Taylor Swift, Kanye West rule the music scene now, but who will last? – Kansas City Star

When pop stars collide: The classic encounter in 2009 when Kanye West took the microphone from Taylor Swift during an awards show. 
When pop stars collide: The classic encounter in 2009 when Kanye West took the microphone from Taylor Swift during an awards show.

As she accepted her award for favorite female country artist at November’s American Music Awards, Taylor Swift said, “I only want to thank the fans.”

And, she added, “I think it’s something really wonderful and rare to feel understood. And to my fans, I want to say, ‘You guys get me and you know where I’m coming from.’ ”

What on the surface sounded like noble appreciation for the people who buy her records and concert tickets — as opposed to those who are behind the scenes and on her payroll — was also a jab at her critics: If you don’t like me, you don’t understand me.

Swift, 20, was also just named entertainer of the year by Entertainment Weekly magazine — its youngest winner ever. That caps a whirlwind year for Swift, who has navigated and survived some steep ascents and one precarious free-fall over the last 12 months:

•Her third album, “Speak Now,” sold more than 1 million copies the first week of its release in October, the first album to accomplish that in almost six years.

•Last month, she announced her first stadium tour, which stops at Arrowhead on Sept. 24 next year.

•Last January, she won four Grammy Awards (she was nominated for eight), including album of the year.

But that Grammy show was also her moment of infamy: During Swift’s duet with Stevie Nicks, she gave the world an earful of her naked singing voice. The consequences, which started with a half-second flash of repugnance from Nicks, were brutal.

“In one fell swoop, Taylor Swift consigned herself to the dustbin of teen phenoms,” commentator Bob Lefsetz wrote the following day in his online Lefsetz Letter. Well, apparently not. But at the time it seemed she had suffered a debilitating fall from grace.

In September 2009, Swift was martyred during another moment of live-TV infamy when Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards. He was vilified by everyone, including the woman he’d rushed to defend, Beyonce.

In the aftermath, West retreated from the public spotlight, and Swift seemed to bask in all the sympathy and support. A lot of the capital she’d inherited from that incident evaporated after her Grammy performance, which put her into both a defensive stance and attack mode.

Which brings us to the end of 2010, a year of rebuilding for Swift and West. Both have emerged from their low points in better but very different places. One question for now: Who appears to be better off in the long run?

On Nov. 22, West released “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” his fifth studio album. “Fantasy” isn’t even three weeks old, but it has already turned gold (more than 500,000 sold), and it tops a lot of end-of-year/best-of lists.

Critically, it has been hailed as another brash, compelling work from one of the true and few provocateurs in popular culture — a guy who transcends the music world.

“(West) has dominated 2010 by doing so many different things that it feels almost naïve to discuss him as a recording artist,” wrote Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker.

West spent 2010 doing more than creating one of the year’s most acclaimed albums. He also rocked a lot of boats. He backed out of his co-headlining tour with Lady Gaga. He abstained from the mainstream media, without disappearing. He spent much of the year on a Twitter rampage/campaign designed to give him unilateral control of his image.

Among those tweets was an apology to Swift that began, “I’ve always been at the mercy of the press, but no more.”

As if to prove that point, he came out of hiding to appear on the “Today” show recently. He wanted to respond to what President George W. Bush had said and written about West’s televised remark in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Bush said it was the lowest moment of his two-term presidency.

But even that good intention went awry when West got politely defensive about footage broadcast while he was speaking. The dust-up was relatively minor, but it got lots of media play, especially on “Today,” and only because West was in the middle of it.

He has not crossed paths with Swift since the 2009 VMAs, but they both performed at this year’s show. He sang the new song “Runaway,” a self-effacing toast to scoundrels in life and love. It was his way of saying, “I know what I am.”

She sang a song called “Innocent” that was written about him: “Thirty-two and still growing up now / Who you are is not what you did / Today is never too late to be brand new.”

Swift’s tactics following her Grammy pratfall were to hunker down with her fans and friends and ignore the part of the world that looked at her only as an industry concoction and the world’s leading importer of Auto-Tune and pitch-correction.

Immediately after the Grammys, Scott Borchetta, head of her label, Big Machine Records, said of her performance: “This is not ‘American Idol.’ This is not a competition of getting up and seeing who can sing the highest note. This is about a true artist and writer and communicator. It’s not about that technically perfect performance.”

Swift responded in song, too, and not just with “Innocent.” Another track on “Speak Now,” titled “Mean,” appears to be written directly to someone. Speculation has even targeted Lefsetz for his rant, although he has staunchly defended her recorded music. In the song, Swift plays the victim:

“(You) got me feeling like a nothing?/ You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard?/ Calling me out when I’m wounded?/ You, picking on the weaker man.”

But for the most part, instead of talking or writing about it, Swift let the odor of the Grammy incident fade and the fragrance of so much good news take over. Her album remains in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200 chart, the only country album in the Top 10. Shows on her 2011 tour are selling out instantly. Tickets for the June 25 show at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., were gone within five minutes, Billboard reported. And now there’s the Entertainment Weekly crown for best entertainer, despite the pedestrian quality of her live shows.

During his defense of her, Borchetta called Swift, “the voice of this generation.”

True, I suppose. It’s a voice that (primarily) a lot of girls are listening to, from 5-year-olds to teenagers and their mothers. Swift typically sings about girlhood from the perspective of an outcast. She writes about puppy love and romance and crushes and school politics and the boys and friends who ruin them. And it all registers with those who are right in the middle of it. Those are the fans who know where she’s coming from.

But no matter what part of this generation she speaks for, like every other, it will grow up and move on to heavier issues, say, marriage, divorce, death, even politics. Can Swift move on with them? Few transitions in music are harder to ford than one from “teen phenom” to adult star. It has derailed some of the mightiest.

2010 has been the biggest year of Taylor Swift’s six-year career, but will it be the peak of the ascent? Will her base outgrow her?

West, on the other hand, seems poised to remain a vibrant, defiant contributor to music and pop culture for a while. He has expressed remorse for his worst transgressions but not exactly regret or deep contrition, which can be taken as a sign of weakness or retreat. All of that comes from the pit of his firebrand personality, which, artistically, is his best friend.

In an online discussion about “Fantasy,” New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica was asked whether this record was the culmination of West’s career or just another lofty height he has conquered on the way to others.

“He’s fundamentally not capable of making a bad record,” Caramanica said. “His artistic level is so high, his skill level is so high and his sense for the pulse of public interest is so high, you’ll never see him release a record that doesn’t exist at the intersection of all three.”

For a guy who has collaborated with some unlikely bedfellows — most recently nouveau folkie Bon Iver — it’s not illogical to think that West might one day work with Swift. He has already confessed to writing a song for her.

As unlikely as that seems right now, when, whether she deserves it or not, Taylor Swift is as popular as anyone in pop culture, it seems reasonable to imagine a day when she or her career could use another intervention from Kanye West.

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