Wagner: Rift between West and Swift is not so big

By Patrick Wagner

Since the beginning of the modern music industry, the actions of some performers have… Since the beginning of the modern music industry, the actions of some performers have overshadowed their professional work. Kanye West might be the perfect example of that today.

“Yo Taylor. I’m really happy for you. I’mma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” When West spoke those words to country-pop artist Taylor Swift on the stage of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he made himself Celebrity Enemy No. 1.

At the time I was rather undecided about both of artists. Kanye was certainly every bit the egomaniac people made him out to be, even before he proved it on stage. But Taylor Swift also represented everything that country music had become after Nashville decided that being “country” meant fitting into a closely set parameter that doesn’t directly relate to the genre’s rich musical past.

One year and one album each later, West has proven himself to be the victor in their implied feud. Not only has West won over the critics, but Swift seems to have taken a cue from him — infusing her music with the conventions of other genres.

In a move that quite literally made my jaw drop, the popular indie music site Pitchfork gave West’s first post-VMA album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a 10.0 rating. On a traditional rating scale a perfect score might not seem that hard to obtain, but on a site that caters primarily to indie-music lovers and gives even what it considers to be the best albums of the year grades as low as a 7 out of 10, the rating something to note.

The album really is that good. From the super catchy chorus of “Dark Fantasy” (“Can we get much higher / so high”) through the sincerely syncopated beat of “Runaway” and ending with the politically charged vocals of Gil Scott-Heron on “Who Will Survive in America,” it’s one of the most inventive albums in hip-hop’s recent memory.

Many note West’s ability to create such work in spite of his controversial statements. But it’s because he says outlandish things that he can give so much credence to songs like “Runaway,” which features a haunting toast to everyone with a Kanye-style big mouth.

Separated by genre but tied by history, Taylor Swift released her third album Speak Now a month before West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Swift has always been a master at communicating her personal feelings through song, and this album is no exception. Speak Now’s first single, “Mine,” is a sentimental ballad of young love in Swift’s traditional uber-sweet style. Other tracks, however, diverge from that sound and signal that Swift might not be the country music industry’s cash cow that she was made out to be.

With every release, it feels like Swift is recording her growth as a person and, on this release, part of that is an evolution of sound. “Innocent,” which she performed at the VMAs a year after the incident with West — and might or might not have intended to be about him — is informed by a heavy backbeat that seems straight out of hip-hop. The guitars move toward rock rather than the twangy honky-tonk that most country artists seem to use by default.

The album’s second single, “Back to December,” leans even more heavily toward her changing sound. Whereas her vocals seem to go places outside of country’s usual croon, she’s backed by Shondells-style guitar and a full orchestra, adding an interesting texture to her already sentimental lyrics. “You gave me all your love, and all I gave you was goodbye,” are the lyrics as swelling strings accentuate her self-loathing, and a chiming tremolo accentuates her pain.

Swift had always teetered on the edge of pop. With this album’s evolution, she seems to be moving even more rapidly toward diverse production.

Though various musicians have made concerted efforts to incorporate different influences into their work throughout human history, one of the most prominent in today’s world is none other than Kanye West. Performing on VH1 Storytellers with a string section, listening primarily to rock outside of his work and maintaining a strong tie to hip-hop, West is the model for this style of production.

It’s curious that after Kanye’s remarks, Swift moved in a direction that West has mastered, crafting one of her best albums yet.

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