Distance from the rich and famous grants us the ability to praise or dis with little consequence. We rally behind whomever appeals to our sensibilities, and experts who study this behavior say it’s because we use pop culture as a way to argue about societal issues. In a way, celebrity feuds are proxy wars.
“Arguing directly about religion or gender or race can be really difficult to do, and people shut down a lot of times if you try to have those conversations,” said Steven Hyden, author of “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me,” about music industry rivalries. “If you can have those conversations in the guise of talking about music, it somehow makes it easier for people to do it.”
Take the never-ending saga of Swift and Kanye West, who infamously interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to declare that Beyoncé had been robbed of the best female music video award. He later apologized, Swift accepted and the two seemed friendly by 2015, when she shared a photo on Instagram of a bouquet of flowers he had sent her with the caption: “Awww Kanye sent me the coolest flowers!! #KanTay2020 #BFFs.”
Those campaign dreams were dashed the following February when West released his track “Famous,” in which he raps that the pair “might still have sex,” takes credit for her fame and calls her a not-so-polite word. West insisted he had gotten Swift’s permission to use the lyrics, a claim she denied, so Kim Kardashian West shared part of a phone call between the artists to back her husband up. Swift had, indeed, approved the part about sex, but it’s unclear whether she knew about the reference to her fame or the profanity. Regardless, Kardashian-West supporters flooded her social media with snake emoji.
Swift brought the incident up Tuesday night during the serpent-themed first stop of her Reputation Stadium Tour, telling the supportive crowd: “I wanted to send a message to you guys that if someone uses name-calling to bully you on social media, and even if a lot of people jump on board with it, that doesn’t have to defeat you.”
Feuds aren’t always bad for business, as Swift co-opted the conflicts and created a more aggressive persona for the “Reputation” album and tour. But as Hyden says, the actual events can be looked at through a broader lens. The VMAs incident can be viewed as sexism, he said, as “an instance of a man taking something from a woman and putting her down in a public forum,” as can taking credit for her fame. The fact that he recently blamed the incident for decreasing his radio play doesn’t help.
But there’s also a race element, as Hyden noted that West could have been seen as “a black man who is supposedly threatening a white woman.” Our country has a long, problematic history of “protecting” white women from men of color, rooted in a white patriarchal system of power, he said. A subtle version of this could have been at play when some fans refused to believe West had gotten Swift’s permission.
These disputes are especially common when the artists are in the same genre. The Beatles were mainstream and wholesome, Hyden notes, while the Rolling Stones were a dangerous and more explicit alternative. The so-called rivalry captured a moral conflict among listeners. Similarly, the feud between Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks in the early 2000s was “explicitly political.” Either you stood with Keith in favor of President Bush and the war, or against them.
The case of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B highlights a negative effect of fueling feuds between artists working in the same space. As Cardi rose in popularity, some Minaj fans claimed the newcomer could never dethrone the reigning queen of rap. Others felt differently. The rappers each have a verse on Migos’s “MotorSport,” released last October, which heightened comparisons.
Cardi revealed in November that Minaj’s original “MotorSport” verse had been different, and rumors of a feud deepened last month when Minaj tweeted that it was because the record label had told her to cut a Cardi name-drop per the younger rapper’s request. Minaj clarified that though she and Migos’ Quavo had initially been the only rappers on the track, she had never been angry about including Cardi, as fans suggested.
“There are men in our culture who simply refuse to let it go,” Minaj tweeted. “They don’t do this to male M.C.’s.”
There is plenty of room for more than one woman in hip-hop. But, according to Tracyann Williams, a New School professor who teaches courses on race, gender and pop culture, comparisons persist due to racism, sexism and “the convergence of the two.”
“It gives us something else to think about, at the expense of marginalized people . . . There can only be one diva, there can only be one songstress, there can only be one rap artist,” Williams said. “There can’t just be two talented women going forward and promoting their art, their work. We buy into it. It’s what sells magazines, it sells records, it sells downloads. And we’re all a part of this drama, unfortunately, unless you can take a deep breath and stop and think about what’s actually transpiring.”
Williams also brought up Rihanna and Beyoncé, who were falsely said to be fighting years ago over Jay-Z, their mentor and then-boyfriend, respectively. The women were once again pitted against each other in 2017 when “ANTI” failed to receive a Grammy nomination for album of the year when “Lemonade” did, to the point where Rihanna responded on Instagram: “I wish y’all would drop this topic and see things from the bigger picture! We don’t need to be putting black women against each other!”
Similarly, Minaj and Cardi insist there was never an actual feud, which the latter reinforced during an interview with Howard Stern on Wednesday. She and Minaj had been photographed smiling and taking selfies together two days earlier, at the Met Gala.
“I never was feuding with anybody; there was a misunderstanding,” Cardi said, according to Billboard. “I think she felt a certain type of way about something. I definitely felt a certain type of way about something. I didn’t wanna ever talk about it in public because I felt like we gonna see each other again and we will talk about it, and it’s always like little issues. The thing is, it’s always little issues, but you know, fans are always gonna make it a big thing.”
Though some celebrities make their arguments “a big thing” on their own — Swift publicly accused Perry of trying to “sabotage an entire arena tour,” after all — our culture encourages their behavior. Instead, we “need to be encouraging more instances of sisterhood,” Williams said. “Otherwise we keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.”