The 2016 Grammy Awards were supposed to be Kendrick Lamar’s coronation. With the Compton rapper receiving 11 nominations — by far the most of any artist that night — the Recording Academy seemed ready to start atoning for decades of sleeping on hip-hop’s sonic innovation and commercial ascendence. But once the awards were handed out, the evening’s ceremonies ended up being a career high water mark for an artist close to Lamar’s total opposite: Taylor Swift.
Though no one knew it at the time, the 2016 Grammys marked the tail end of Swift’s reign as America’s sweetheart, before people began to associate her with snake emojis and “I Love TS” t-shirts. Opening the televised broadcast with a performance of “Out Of The Woods,” Swift would end the night with three trophies, most importantly with 1989 taking the Album Of The Year title over Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
For an artist who had spent the better part of the past decade working her way from child country star to the center of pop, her televised acceptance speech for 1989’s win offered her the chance to define the significance of her career on her own terms. After a quick thank you to her fans and collaborators, Swift claimed her status as the first woman to win the Album Of The Year award twice for feminism, telling young women not to let other people (presumably men) take credit for their success or deter them from reaching the top of their fields. A few years removed, with Harvey Weinstein and Dr. Luke’s predation now common knowledge, Swift’s comments seem like a prelude to the #MeToo movement, emblematic of the generosity with which she always treated her fans.
At the same time, she also set in motion a fall from grace from which she has yet to fully recover. Though she did not call him out by name, Swift’s shot at those who would take credit for her accomplishments “or fame” — delivered with what appeared to be physically-evident anger — was universally interpreted as a shot at Kanye West, whose recently released “Famous” on The Life of Pablo contained the already-notorious lines, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, why? / I made that bitch famous.”
While the aftermath of the speech was well litigated on Instagram — and the ephemera of which underpinned Reputation’s marketing campaign well over a year later — what was underplayed at the time was how Swift’s delivery of that speech played into some her worst instincts and her cynics’ harshest claims about her. If you were someone who thought Taylor Swift’s professed feminism was just a wedge for her to boost her own career, or more alarmingly, sideline artists of color, that was there in the speech. If you saw in Swift someone who still insisted on using a spent feud with Kanye West to play the underdog, an uncharitable interpreter could find evidence of that as well.