One thing (please don’t make me list them all) that makes the pop music world a little different today from when I was borrowing the same Madonna every week from the Fitchburg Public Library, is that these days you don’t just know your favorite stars’ hits, you know which stars they want to hit.
Like this week, for example. Sentient smoky eye and reinvented chanteuse Lana Del Rey took to Kanye West’s Instagram to lay into His Yeeziness for his vocal support of President Trump, as indicated by a selfie of West in a MAGA hat.
“Trump becoming our president was a loss for the country but your support of him is a loss for the culture,” Del Rey wrote. “I can only assume you relate to his personality on some level.” It went on. Not important.
From there, rapper/singer/firestarter Azealia Banks took to Twitter to bash Del Rey for what she perceived as selective outrage. “To me this just looks like the typical White woman taking using a weakened target to ‘pretend’ to be an ally.” And when that didn’t get Del Rey’s attention, Banks redirected her attacks toward Del Rey’s arm fat. Then Del Rey tweeted Banks: “u know the addy. Pull up anytime.” It goes on. Not important.
Then Banks posted a stream-of-consciousness string of insults against Del Rey to her Instagram story, which took me about 10 minutes to listen to. And I had to sleep a little bit but last I checked we’d reached talk of witchcraft, arson, and overt threats of violence: “When her house mysteriously goes up flames while she is asleep inside . . . I want to see as many #Azealiavoodoo hashtags as possible,” Banks tweeted and deleted.
It goes on. And on. Not important.
And yet, here I am, knowing about it, just by existing within proverbial earshot of either woman’s music (ah, yes, the music). Oh wait, I forgot to mention that Australian rapper Iggy Azalea got in on the action too. Intensely not important.
The routine ignition of online beefs (beeves?) has long been part of Banks’s social-media strategy. And the substance of her arguments (largely targeting the ways in which black women are routinely disadvantaged at and on every stage in the music industry), nine times out of 10, rings true. And while her approach teeters unevenly between savvy and sloppy, it would be naive to think her tendency to throw digital hands isn’t part of the product she selling. (And I don’t mean her soaps.)
But it would also be naive to see today’s culture of beef as the natural friction that occurs when artists encounter each other. Rap is built upon a legacy of beefs that forced artists to refine their rhymes and sharpen their diss tracks. Rock at its peak was animated by fierce rivalries and trash talk. And if you need a refresher on tensions in the jazz world, just read some Miles Davis interviews.
No, the ease and eagerness with which celebrities take to Twitter to publicly air their interpersonal grievances seems an altogether different exercise — be it Nicki vs. Cardi, or Taylor vs. Katy, or Taylor vs. Nicki, or Meek Mill vs. Drake, or Drake vs. Kanye, or Kanye vs. well . . . everybody (it goes on, not important).
Certainly, some of these spats are staged to help sales in a record industry that needs all the help it can get (as some fans have suspected of recent highly public and productive beef between rappers Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly).
But just as often, these battles carry the icky air of a fight in a food court that devolves into a full-mall brawl.
For one thing, the Internet makes it easy for one strike to multiply into 100,000. A Twitter brawl, broadcast as it is, doesn’t employ the allure of gossip so much as wield the cudgel of call-out culture. A disagreement between two artists can quickly turn into a mob scene of sexist, racist, abusive trolling from battling supporters (or “stans”). The ugliness extends, infects, and recruits.
And as these ugly public pop feuds become more and more the standard way for artists to steal the spotlight from each other, pop music itself feels a little less like a party we’re all invited to, and more like a war we’re all unwittingly caught up in. Even fandom feels more like a faction, with hashtags for badges.
Nobody likes to take the empty gestures of pop culture too seriously, but it’s unsettling to see art lose ground to instinct (when one was there to refine the other). A return to what music is supposed to do, and the way it’s supposed to bring us together, feels long overdue. (Just ask my librarian.)Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.