Couldn’t Do Without Me: Why Taylor vs. Kanye Feels Like Kobe vs. Shaq
The permanently corrosive dynamic between the two pop stars resonates like the sparring between the two NBA MVPs
If there’s been one constant to the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, it’s been an element of true shock. When Taylor outs herself as a Calvin Harris ghostwriter, and he goes on a Twitter spree to defend himself while Katy Perry side-eyes from the sidelines, it’s all surprising, but it still feels like a game whose participants are playing within the rules, keeping one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the referee. But when it’s fourth-meal hour and all of a sudden Kim Kardashian is Snapchatting private phone conversations between Tay and ‘Ye that make good on months-old threats, it’s almost an out-of-body level of Is this really happening? When Taylor gets into it with Calvin and Katy, it’s Draymond Green and Steven Adams angrily mouthing off at one another after a hard foul. When Taylor shares headlines with Kanye, it’s the Malice at the Palace.
When Kanye West’s “Famous” video premiered back in June, it was instantly clear that the song’s visual was intended, first and foremost, to provide that jaw-dropping sensation of coloring well outside the lines of celebrity culture. With SEO-baiting wax likenesses of cultural pariahs and punchlines like Donald Trump, Ray J, and Bill Cosby — all nude in bed alongside Kanye, Kim, and a half-dozen other mega-celebs — there were simply too many ledes to bury. But amid all of the visual rabble-rousing, only one image truly unnerved: that of a topless and sleeping faux-Taylor, a picture that would feel invasive and violating even if you didn’t know the complex history between the two artists.
But of course, that history just made those lingering shots of an unconscious, exposed Taylor figure all the more unsettling. Given the public dialogue the two camps had already had over Swift’s role in “Famous” — Kanye claimed she heartily approved of the lyric suggesting the two hook up on grounds that he “made that bitch famous,” Taylor heavily implied otherwise, Kanye proclaimed her “cool no more” — it would seem the video was further return-fire, like taping a naughty drawing of Taylor to the walls of pop music’s lunchroom. Now, Swift has been revealed (via Kim’s intrepid video journalism) as at least partly deceitful in her portrayal of the events leading up to “Famous” — she was documented as giving her unqualified approval for at least Kanye’s fame-and-fornication sentiments, if not necessarily the exact wording. In retrospect, whether the video constitutes outright bullying (and possibly worse), or merely reprisal against a foe with more insidious methods of manipulation, may simply depend on who your sympathies already lay with.
It’s appropriate that Kanye debuted the “Famous” video at the Forum in Los Angeles, because the only other celebrity feud this century to resonate the way his and Taylor’s does came between two giants who once roamed its halls. The rivalry between once-Lakers teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant was a solar eclipse over the early-’00s NBA, a once-in-a-sports-lifetime clash between two players of cosmic ability, ego, and stubbornness, forced by time and circumstance to co-exist in pursuit of (ostensibly) the same goal. The conflict swirled long and fast enough to suck up enough drama for a dozen reality shows: Money, sex, betrayal, violence, and legal action were all encompassed. Reading over the Wikipedia summary of the feud today, it’s almost unimaginable to think of even five percent of that aggression transpiring between two teammates a little more than a decade later. If it had been around back then, there’s no way Twitter would have survived past 2004.
What made the Shaq and Kobe feud truly fascinating, though, wasn’t the level of hostility involved, but the inherent contrast between the two players at the heart of it. Chuck Klosterman addressed this in a 2008 breakdown of the rivalry for ESPN, where he pointed out that the overwhelming majority of intra-team beefs came from players who were fundamentally alike attempting to occupy the same narrow space; Bryant and O’Neal, on the other hand, were united only by their desires to win and to humiliate the other. Kobe and Shaq were unable to mesh as co-workers because at the core, they wanted different things, and contrasted wildly in how they pursued them: Kobe yearned only for NBA greatness and pushed himself and teammates relentlessly to achieve it; Shaq was just as concerned with winning at life as he was winning at basketball, and his lax-by-comparison work ethic reflected it. Kobe hated Shaq because the mammoth center was the most physically gifted basketball player of his generation, but was too busy maximizing his celebrity to maximize his talent; Shaq hated Kobe because he wouldn’t just give him the ball and let him do his thing, on or off the court.
Kanye and Taylor don’t make for a perfect analogy with Kobe and Shaq — their feud obviously crosses lines of gender and race that makes unpacking the dynamics behind it a more complex proposition, and the two Top 40 titans don’t have their relationship walled in by being employed by the same organization. But as two of the five biggest acts in popular music today, Kanye and Taylor do share the same arena, figuratively and often literally, and like Kobe and Shaq, they’ll never truly get along because they’ll never see things the same way.
Taylor’s approach to pop music is methodical, carefully titrated, and virtually pre-scripted — until this week, there was never a time when it seemed like she didn’t already have the next four years of her career carefully and reasonably planned out. Kanye, on the other hand, thrives on his own unpredictability; he’s the only contemporary pop star legitimately capable of providing fans with that DMX feeling because he’s the only one who truly doesn’t know his gameplan before he takes hold of the mic at center stage. Taylor gets eight brilliant minds in a room to figure out how to write the empirically flawless pop single, Kanye brings in another eight geniuses to figure out how to f**k up the LP format forever. Taylor games the system better than any pop star this century, Kanye refuses to acknowledge that the system exists.
The differences between the two future Hall-of-Famers have never been better-illustrated than the entire “Famous” experience. Taylor is certainly no stranger to bringing the celebrity world into her song lyrics in a less-than-flattering context: “Bad Blood” was said to be a missive against Katy Perry’s doublespeak, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” put Jake Gyllenhaal’s impetuousness on blast, and “Forever & Always” excoriated Joe Jonas for being the quintessential Typical Male. But the key point is in that “said to” — Taylor always dropped hints about the suspects behind her songs but never offered explicit confirmation; even the one time she did drop her target’s name on a record, she hid it within a euphemism to give herself plausible deniability. Kanye, on the other hand, is (as the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica recently put it) a “namer of names”: He says Taylor’s within the first two lines of “Famous” and repeats it throughout the song, providing himself zero wiggle room to play coy. Taylor always leaves herself outs. Kanye goes all in with a pair of tens and dares you to call him.
Perhaps the truest marker of Kobe and Shaq’s blood rivalry was that every time it seemed like it had ended, it hadn’t. The two players hugged before an early ’06 contest (with Shaq then on the Miami Heat) and it seemed like the bile had dissipated; two seasons later, Shaq responded to his former co-lead losing in the finals with a freestyle diss built around the refrain “Kobe, tell me how my ass taste?” The duo reconciled again as co-MVPs of the 2009 All-Star Game, with O’Neal unconvincingly explaining their longtime conflict away as a media fabrication; after winning the ’10 finals, Bryant rapturously exclaimed that he had “one more [championship] than Shaq.” They’ve been in something of a détente since O’Neal retired five years ago: Without being compelled to share a floor as peers or rivals, they can afford to wax nostalgic and gloss over the unseemlier parts of their shared history. But with Kobe hanging up his Nikes this past summer, and an eventual (if not immediate) dalliance in broadcasting — Shaq’s current domain — a strong possibility, the sparring may recommence soon enough.
It’s likely the same pattern will play itself out between Kanye and Taylor. The two seemed to officially bury the hatchet at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, with the latter introducing the former as that year’s Video Vanguard recipient and even referencing the incident from six VMAs earlier. But Kanye’s “Famous” braying reopened the door to their conflict, and Taylor certainly stepped through it at this year’s Grammys — now Kim’s Snapchats Heard ‘Round the World have blown it off its hinges. It’s a complete reversal of where the parties were when the rivalry started in 2009: Then, the backlash against Kanye was bad enough after he stormed the VMAs stage that he had to retreat to Hawaii for a year and learn to embrace his dark, twisted side. Now Taylor faces a world where a decade’s worth of creeping internet suspicion over her surprised-face genuineness has exploded into a Twitter-wide cackle of schadenfreude-powered snarking. But the important thing is that both sides are equally plausible as victim and as instigator now. That’s how you know it’s a real rivalry, and that’s how you know that as long as both exist at the center of the pop universe, it will never truly end.
Around this time last year, the music universe was abuzz about the burgeoning feud between Drake and Meek Mill, a tête-à-tête between two chart-topping rappers built on conversation-sparking issues of credibility, toughness, and the true meaning of hip-hop. But by the time the calendar turned to 2016, we’d already lost interest: Drake had won, the fight had never been a totally fair one to begin with, and any aftershocks delivered after the end of the initial earthquake made both participants look petty and bored. The unbalanced power dynamic between the crossover superstar and the underground hero made Meek’s return to the periphery feel like a natural conclusion.
Taylor and Kanye’s bad blood will not follow such a script. Anyone who wants to consider this latest mic-drop to be Taylor’s vanquishing woefully underestimates both her importance to the pop world and the singularity of her artistry: She might take a similar sabbatical to Kanye’s in ’09, but she’ll be back, and she’s given us ten years’ evidence that she indeed does this vengeance thing pretty well. And so it will go between the two, on and on, until one (or both) of them decides to recede from the spotlight altogether.
Like with Kobe and Shaq, no one will ever win between Taylor and Kanye because the enormity of their talents and personalities makes it impossible for either of them to be shunted to the side of the stage. No one will ever win between Taylor and Kanye because they wouldn’t define victory the same way, anyway. No one will ever win between Taylor and Kanye because they’re never more themselves than when they’re cast in opposition to the other. No one will ever win between Taylor and Kanye because we’ll never be able to truly separate one from the other — not as long as they’re sharing space in pop culture’s enormous bed together.