some inclusions on Kanye’s part.
One such inclusion would be that Kanye’s apparently tangential question to Taylor before commencing conversation, a simple ‘you still got the Nashville number?’. As theorised by reddit user j__ricky in the hiphopheads subreddit (a firmly pro-Kanye forum), ‘Kanye might be the smartest man on earth. Tennessee… has one party consent laws. Ye was double checking to make sure he wouldn’t (get) sued for recording the conversation.’ If this is in fact true, it would suggest that Kanye was expecting a later betrayal from Taylor, which isn’t exactly a shining character recommendation in itself; these thoughts were echoed by reddit user VolatileBeans, who replied with ‘if this was actually an accident… it’s like God came down and blessed Ye and protected him from the snake.’ The imagery hidden within this simile is hardly subtle, suggesting that Taylor is in fact equal to the original betrayer, due to the biblicial connotations of snakes in conjunction with God. It also holds meaning due to the more modern usage of snake as a zoomorphism, which also connotates untrustworthiness. Kim also used ‘snake’ in this context, tweeting ‘wait it’s legit National Snake Day?!?!? They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days!‘. The rather intentional freudian slip of referring to snakes (an animal) using the definitely human pronoun of ‘everybody‘ is intended once again to attribute snakelike characters to Taylor, and their accompanying connotations of traitorous behaviour.
In addition to the musings of Kanye’s fans/ general observers of the West-Swift drama in regards to his intentions, or it would be more accurate to say, his predictions in recording the phone call, we come once again to the lines themselves.
Within the recorded portion of the phone call only one line is mentioned- ‘I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex‘- rather than the offending line ‘I made that bitch famous‘. However, when Taylor refers to the lines she says ‘go with whatever line you think is better‘, indicating that Kanye had perhaps suggested both lines separately. This is evident in her use of the determiner ‘whichever’, which suggests that a singular line could be picked from the pair. From Taylor’s use of ‘go with‘ (a colloquial equivalent to the verb choose) it becomes clear that she was under the impression that Kanye would only use one of the lines, rather than both. Taylor initially seems to be uncaring as to which lyric is used, however later in the conversation she attempts to gently dissuade Kanye away from the ‘I made that bitch famous‘ by suggesting that ‘They’re (Kanye’s audience) gonna be like “yeah she does, it made her famous”.’ Taylor attempts to insinuate that the “bitch” line isn’t as provocative or outspoken as the alternative ‘I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex‘, by her use of the exclamation ‘yeah‘, which denotes affirmation. Taylor implies that Kanye fans will agree with the lines sentiment, and therefore that the “bitch” line will receive less of a reaction; This suggests that Taylor believes provoking a reaction/response within the audience to be Kanye’s main goal.Taylor’s belief that Kanye’s main aim is to create controversy is echoed within her suggestion that ‘You know, it’s more provocative to say “might still have sex”‘. The use of ‘more‘ as a determiner has connotations of a greater quantity, which, when considered in conjunction with Taylor’s belief that controversy is a positive for Kanye, suggests that she is trying to connote the line with more positive results in the context of Kanye’s music. It also suggests that, despite her apparent decision that both lines were suitable, Taylor was obviously inwardly uncomfortable with the specificities of the “bitch” line.
With this knowledge in hand, Kanye’s actions then come in to question; Taylor thought only one line was going to be used- Why did Kanye change his mind? Had he planned to use both lines from the beginning, and if so, is that what prompted him to initially record the conversation?
It’s likely that Kanye was aware the song would create some backlash, due to the nature of Taylor’s fans. Even before the yet more controversial music video was released, the largely white, conservative fan-base of Taylor Swift disregarded Kim’s evidence and reveled in a chance to slander Kanye online. The vast majority of their comments were made on social media platforms such as Facebook (which has a supposedly older, more traditional demographic than the platforms used by Kanye fans e.g. Twitter and the hiphopheads subreddit). The vast majority of comments were implicative of Kanye’s apparent lack of talent and general vulgarity, stating that ‘West is a punk ass good for nothing no talent jerk‘ who ‘could not make anyone famous unless it is in being a lame ass no talent big mouth…‘ or, simply, that ‘Kanye is a scumbag‘. (Funnily enough, the rules of avoiding taboo or hurtful language didn’t appear to apply to the fans, as seen in the aforementioned comments. Fans viewed the entire incredibly public nature of the ‘Famous’ debacle through the lens of observer culture, in this kind of strange, partially removed and social media fuelled bubble, seperate from any emotional response or consideration of others. An example of this would be a tweet from @ziwe, stating that ‘Kim leaking Taylor Swift video is my Game of Thrones‘. This response literally compares the real life actions of Kim, Kanye and Taylor to a television programme designed solely for the purposes of entertainment, once again emphasising the distinction between reality and the celebrity world, despite the first encompassing the latter.
This then prompts a second line of thought. Perhaps Kanye and Taylor planned the controversy and the media exposure from the beginning? It’s not impossible, however it does seem somewhat unlikely given the emotional intensity of Taylor’s aforementioned final response and the fact that her actions actively disappointed her own fans, as seen in multiple comments on reddit and twitter such as ‘Taylor fan here. Can’t think of any defense… She’s clearly doing backstabby stuff when she thinks she’s out of the public eye.‘ and the rather comical ‘live look at Taylor swift publicist‘ complete with the attached image of a charmander setting fire to it’s surroundings whilst trying to put said fires out. An attempt at creating media hype also seems unlikely given that Taylor states ‘I’m like this close to over exposure right now‘ within the phone call, in reference to her recent break up with Calvin Harris and the highly negative way in which he presented her on his twitter, prior to any actions of Kim and Kanye.
Although this is entirely speculative, one might think that something changed between Taylor and Kanye during or after their call, resulting in the inclusion of both lines. If it was after, the general public will most likely never know, short of an exposé on either Kanye or Taylor. However, during the call there was an element of dialogue from Taylor that could be considered passive aggressive (or, as it’s colloquially known, “petty”) enough to incite a reaction from Kanye, resulting in his decision to use both lines. This could theoretically be pin pointed to Taylor’s monologue of snapchats 11 through to 16, in which she both commends Kanye for his storytelling and “forgives” him for his actions at the 2009 VMA’s, despite his apparent lack of regret or need for forgiveness (see: ‘I did not diss Taylor and I’ve never dissed her‘). Within the line ‘It doesn’t matter if I sold seven million off that album before you did that, which is what happened‘ a few key points become apparent; Taylor would also rather not consider the possibility that Kanye aided her in her rise to fame, implicitly referencing to this with the nonspecific pronoun ‘it‘ in the statement ‘it doesn’t matter‘. Despite not wanting to think about how she rose to her level of stardom, Taylor does care about her earnings and fame, as demonstrated by her exact knowledge of sales and her score keeping against Kanye. This is emphasised by the preposition ‘before‘ in the statement ‘before you did‘ and the additional (and unnecessary) qualify statement ‘which is what happened‘. Perhaps Taylor was merely proud, or was intentionally attempting to remind Kanye of her superior position as an artist in terms of net worth and fame- Either way she played in to her own “omniscent, succesful Taylor vs. jaded, uncultured Kanye” narrative, perhaps providing the very insult necessary to spur Kanye on into including both lines. Of course Kanye would be insulted by the suggestion that Taylor was above him; and of course Taylor would be insulted by the claim that Kanye made her famous.
Whether Taylor took issue with the taboo status of “bitch” or with the suggestion that her fame was entirely built off her interactions with Kanye remains up for debate, but regardless of both, it’s undeniable that Kanye created something quite astounding by touching that nerve of hers.
He broke social media. His wife continued to break social media. He fed the irrepressible beast of observer culture in a way that is paralleled only by Donald Trump, a man about to be in possibly the highest position of power imaginable. And yet, Kanye created just as much of a furor from the simple position of a musician, all be it a succesful one. People sat, watching, enraptured. They changed sides. They provided support, or removed it, all because of a few simple words. And why?
Because he made that bitch famous.