Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and the 2010s moment of artistic transcendence in popular music

The headlines about Kanye West and Taylor Swift are deceptive. We learn about them through their controversy, which, when it finally fades from view, reveals two musicians locked in artistic combat and collaboration. Country music and Chicago hip hop are contrasting locations for the artistic birthplace of these two popular musicians. Kanye is older and therefore the influence seems to flow downstream — such as Taylor collaborating with Bon Iver on folklore a decade after Bon Iver aided Kanye West on the seminal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which followed the MTV Awards event when Kanye interrupted Taylor’s award speech to declare Beyoncé the rightful winner. Sure enough, Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ was technically refined, but so, in its own way, was Taylor’s ‘Belong With Me’. Taylor’s greatest artistic moments were yet to come, as were Beyoncé’s — and, as it happens, Kanye’s. All artists had laid the technical foundations of artistry, from Beyoncé’s exquisite performances to Kanye’s eclectic production to Taylor’s elegant songwriting.

I miss this moment, partly because I forgot it ever happened. (Left to right: Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian.)

Beyoncé stunned the world with ‘Run The World (Girls)’ in 2011, a year after Kanye’s Twisted Fantasy involved collaborations with Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and other emerging names in hip hop, R&B, and popular music in general. Taylor Swift’s Red in 2012 begun the shift to artistic greatness in reputation, Lover, folklore, and evermore, after the Graduation-esque moment of 1989 and the subsequent MTV-esque moment of the Life of Pablo’s album and the disputed lyricism which referenced Taylor directly, seemingly undermining the Kanye-style apology of Dark Twisted Fantasy, a ‘toast to the scumbags, every one of them that I know’.

Is it surprising that popular music reached an artistic height with Billie Eilish’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Now, the Yeezus– and reputation-influenced production of this album is combining with the lyrical directness of Taylor Swift on albums like Sabrina Carpenter’s ‘emails i can’t send’. Something hollow, however, lurks in the underbelly of popular music, a hollowness which reflects the loss of the fullness and majesty of pop songs such as Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl (In the World)’ and ‘Diamonds’. We are left trying to pick up the pieces.

But that’s the thing. Nothing went wrong. We are empty because we were full. We are hungry for something more because, for a moment, we had it. And Kanye West and Taylor Swift, in their own ways, are testament to that. I think history will look on their music favourably, even though in our time we cannot stop obsessing over the confusing news cycle. In today’s Hobbesian war of every artist against every artist, the artists that will be remembered those that kept releasing great music (or artistry of any form — visual, auditory, literary) nonetheless. I am hopeful. For that hope, I thank these inspirations of mine. I can’t wait for what comes next in the evolution of music.

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