On September 13, 2009, Taylor Swift won the VMA for Best Female Video—how antiquated and binary that designation sounds in 2020!—for “You Belong With Me.” She was a few sentences into her acceptance speech when Kanye West ambushed her, snatched the mic out of her hands, and said: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! Of all time!”
That song was from Swift’s second studio album, when she was still crossing over from country into what she would become. While she’d been in the public eye for a few years, she was still a few months shy of her twentieth birthday. West was 32 and well established. He’d just released 808s & Heartbreak and was working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—what would be, although we didn’t know it at the time, the apogee of his musical career.
She smiled and took the interruption—and the humiliating insult—in stride. She went high, as the saying goes. This was Kanye being Kanye, and she liked Kanye. Internally, though, she seethed. What was one in a long line of embarrassing moments for Kanye West was traumatic for Taylor Swift. And it looks a lot uglier in hindsight than it did in 2009—although it looked ugly then, too:
The incident linked the artists forever. So it’s fitting that Midnights, Swift’s first new studio album in two years, dropped just as West, with his disgusting anti-Semitic remarks on top of his “White Lives Matter” shirt on Tucker Carlson, has publicly set his career on fire. He is irredeemable now.
West once decreed that he would be remembered as “the voice of this generation.” That’s debatable. But there’s no question that Swift is one of the avatars of Gen Y. She’s as Millennial as side hustles and avocado toast.
The formula for her deeply personal lyrics is well known by now: She dates a guy, it ends badly, she feels the feels and writes a song about what went down. All of her pain and insecurity and trauma and despair fuels her creative process. The Taylor Swift who lives happily ever after is a Taylor Swift who stops cranking out new songs.
All of this would get really old really fast if she didn’t know exactly how to cut the raw diamonds of her heartache. As she puts it in “Bejeweled:” “I polish up real nice.” The trick is, there’s never a moment where she gets too woe-is-me. Her self-criticism is withering. Bad things happen to her, yes, but she accepts her share of responsibility for it. That’s what separates her from MAGA shock jocks, libertarian space explorers, and Kanye West.
She is one of the most famous and successful artists on earth, but she can sing about personal stuff that her audience can relate to. And that audience is both vast and inclusive. I’m hardly the target demo for her music, but it reaches me, too.
I’m pleased to report that Midnights is really good—yet another top-notch Taylor Swift record. (Not 1989 good, but close.) The melody lines and the arrangements are solid and hook-laden. Sometimes she tries too hard, sometimes there are clunkers in the lyrics, but there’s always novel turns of phrase and clever wordplay. Take this, from “Anti-Hero:”
I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser.
Midnights become my afternoons,
When my depression works the graveyard shift.
All of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.
I should not be left to my own devices.
They come with prices and vices,
I end up in crisis.
The double meaning of both “ghosted” and “devices” is used brilliantly there. This line, from the same song, is merciless:
Did you hear my covert narcissism
I disguise as altruism like some kind of Congressman?
Swift’s songwriting has evolved over time. I’ve now listened to Midnights twice all the way through—it dropped two days ago—and the preoccupations of the 32-year-old Swift are different than what drove her 13 years ago. “Vigilante Shit” is not something she would have come up with in the aftermath of the 2009 VMAs:
Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man.
You did some bad things, but I’m the worst of them.
Sometimes I wonder which one will be your last lie.
They say looks can kill and I might try.
I don’t dress for women,
I don’t dress for men.
Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge.
I don’t start shit, but I can tell you how it ends.
Don’t get sad, get even.
So on the weekends,
I don’t dress for friends.
Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge.
She needed cold hard proof, so I gave her some.
She had the envelope, where you think she got it from?
Now she gets the house, gets the kids, gets the pride.
Picture me thick-as-thieves with your ex-wife,
And she looks so pretty,
Driving in your Benz.
Lately she’s been dressing for revenge.
In 2016, seven years after the fact, Kanye was still obsessing over Taylor Swift and the VMAs. Apparently, he was of the belief that had he not jumped onstage and elevated her with his attention, she would have drifted off to obscurity. This is from his song of that year, “Famous:”
For all my Southside n—s that know me best:
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.
Why? I made that bitch famous. (Goddamn!)
I made that bitch famous.
For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West:
If you see ‘em in the streets give ‘em Kanye’s best.
Why? They mad they ain’t famous. (Goddamn!)
They mad they still nameless. (Talk that talk, man!)
Incredible, right, that a guy that charming would turn out to be a dick!
There was controversy around that track, too: West claimed he told Swift about the song and she approved it; she said that wasn’t true; audio of their phone convo was leaked(!); and it turns out, he only told her about the “might still have sex” line and not the part about calling her “that bitch,” which is what (rightly) upset her. (If you’re curious, as I was this morning, People magazine provided a timeline of their feud.)
But it looks like the war is over, and Taylor Swift has won. Ye, as he now calls himself, is all-in with Trump and Elon Musk and the rest of the fuckateers. He’s declaring he’ll “go death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE.” He’s buying Parler. Kim Kardashian bailed on him. Musically, he’s been mediocre for some time. Even my son, a big fan of Kanye’s music, admits that her last few albums are far better than his. Swift, meanwhile, in addition to extending her remarkable musical apex, has become much more politically active in recent years—and for the good guys. In August 2020, for example, she encouraged her fans to register to vote; 65,000 people did so within 24 hours of her post. And she’s always been generous in her philanthropy.
As she sings in “Karma:” “Ask me why so many fade but I’m still here.” I’ll leave it to the Swiftologists to delve into her lyrical allusions, but it’s hard to read the words to that song and not think about the artist whose first name looks so similar to the title of the track:
Karma is my boyfriend,
Karma is a God,
Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend.
Karma’s a relaxing thought.
Aren’t you envious that for you it’s not?
Sweet like honey,
Karma is a cat
Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me,
Flexing like a goddamn acrobat:
Me and karma vibe like that.
Midnights is plural, suggesting multiple meanings of the word. One of those meanings is the Cinderella midnight, when the clock strikes twelve and something magical ends. The party’s over for Kanye West. Taylor Swift remains the belle of the ball.
We had two guests on The Five 8 this week: cult expert Steven Hassan, and civil rights attorney Andrew Laufer:
I thought this was interesting fact I heard the other day