Kim Kardashian vs Taylor Swift: a battle of two PR styles

This feud represents a battle between two very different styles of storytelling.

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“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” Taylor Swift writes in a statement released to the world via an Instagram post. She is upset that she has been “falsely painted as a liar” in a series of events that amount to “character assassination”. Someone is offering the world a story about her, a story in which she is the villain. Swift doesn’t want to accept that role.

How did we get here? If you haven’t been following the drama of Swift vs West for the past seven years, here are the basics of what we know. In 2009, Swift was awarded the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video. Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech to insist that, with “Single Ladies”, a song nominated for the same award, Beyoncé “had one of the best videos of all time”. West’s reputation as (in Barack Obama’s words) “a jackass”, was cemented: the majority of people watching at home were resoundingly on Swift’s side. West apologised. Fast forward a few years, and the two have kissed and made up: at the 2015 VMAs, Swift presented West with an award of his own. A month later, West sends Swift flowers – she posts a picture of them to Instagram, hastags it #BFFs, and it becomes her most popular post to the site. Then, in February of this year, West debuts his new album, including the song “Famous”, which contains the lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? / I made that bitch famous” – tabloids were shocked. West claims that he had Swift’s approval. Swift denied it, in her first of several statements she would make in relation to this incident.

 

FYI re Kanye/Taylor/"Famous" aka mom and dad broke up again

A photo posted by joncaramanica (@joncaramanica) on

 

At the Grammy Awards a few days later, Swift made a thinly veiled allusion to those who “try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame”. West claimed that despite her comments, Swift had approved the lyrics in question during a phone call. A video for the song comes out, showing a naked Swift lookalike in bed next to West – many labelled it misogynistic. At this point, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, started to defend her husband, insisting that the phone conversation had happened on film in an interview with GQ – and that she has the tapes. In a somewhat condescending statement, Swift denied that she had ever heard the song or approved the specific lyrics in question, but confirmed that Kanye West had called her to ask her something else about the song.

“Taylor does not hold anything against Kim Kardashian as she recognizes the pressure Kim must be under and that she is only repeating what she has been told by Kanye West. However, that does not change the fact 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. Kim Kardashian’s claim that Taylor and her team were aware of being recorded is not true, and Taylor cannot understand why Kanye West, and now Kim Kardashian, will not just leave her alone.”

Then, last night, just after an episode of her reality show Keeping Up With The Kardashians aired discussing the whole affair, Kim Kardashian West posted the video footage to her Snapchat.

 

In the video we see Kanye reading her the line “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex”. We don’t see him reading the line about how he made her famous, but we can tell that something that is at least similar is read, by Swift’s response: “You honestly didn’t know who I was before that. It doesn’t matter if I sold seven million of that album before you did that, which is what happened. You didn’t know who I was.” Less than an hour later, Swift released a statement which emphasises that she was not aware that she would be referred to as “that bitch” in the song, hence her change in tone.

 

That moment when Kanye West secretly records your phone call, then Kim posts it on the Internet.

A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

 

The charitable reading of Swift is that she was overly nice to West on the phone without knowing the specifics. The less charitable reading is that she wanted the lyric to be released to the public, but to also publically reject it as misogynistic: because, as Kim Kardashian West says on KUWTK, she wanted to “play the victim” as “it worked so well for her the first time”. Many agreed with Kardashian West. #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty and #KimExposedTaylorParty started trending on Twitter – the most enthusiastic followers of to-the-minute celebrity gossip felt it was high time the sweet, girlish singer was “exposed” as something a lot less innocent. People were taking sides – and they chose Kim’s.

Kim Kardashian West and Taylor Swift have very different types of fame, and very different approaches to being famous, but both are powerful women renowned – infamous, even – for controlling their public image down to the minute details. They have both spent years crafting channels that give the illusion of intimacy with their audiences, building relationships (romantic and otherwise) with other celebrities, turning unsavoury tabloid stories to their own advantage, carefully selecting which parts of their personal lives to share with the world. As Taylor’s fear of “narrative” exemplifies, they are, in essence, storytellers. This feud represents a battle between two very different styles of storytelling.

The Swift style is one that builds on an existing popularity. While she has been subject to all the mean, sexist jibes a patriarchal culture can throw at a woman in the spotlight, her personal brand has always rested on a certain level of mainstream approval: her fans adored her, critics were positive about her songwriting as well as her singing ability, fashion magazines liked her gorgeous physique and cute outfits, she came across as polite and funny in interviews. Like millions of girls worldwide posing in Instagram posts in dressed-down sweats but perfect make-up, Swift and her team spent a lot of time and effort trying to make her seem both flawless and effortless. She dialled up the down-to-earth aspect of her personality, posting pictures of childhood friends on Instagram as well as snaps of her with Blake Lively and Lena Dunham, making jokes about her mean cats and unrebellious persona, and falling off treadmills in commercials, even with a body that belies a rather more intimate acquaintance with gym equipment.

But much of this technique also depended on what Swift would hold back on. She would court her fans with gifts and surprise appearances, sometimes uploading videos of the events to her YouTube channel, but often relying on them to share their experiences with the media themselves. When stories of her relationships with Joe Jonas and Jake Gyllenhaal and Harry Styles would hit the tabloids, she would remain silent and dignified in the media, but drop knowing references in her albums. The Swift style drip-feeds a combination of picture-perfect moments and friendly, relatable asides to its audience over time. It’s all about hinting at a story that paints Taylor in a positive light, and letting fans fill in the gaps for themselves. In the snapchat videos, after Kanye reads out the offending line, Swift first responds “I am, like, this close to overexposure.” Swift knows her brand can’t survive too much revelation too often.

The Kardashian style has no such luxury. When your career begins with a leaked sex-tape, you start on the defensive. From the offset, Kim Kardashian embraced oversharing – capitalising on the public interest in her following the tape by posing for Playboy and signing up for Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The show deals with unpleasant rumours head on – there are episodes devoted to discussing the sex tape, Kim’s failed marriages, her relationship with Kanye West, even whether her butt is real, in minute detail. The show discusses even the most banal aspects of Kardashian family life – which has been brilliantly parodied by fans online.

In fact, the Kardashians go one step further than that – there are levels to this sharing. KUWTK is supposedly a behind-the-scenes look at celebrity life, but you can go behind the scenes of the show itself via each family member’s Snapchat, and behind the scenes of that via any one of their paywall-protected apps. They all work extremely hard to make nothing seem off-limits. For Kim Kardashian West, then, pretending that gossip is beneath you is out of the question. Instead, you anticipate every story, you keep your receipts, and follow through every accusation to the letter. In doing so, you simultaneously take back control and capitalise on public interest by literally reframing media gossip as an entertainment programme in which you are the star.

Swift’s use of suggestion in her PR has meant that she has never had to discuss relationships with friends, partners or rivals in detail, despite previous high-profile fallouts with West, Katy Perry and Calvin Harris, to name a few. That is, until she came head to head with Kardashian West.

The incident might have ended there, if Kim hadn’t decided to defend her husband. Last night’s episode of KUWTK paints the events as follows. Kanye decided to riff on the Taylor trouble in his new album. We see footage from the recording studio, in which Kanye rehearses an even more troubling version: “I think Taylor Swift might owe me sex / Why? / I made that bitch famous”. Kim then mentions that her husband called for approval – we don’t see the video, presumably because Swift did not consent to appear in the show – and is shocked when Swift claims otherwise.

Kim was simply sick and tired of people trashing her husband. “I’ve so had it,” she drawls. “I just felt like I wanted to defend him.” So she gets involved. We see video of her in the studio with her husband as she says this, but not the tape itself.

The next scene is astonishing – whether choreographed or not. We see Kanye’s PR call Kim, not Kanye, to tell her that Taylor Swift’s team have discovered audio files of Kanye trashing Taylor for denying her approval was given. Kanye seems fairly relaxed about this on the phone, but curious about the legality of the situation, which Kim explains to him with impressive speed and confidence.

Kanye: I don’t care – like, I was mad. Is that illegal for them to record me?

Kim: Not in New York! Not in New York.

Kim sighs, “My full-time job is [being] your publicist,” while Kanye assents “I mean if you think it’s a big deal I’m gonna follow your lead.” Kim then gives him direct instructions. “Lay off Twitter for a little bit. Let me see what the team say.” Later, she discusses Taylor and the footage in question with GQ, which the show somewhat unconvincingly presents as a spur-of-the-moment decision, with Kim exclaiming to Kourtney, “My publicist is gonna die.”

Of course, Kim Kardashian West’s best publicist is herself, especially when she seems at her most uncensored. And by sharing the footage of the actual incident at the same time on her Snapchat, Kardashian West skirts around the issues of legality she has proven herself to be deeply aware of, creates explosive promotional material for her show, and backs Swift into a corner where she is forced to backpedal with formal statement after formal statement, while Kardashian West continues to appear informal, spontaneous, and honest via Snapchat and jokey tweets. This was a clash between two very different stories. Kim’s story won.

Of course, there are other narratives going on here too. In a certain circle of pop culture, between 2009 and today, Taylor Swift has gone from victim to villain – and she can’t exclusively blame Kim and Kanye.

During her transformation from underdog to top dog, Swift became representative of everything America privileges: thinness, wealth, a particular brand of blonde, white beauty. Simultaneously, she capitalised on the popularity of social justice movements by incorporating feminism into her appeal – calling herself a feminist in interviews, heavily publicising her female friendships online. When, in the run-up to the 2014 VMAs, Nicki Minaj noted that her records would be nominated for more awards if she was blonde, white and skinny, Swift took it personally, and replied with some tone-deaf tweets about how women should stick together. She was out of step with the popular opinion of young, liberal, media-obsessed fans, journalists and musicians, open to accusations of hypocrisy, a white artist indirectly denying (both in 2015 and 2009) that non-white artists are overlooked. Arguably, she still hasn’t come back from it.

At the same time, she also failed to keep up with the tonal evolution of social media. Taylor once used Tumblr and her YouTube channel to establish an intimacy with fans – updating regularly, replying to as many individual messages as she could. Now, instead, we get overly posed shots of her birthday and 4 July parties, crowded with famous faces. It feels colder, more try-hard, and more fake – to the extent that people are wondering if her current relationship is, in fact, an elaborate prank. (If it was intended as a distraction from this oncoming storm, it hasn’t worked.) While Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Calvin Harris and Kim Kardashian have all effectively used short, witty tweets to battle her online, Swift herself has struggled to effectively use her social platforms to her advantage. Her latest Instagram post is a real case in point: a screenshot of the Notes app has, “um, and seventh of all…” quality of someone who is rambling because they lack an obvious response, like a bad lie. The “back to search” option also reveals that she has searched for the post in her phone, suggesting it was written a long time ago in preparation for this day, and revealing the PR machine whirring in the background.

“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.” Like any celebrity, Taylor Swift has long tried to control the media narrative surrounding her life. Now, she has lost some of that control. And she wants out. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.