It was Roman poet Juvenal who first said, “Two things only the people anxiously desire—bread and circuses” as a criticism of the layman’s priority for fun and food over more pressing intellectual and political pursuits. Take the phrase and make it carb-free (green juice and circuses?) and you have an encapsulation of 2016 and—more accurately—the entirety of human history.
Sunday night, Twitter exploded after Kim Kardashian posted several videos to Snapchat that proved, through a recorded phone call, that Taylor Swift approved the lyrics to Kanye West’s “Famous” despite publicly claiming otherwise.
Kim has been defending her husband for months, since around the time that Taylor, surrounded by her team of male producers, used her platform at the Grammys to subtweet West and call him a sexist. In the following months, both Kim and Kanye have insisted repeatedly that Swift knew full well that Kanye had recorded the lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why, I made that bitch famous”—and that she had even given her blessing, at least up until his use of the phrase “that bitch.” Therefore, Swift’s feigned offense seemed to be merely a PR stunt to demonize Kanye and promote her own image as a perpetual victim. (Thinking you can outmaneuver Kris Jenner’s progeny would prove to be a fatal mistake in Swift’s generally impenetrable PR strategy.)
The same night Kim released the Snaps, Taylor followed up with a statement of her own—though considering the receipts Kim had just brought to the table, it felt about as tactically useful as responding to a nuclear bomb with a potato cannon.
As my hero Real Housewives of Orange County’s Heather Dubrow once told a flailing Alexis Bellino during a particularly tense reunion show, “When everyone’s telling you you’re dead, it’s time to lie down.” Taylor has, possibly for the first time, shown her ass and rather than picking up the pieces and moving on, she’s flailing to find a new way to shift blame. Her speech at the Grammys didn’t once hit on derogatory, sexist terms. Instead, it focused on Kanye’s assertion that he made her famous:
“I want to say to all the young women out there, there are going to be people along the way that will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
If this is our distraction circus, then Taylor Swift has—for years— been our ringmaster.
As Dayna Evans wrote in 2015:
It’s surprising to see smart people talk about Swift with such breathlessly positive overtures, not only because—like pop stars before her and pop stars after her—her music is simple and unfussy and infused with inane platitudes, but also because there appears to be something more opportunistic and sinister at play. When Taylor Swift does the mega-pop stardom act, she does it to the hilt. Swift has to be the person with the prettiest friends, the biggest records, the most popular and successful and groanworthily obvious boyfriend. The underdog narrative that the Swift machine has built is one of forced falsehoods; Swift is not coming from behind. She’s been ahead since she started.
So perhaps that’s why the internet exhibited such joy when Taylor’s mask finally slipped. She was exposed, momentarily, not as an underdog, but as a ruthless capitalist, an opportunist, and—up until the point where she fucked with Kim—a PR genius.
But not everyone sees this public feud for all that it’s worth. (I mean, it’s worthless, but, then again, what isn’t.) There’s also the “Aren’t there more important things in the world” take— you know, that special bit of bullshit that allows a person to participate in a cultural conversation while simultaneously acting as if they are morally above it. As much as these people—the Juvenals of the world—like to pretend like they’re superior (or at least less susceptible to apathy) than us Bread and Circus folk, they’re wrong. Either that or they’re Swift’s personal friends.
Believe it or not, but it is actually possible for the human mind to engage in the trivial and serious at the same time. Besides, given the state of politics (now and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, almost always), it’s not as if the discourse surrounding the issues that fucking matter is anymore highbrow than Kim slinging mud back at Taylor. This, at least, is fun and mostly without dire consequences.
From the dawn of time, people have loved to gossip and study the lives of others. Celebrities exist, largely in part, to make this easier. It’s what Lainey Gossip’s Elaine Lui describes as “the celebrity ecosystem,” the not-so-modern space in which we (the celebrity, the media, the public) all exist to willingly consume or be consumed by gossip.
“I study the celebrity ecosystem to understand social culture, to understand social behavior, to understand humanity, to understand ourselves. That is the function of gossip.” Lui says in her 2013 TEDx Talk. “Gossip, then, is good. Gossip is knowledge. Gossip is immortal. Gossip is historical.”
Looking at the Kim/Kanye/Taylor feud through a sociological lens, it’s hardly difficult to intellectualize and legitimize public interest. Here we have Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, two people whose celebrity is largely built on a curated image—Taylor as the put-upon good girl and Kim as... whatever you think Kim is.
But since the beginning of her public career, Kim has been doing things backwards. Many women before her have used their sexuality to advance their careers—Kim just did it with a straight-up sex tape. Lots of famous people get divorced, brand themselves, and exploit political causes—Kim just happened to do it on a reality show. Everything she does is composed and pre-planned, but, unlike other famous people, she readily admits it. It is an intrinsic part of her celebrity.
Swift, on the other hand, attempts the opposite, with every action set up to advertise “I really am this nice! I really am this normal!” She sends Christmas gifts to fans, hands out wads of cash to strangers in Central Park (at least when there’s a Rolling Stone writer there to report on it), and has used her feud with Kanye West to double down on her victim image ever since he first uttered, “Imma let you finish...”
I point out these differences not to valorize or demonize either of these women (when you think about it, both tactics are deeply cynical), but instead to point out that they’re both a part of Lui’s celebrity ecosystem. Examining the way we receive a celebrity’s information—or pulling back the curtain to see what they don’t want you to see—can only be helpful, specifically in regards to the way we consume media.
To be interested isn’t to worship celebrity. It’s to dismantle it. So grab your bread loaves and take a seat, ladies and gentleman. We’ve got a lifetime of circuses ahead of us, so we might as well enjoy it.
Image via Getty.