We all know by now about the Kanye West versus Taylor Swift death match, inaugurated in 2009 over an incident that doesn’t need recapping and recently turned nuclear by a dispute over a problematic rap lyric. Now the whole world knows Swift’s claim to victimhood was upended by Kim Kardashian’s Panama Papers-level snap—a series of videos providing incontrovertible evidence that Swift, despite her claims to the contrary, had verbally approved the entire thing.
The ensuing media circus provided us with a wide range of interpretations. But in the search to isolate the “real meaning” of the Kanye-Taylor feud, we’ve overlooked its true significance. The “Famous” dispute forces us into a new epoch of authenticity-based personal branding, and its implications run deep. This isn’t just a tabloid game-changer; it strikes to the core of twenty-first-century mass media politics.
To understand its significance, we need to take a journey through the history of celebrity branding, all the way back to the sunny innocence of the twentieth century.
Pretending Perfection Used to Be Easier
Before the Internet, brand preservation was a straightforward operation: select an identity, affirm it in public, don’t mess up. When you do mess up, either a) transform the mistake into a redemption narrative, b) exploit it for scandal, or c) employ an army of lawyers to scrub it out of existence.
When venues for celebrity narratives were limited to a handful of magazines, tabloids, and talk show appearances, this was small potatoes. But the birth of the 24/7 social media news cycle inaugurated a new mandate for brand totality. Celebrities could no longer retreat behind PR barriers. They needed to be in public, on brand, all the time, or risk image-shattering consequences.
As anyone who has ever tried to live a life of exterior principles knows, 24/7 devotion to a lifestyle brand is basically impossible. Sure, you may have selected an outward appearance that’s more or less attuned to your internal self, but the fact remains that, from time to time, you’re going to screw it up. You’re going to text your ex-girlfriend when you’re way too drunk, you’re going to buy the GMO tomatoes, you’re going to tweet something that’s a little bit racist.
These are the trials and tribulations of being an imperfect human, radically exacerbated when they come up against the strictures of an aspirational brand. But there’s an easier way to deal with the inherent imperfections of human nature. You can transform your brand into your inability to maintain political correctness.
From a twentieth-century perspective this seems like a cop-out, but look at the most compelling stars of the current decade. Ariana Grande rejected her roots to become a fan-threatening, donut-licking psychopath. Justin Bieber transformed the child-star trainwreck narrative into a pseudo-Christian art form. Kim Kardashian started her career with the cheap trick par excellence and became a face of twenty-first-century feminism.
By weaving screw-ups into the fabric of their being, the best twenty-first-century stars have managed to do something that ten years ago sounded impossible. They’ve maintained their brands under near-constant public exposure. They’ve escaped the impossibilities of celebrity idolatry by becoming imperfect sinners, just like us.
The Twenty-first Century’s Fallen Realism
Who is the unparalleled champion of celebrity imperfection? It would have to be Kanye West. From the start of his career, Kanye has said things that he shouldn’t, on live television, on social media, at award shows, on his own records. In doing so he’s shaped himself into one of the most consistent public figures of the twenty-first century. Is he one of the top ten most-hated people in the country? Probably. But is his brand absolutely untouchable? Undeniably.
But what if you don’t want your brand to revolve around publicly displayed sin and human failure? What if you’ve conceived yourself as an aspirational figure, you need to do whatever you can to preserve that status, and you’re not on direct line with God?
Up until last month, Swift was the master of this strategy. Unlike Beyoncé (our other bastion of perfection, who may be the last great twentieth-century PR firm star), Swift dove into the social media game from the start. As a result she’s sunk uncountable amounts of capital into keeping her brand immaculate. The hired photographers, the fake relationships, and the army of lawyers all speak to that fact. Taylor has done everything she can to play the twenty-first-century PR game by twentieth century rules, and until recently she played it to the top.
This strategy is expensive, exhausting, and—as Kardashian majestically proved—dangerously susceptible to implosion. This is why something as petty as a phone call about a hip hop punchline has done what might be irreparable damage to the image of one of the successful pop stars in history.
Of course it was Kanye and Kim who did it. It had to be. We can conceive of the Kanye-Taylor fight as the crystallization of so many American narratives, but the clearest is a battle between two strategies of authenticity. Taylor is the last gasp of twentieth-century branding idealism, and Kanye is twenty-first-century fallen realism. It was a battle ordained from the start.
This Is Where Clinton and Trump Come In
So why does any of this matter? It’s not because of the racial implications (although that’s there too). It’s not because it lays bare the nuances of digital-age celebrity PR, either. No, it matters because it exemplifies the way the Internet age perceives the personal branding of public figures. In a country where perception of public figures has drastic political consequences, personal branding matters.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Hillary Clinton is Taylor Swift, struggling to maintain the purity of her brand, even when it’s challenged to the core. Donald Trump is Kimye—maniacal, incorrect, loathed, and absolutely untouchable. Like Taylor, Hillary runs the constant risk of betraying her precariously structured public image. Like Kim and Kanye, Trump has created a chaotic firestorm around himself that only strengthens his brand’s impenetrability.
It baffles me when people complain about the attention cultural criticism grants Kim Kardashian. “She’s a reality star—she has no artistic talent. She doesn’t matter.” But look at our country. A reality star with no legitimate political talent was just nominated as the Republican candidate for president.
He made his way into the establishment the same way Kim Kardashian made it: introductory scandal, successful reality show, next-level social media talent. The game that Kim—and Kanye, Rihanna, Ariana, Bieber, Chris Brown, Amber Rose, and basically every rapper in the country—is playing just got the least-qualified candidate in American history nominated for president. Don’t tell me Kim Kardashian doesn’t matter.
And don’t tell me the Kanye-Taylor feud is a distraction from the issues that are actually important. We just watched the masterfully simple character assassination of the American mainstream’s most beloved candidate for pop music queen, executed by Hollywood’s grittiest pair of self-acclaimed outsiders.
This is a world of appearances, and the way appearances interact with one another—even if they are limited to the petty world of celebrity gossip—says a whole lot. It was ownership of a punchline about an award-show snub first. It could be the presidency next.