This summer has been particularly strange so far for one of the world’s biggest stars. Or at least it has been for the observers of one of the world’s biggest stars.
At the same time Forbes was crowning Taylor Swift the top-earning celebrity of 2016, with the other kind of receipts totaling $ 170 million, cracks were starting to show in the foundation upon which she built her empire.
First there were a few light tremors, triggered by the relationship known as Hiddleswift planting its steel-tipped flag into the ground with a force that our fickle earth was unprepared for. But believers in true love, freedom, privacy and other sanctities quickly set about patching any blemishes on the surface.
Yet while Swift’s devoted fan base remained unshaken, the fence started getting crowded with the curious and the skeptical, the unconvinced souls peering through the slats, eager to see if a shoe had indeed been dropped—and if the other would soon follow.
Then, last week—many weeks after the Internet figured out that Swift was “oooh”-ing on the chorus of ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris and Rihanna‘s song “This Is What You Came For” and that “co-writer Nils Sjoberg” was actually Swift—TMZ put it out there that Sjoberg was totally Swift. And the site also reported that Swift felt totally betrayed by Harris when he said in an interview the day the song came out that he couldn’t foresee ever collaborating with his then-girlfriend.
Swift’s camp then officially confirmed that she wrote the song and used the alias.
A source told E! News that Swift agreed to not promote her role in the song when it came out so as not to overshadow her boyfriend, and Harris tweeted as much, calling her lyric-writing skills “amazing.”
But what a difference a breakup can make. Especially when it was almost immediately followed by what looked like Swift and Tom Hiddleston auditioning for The Amazing Race, with cheekily branded swimwear and everything.
“Hurtful to me at this point that her and her team would go so far out of their way to try and make ME look bad at this stage though,” Harris tweeted July 13, presumably referring to the news that Swift was pissed at his interview, as if she had had no idea he was going to deny working together. (Which, if you get into semantics, he didn’t do—rather, he said it wouldn’t happen in the future.)
“I figure if you’re happy in your new relationship you should focus on that instead of trying to tear your ex bf down for something to do,” the EDM star continued. “I know you’re off tour and you need someone new to try and bury like Katy ETC but I’m not that guy, sorry. I won’t allow it. Please focus on the positive aspects of YOUR life because you’ve earned a great one.”
OK, there’s a time and a place for everything, and this wasn’t it. Because Swift didn’t really do anything to him at that point other than just accept her months-old credit for writing a melody and some song lyrics—and she did that rather quietly.
But the aforementioned fence, already crowded with the curious, started to look like a scene out of The Walking Dead. Wide-eyed, gaping faces everywhere, agitated hands rattling the gate, chomping at the bit and declaring the #TaylorSwiftPartyIsOver because—aw, damn—Harris had just called Swift out for being vengeful and manipulative.
Though while this didn’t look good for Swift, and the sheer realization that so many people were on the fence about her in the first place was surprising, Harris didn’t exactly do himself any favors. He already had his hit record and he’s been working, traveling and surrounded by pals since the split. Moreover, it wasn’t as if he could be accused of moving on too fast should he venture out on a date.
Harris, though you couldn’t really blame him for his Twitter tantrum, came off looking pretty petty.
And then on the evening of July 17, Kim Kardashian set fire to the fence.
After insisting in her recent GQ interview that a recording existed of Swift talking to Kanye West about his song “Famous”—in which he rapped “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous”—Kim encouraged Twitter to check out her Snapchat.
Off our thumbs trotted to Snapchat, only to find, in snippet after captivating snippet, a video of Kanye talking to Taylor on speakerphone, telling her all about the “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” line—and Swift getting a kick out of it. If a part of the talk existed in which Swift warned West about sending a “strong misogynistic message,” as she originally claimed, no one got to hear it.
“Umm, yeah I mean go with whatever line you think is better. It’s obviously very tongue in cheek either way. And I really appreciate you telling me about it, that’s really nice,” Taylor was heard telling Kanye on the recording.
Call it shade, call it tea, call it receipts, call it what you will: Twitter had never eaten a pop star alive so quickly. The fence was no match for the thousands of hungry souls who poured forth to crash the #KimExposedTaylorParty.
By the time Swift’s well-thought-out statement (it was pointed out that her screen grab indicated it was something she had searched for because it already existed on her phone) hit the Internet, in which she pointed out that she hadn’t heard the finished product and in the end hadn’t enjoyed being called “that bitch,” the damage was done.
With cracks in Swift’s meticulously manicured image already starting to show, Kimye sent the whole construct crashing down.
Or did they?
It’s not as though Taylor didn’t have her share of instantaneous support online. The recording didn’t turn her devoted fan base against her—Swifties are standing strong.
Now, however, the expert defense isn’t so much about how she’s a lovely girl, leave her alone. But rather headlines such as “Taylor Swift Is Cold-Blooded and Calculating. That’s What Makes Her a Great Pop Star” (Vox) and “I Don’t Care if Taylor Swift Lied & Here’s Why” (Refinery 29).
Forbes, the actual-receipt counters, stated: “Taylor Swift’s Carefully Cultivated Image Is Starting to Crack.” Then there’s the “Taylor Swift 1989-2016” pictures making the rounds, which is just creepy—and more than a tad premature.
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
But it is as if Swift, the person, has been left for dead and everyone’s moving on to dissect her image—even though, truth be told, the image was all anyone ever had to work with in the first place.
It may only be Swift the person, however, who decides where this all goes next.
Because while we’re all into “perfect,” and “flawless,” and “everything,” the Internet has been known to take issue with perfect on a person who’s obviously trying to be perfect. Just ask Anne Hathaway.
“People will ride with anything that’s against you when they don’t like you,” Charlamagne Tha God, co-host of Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, told E! News this week in response to the Kimye vs. Taylor controversy.
“When people really don’t like you, they will ride anything or anybody that’s against you. So even though a lot of these people really don’t like Kim, they don’t like Taylor more. When Kim exposes Taylor… that’s the world we live in where celebrities are perfect. Taylor is the epitome of the perfect celebrity. All her moves are calculated. She never really makes any mistakes. She says the right things. She does the right things. So people were just waiting, waiting to have a reason to really get at her so this is their reason. Because in their mind they’re like no one can be this perfect, she’s fake. As soon as they get a little inkling that she may be fake, or she may not be telling the truth. They couldn’t wait to jump on this bandwagon, so it’s just that simple. People will ride with anything that’s against you when they don’t like you.”
But as Hathaway also proved—being the target of the most inexplicable brand of criticism from no one particularly important while winning a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an Oscar in 2013—what the online haters are saying often doesn’t reflect business as usual.
Does anyone actually think Swift’s next album is in trouble? It isn’t. If it came out tomorrow (which wouldn’t be a bad idea, since it only has to be remotely good to make all of this go away), it would break sales records, lead to another huge world tour and, most importantly, put her right back in the driver’s seat of her own narrative.
That’s obviously where Swift is most comfortable, controlling her own message in whatever way she sees fit—through song, through fashion, through social media. And she’s been ragingly successful at it. Unstoppable, in fact.
And despite being “exposed” as a businesswoman who’s fiercely protective of her image, so much so that she took Kanye’s “I made that bitch famous” brag more seriously than anyone else did (or wanted people to think she did because she’s got millions of young fans who look up to her as an empowering role model), those who loved Swift before aren’t going to love her any less now.
Or better yet, those who get Taylor can’t validly think any less of her because she’s having some image issues. She’s been a huge star for almost a decade and she’s still a badass, still a success and still a person—an imperfect moment was bound to make her life look a little more real.
And though Swift’s argument—”You don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called ‘that bitch'”—was overshadowed in the moment, it wasn’t lost.
The debate rages over whether that word, even when used by women in an empowering fashion, still has a negative connotation regardless of who’s using it and why.
“With any word it’s all about context,” Charlamagne told us. “It’s kind of like you using the [N-word]. I can use the word as a term of an endearment. I can use the word ‘bitch’ as a term of endearment. You have people historically like Lil’ Kim who called herself the Queen Bitch’ or Trina called herself the ‘baddest bitch,’ but then you have Queen Latifah who did a song called ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ and asked guys ‘who you calling a bitch?’ She didn’t like that. It’s all about context.”
As far as West’s use in “Famous,” while there’s no indication that the rapper meant it as any more than a synonym for ‘girl,’ “I see how it could be taken in a disrespectful way,” Charlamagne added.
And while Taylor’s fans aren’t switching sides anytime soon, neither are Kanye’s. The Life of Pablo debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, controversial entrée into the world and all.
As far as the hoi polloi are concerned, Swift might want to take some time to laugh at all this—herself included—once the dust has settled. That same Internet that’s always lying in wait to pounce will end up coming in handy later, because in this day and age you’re only one viral Tonight Show sketch, Saturday Night Live cameo, “Carpool Karaoke” or Lip Sync Battle appearance away from being the belle of the ball again.
The fans who celebrated 1989‘s first birthday on Twitter as if it were a real person will line up once again to applaud their leader.
Backgrid AU / AKM-GSI
The longer Swift and Tom Hiddleston stay together, the better that might look to people still hung up on that perceived infraction, but we aren’t in the business of encouraging people to stay together for any reason other than love and we aren’t going to start now.
Happily, a source told E! News that Hiddleston has been awesome throughout this nonsense, that he’s been “supporting her and enjoying the time he’s having with her.”
Moreover, “she’s been writing during her travels, and Tom has been an inspiration in her music.”
See, and that’s Taylor’s real life. Her work, her guy and, sure, the artistry with which she combines the two. She blends the public and private like a boss, and you can’t have a star without an image. There’s no such thing.
Just as what went down on Twitter a few nights ago will have no bearing on Swift’s actual life in the long run, the tide will only truly rise or fall on the strength of the music that connects her to all her fans.
And so the party rages on.