That’s pretty much been the reaction of the Internet this week, after Cyrus gave an interview with Marie Claire, in which she called out Swift and the hypocrisy of the music industry’s sex/violence paradigm, as illustrated in her “Bad Blood” video. “I don’t get the violence revenge thing,” declared Cyrus. “That’s supposed to be a good example? And I’m a bad role model because I’m running around with my titties out? I’m not sure how titties are worse than guns.”
Cyrus has a point: The double-standard between sex and violence in American pop culture has been well-chronicled. But her invocation of Swift to make her point is still frustrating, because it feels like the beginning of just another celebrity feud. In music today, celebrity feud culture has somehow overtaken the industry, tearing down artists and distracting us from their work.
This isn’t exactly a surprising turn of events. Best friend-collector that she is, Swift has been involved in a rather high amount of disagreements lately. Things bubbled over in last month’s Nicki Minaj incident, wherein Minaj expressed her distaste with the lack of black women nominated at the MTV VMAs. Swift, apparently seeing this as a personal attack on her, responded indignantly. She eventually apologized, and it’s been radio silence between the two ever since. But not before Katy Perry, widely acknowledged as the target of “Bad Blood,” threw some not so subtle shade at Swift on Twitter.
Finding it ironic to parade the pit women against other women argument about as one unmeasurably capitalizes on the take down of a woman...— KATY PERRY (@katyperry) July 22, 2015
The feud didn’t stop there, amidst rumors that Rihanna was preparing a T-Swift diss track of her own. Even Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen was briefly thrown into the fray, when fans freaked out over the release of her single “Warm Blood,” and began contrasting it with Swift’s aforementioned anthem.
As the Daily Dot’s own Alexandra Samuels notes, labeling the exchange as a “feud” isn’t necessarily fair, because it suggests that women like Minaj and Swift are not capable having a rational discussion about the state of entertainment. “The media‘s tendency to reduce serious arguments between women to petty quarrels is problematic, because it casts aside women like Minaj as ‘haters,’ rather than as creative minds who are also cultural influencers,” she writes.
There is an intelligent debate to be had regarding representation in the music industry, and Minaj and Swift gave us a chance to have it. But in painting it as nothing but a “cat fight,” the message got lost on the Internet.
However, men aren’t any less susceptible to music’s celebrity feud machine, as evidenced by the recent back and forth between hip-hop artists Drake and Meek Mill. After Meek Mill took to Twitter to call out the Canadian rapper for using a ghostwriter on his contribution to Meek’s recent album, fireworks went off. What commenced was an exchange of diss tracks and tweets. This led to Drake’s seemingly triumphant performance at OVO fest in Toronto, where the crowd reveled as he took to the stage and projected a series of memes making fun of his aggressor.
In painting it as nothing but a “cat fight,” the message got lost on the Internet.
Feuds, or “beefs,” as the genre would oft describe them, are a tricky subject in hip-hop, because they are a major part of its history. In the past, feuds have elevated all parties involved to reach new creative heights. Look at the feud between Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, two hip-hop pioneers who exchanged subtle disses for years, determined to prove not just to each other that they were the best—but to themselves.
But hip-hop’s most famous feud, the east coast/west coast dispute between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., ended up with blood being spilled on both sides: Shakur was shot dead in 1996, and Biggie was gunned down less than a year later.
So without a doubt, competition in hip-hop is a mixed bag. In between his dual masterpieces Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly, there was hardly a more exciting moment for hip-hop in 2013 than when Kendrick Lamar famously called out all his major rap peers on Big Sean’s “Control,”—including Big Sean himself. And when beef began to brew between Lamar and Drake that same year, it appeared as if everyone was going to emerge a winner. Here were two artists at the peak of their powers, each striving to be at the top of their game.
The Meek Mill/Drake feud, on the other hand, turned into something completely different. Regardless of whether Meek’s allegations against Drake were true, they were complicated by the fact that he was dating Drake’s labelmate, Nicki Minaj. And given that Drake was the more famous rapper, Mill received much harsher treatment from the media—and from the Internet, in particular.
While the memes making fun of him started out as lighthearted and kind of funny, they quickly turned ugly on multiple levels. Pitchfork’s Meaghan Garvey asserts, “There was a distinct moment during the OVO Fest set where things immediately flipped from corny but ultimately harmless to legitimately toxic: an unfunny, badly-edited image of a bride and groom, with Nicki’s head edited onto the man and Meek’s onto the woman.”
The feud was no longer about a competition to determine who was the better rapper—it was about sexism, masculinity, and the media’s unquenchable thirst for blood, the desire to see one person crowned a victor, standing over the carcass of the other’s career. Neither party came off looking great, and Drake especially did damage to his reputation as a sensitive and thoughtful rapper, all in some arbitrary struggle to win the Internet.
While the memes making fun of him started out as lighthearted and kind of funny, they quickly turned ugly on multiple levels.
The most fundamentally frustrating thing about celebrity feuds between musicians is that they distract us from the actual music. It has become impossible to talk about about popular artists without also discussing their personal lives. While an artist’s personal life can occasionally inform how we think about their music, it shouldn’t define it.
Take Kanye West, for example. No matter how many awards and prizes he receive and how matter how much acclaim he accrues, there are some who will always see him as Kim Kardashian’s asshole husband. That’s what the resistance to having him play at the Glastonbury Festival and Toronto’s Pan American Games was really about—not being able to see past the celebrity to the talent.
The worst of all possible outcomes manifests in the trend of music journalism being covered like “lifestyle reporting,” as was first highlighted in Ted Gioia’s now infamous op-ed piece for the Daily Beast.
I’ve just spent a very depressing afternoon looking through the leading music periodicals. And what did I learn? Pretty much what I expected. I found out what the chart-topping musicians are wearing (or, in many instances, not wearing). I got updates on their love life and learned whose marriages are on the rocks. I read updates on the legal proceedings of the rich and famous. I got insights into the food preferences and travel routines of megastars.
Gioia can’t help but come off as a kind of cranky old man here. But while he’d be wrong to buy into the idea that pop music is worse today than ever before (a frequent trope in cranky, old man thinking), he’s correct in his observation that now more than ever before, we’re more focused on the artists than we are on their art.
The trade-off is that on the Internet, we have more ways to feel connected to our favorite musicians, but we’re also inundated with invitations to stare one-sidedly into their personal lives, criticizing their every move from afar. When we follow artists on Instagram and Twitter, we think we get a sense of who they really are. But we forget that the best way to get a sense of who an artist is comes from listening to their music.
Music has not gotten substantially worse in recent years, but music feuds have. And this is not good. It’s not good for women, it’s not good for men, and it’s not good for music in general. But most of all, it’s not good for us, the listeners.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.
Screengrab via DrakeOfficial/YouTube