Maybe you, like me, woke up this morning and thought, “Wait, how am I supposed to feel about Taylor Swift now?” and then carefully sat and scrolled through several different pieces about Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat of reconstructed Twitter timelines and Instagram responses and what, exactly, it means when the Notes app says “search” at the top. All of that is pretty entertaining, of course, but if you’re a casual consumer of either of these celebrities and not fully embedded in everyone’s multiplatform presence, it’s hard to feel like you actually grasp the complete story.
Thank goodness for reality TV.
I woke up wondering what the heck was happening, watched Sunday night’s episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and then looked upon the internet with new, crystal-clear vision. The scales had fallen from my eyes. Before, I was mixed about who was in the wrong, what anyone’s motivations might be, and why this feud was being revived at all. After, I came away with a refreshed and pleasantly tingly sense that Kimye was almost entirely in the right, that Taylor’s motives were indeed inscrutable (but in a bad way), and also that Kim has, indeed, been working very hard to get her body back in shape after the birth of her son.
In case you haven’t had the pleasure, last night’s KUWTK cuts back and forth between some fairly standard Kardashian daily life scenes and brewing Taylor Swift storm clouds. In the bulk of the episode, there are stories about Kim getting ready for an appearance in a music video, Kourtney eating a Pop-Tart, and several of the sisters throwing a half-hearted Arrested Development–style prank on Kylie. In between all this, in the way of most celebrity-lifestyle reality shows, are bits and pieces of the long-arc story, which KUWTK lays out in a brilliantly sideways fashion.
The episode is simultaneously indirect, referring regularly to events that it never quite explains (especially the feud’s catalyst, the 2009 VMAs) while also being careful to give you enough information that it’s easy to follow the story. Kanye, we learn, is honest and well-meaning. Taylor is furious about something she apparently gave her full approval for. And maybe most importantly, Kim is merely trying to stand up for her husband, who is being publicly excoriated for something that’s not his fault. She’s furious! She’s over it. She’s considered her mother’s advice to just call Taylor and talk things out, but she is definitely not going to do that.
I know that, because she said it all on television. Each time the Taylor story comes back, we get a Kim talking head in which she flatly and clearly lays out her side of the story. Her talking heads are standard KUWTK fare—she’s controlled, patently rehearsed, and thorough. She is far too practiced to allow herself to appear raw or angry. Even still, there’s a reason the talking head is reality-TV bread and butter. A person looking directly into a camera and narrating her inner thoughts is emotionally effective in the way a precisely filtered Instagram photo rarely is. You watch, and you believe her. She’s our narrator, and even if her narration is unreliable, she’s the one doing most of the talking.
Reality TV is, by now, infamously fake. Every shot is glossy and well-lit, every talking head painstakingly edited to create a story, every shocking premise thoughtfully set up ahead of time and performed with meticulously calibrated emotional responses. It’s also often a very well-built story. It’s entertaining, easy to follow. It’s full of big personalities and passions. It’s inevitably chockablock with all of the tiny details that make you believe you’re seeing a window into someone’s life, even when you know it’s all made up. (That scene with Kourtney, for instance, has the unmistakable ringing truth of a person who is actually being made fun of by her mother for eating a Pop-Tart.) Some of the strangest and most mesmerizing moments of KUWTK are the moments when someone pulls out her phone to take a snap of herself, and someone else critiques her choice of filter. Even if we know the story is being produced, we get to watch them producing it, and that becomes part of the story, too.
The Kardashians have long used the controlled narrative power of KUWTK to manage and reframe significant developments in their public lives. Kim and Kanye’s wedding was all over tabloid news, but KUWTK’s wedding episode, which aired months later, provided access to endearing moments like North crawling around as her mother got dressed, Khloe’s epic hangover, and the drama of missing family members. The show has also allowed the family to control the story about Rob and Blac Chyna, Kim’s pregnancies, and most dramatically, the whirling, spinning, multipronged mechanism of Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition. Each story transforms from tabloid fodder into a family saga.
Taylor Swift, meanwhile, is as notably circumspect as the Kardashians are revealing. And while that may be admirable and understandable and fascinating in a world where oversharing has become the norm, it’s also an easy way to lose your grip on the narrative. While we can all be optimistic about how gloriously rage-filled Swift’s next album may be, in the meantime, it’s very hard for a brief publicist statement and Notes app comment to compete with the massive workings of the reality-TV-fueled Kardashian storytelling machinery. Plus, no matter how much you may wish to erase yourself from the narrative, posting a response to that effect sends a bit of a mixed message. It doesn’t look like bowing out so much as it looks like standing in front of a field of cannons and pulling out a kitchen knife.
If the snaps and Instagram response from last night feel like the beating heart of this battle—the real theater of war, the real show—then Keeping Up With the Kardashians is the all-important curtain that lets us know where to direct our attention. It gives us a context, it tells a story, and it humanizes its players in a way that Taylor Swift’s media machinery has recently struggled to do well. Media opacity, staged photos, and an ultra-curated, image-centric social-media presence has made Swift appear increasingly alien. Over on reality TV, an old-school medium where long-form storytelling has always been the queen, Kim Kardashian tells a pretty persuasive yarn about standing by her man.