When musicians fall out, they do so spectacularly. Often publicly, stars have fought wars of words, had the occasional scrap, and the more recently favoured legal tiff. Even being dead for decades didn’t stop Marvin Gaye (or his estate at least) taking Robin Thicke to court over his extremely problematic chart-topper ‘Blurred Lines’, the issue in this case being a ripped-off riff. Yet it’s all too easy for us to watch the stars scrapping and forget that there’s often another participant in these conflicts: us. Whether as readers, fans, or critics, we are the background participants in these musical feuds. In the playground we’re the kids gathering around two more popular kids, shouting “Fight, fight, fight!”
This isn’t necessarily a recent development. Musical feuds go back to the classical era, with the rivalry between Brahms and Liszt being an example. But the most famous rivalries are relatively recent. Notoriously, Mods and Rockers weren’t averse to fighting in a literal sense. Also extremely famous are wars of words, such as the one Blur and Oasis were famously embroiled in as both competed for a #1 single in 1995, spurred on by an already existing resentment between the two bands. That resulted in a Blur victory, creating the best week for singles sales in Britain for a decade. More recently, Fat White Family and IDLES have clashed, with Lias Saoudi of FWF calling the London band “a bunch of self neutering middle class boobs”, and Joe Talbot of IDLES responding that “I had to stop myself driving up to London and finding him [Saoudi]….Fuck off”. In characteristic 2020 fashion, Saoudi wrote an entire essay to explain himself, where he fired another shot, saying IDLES “represent everything that is wrong with contemporary cultural politics…one that revels in the sanctimonious condemnation of people not quite up to speed”.
So far, so familiar. We’ve all heard of or seen musicians falling out. Hell, we still make jokes about Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift after 19-year-old Swift defeated Beyonce at the 2009 MTV Music Awards, prompting Kanye’s unwanted – and unwarranted – stage-storming.
But the essential dimension of music feuds is not actually the musicians themselves. After all, for all the scraps between the Gallagher brothers and Damon Albarn, they’re pretty pally now. It’s partly us – maybe even mostly us – as fans, who keep it going. In 2016, after Taylor Swift complained about West’s misogynistic lyrical claim that “I made that bitch famous”, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West’s wife, tweeted that “it’s legit national snake day? They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days” along with a string of snake emojis.
Over four and a half years later, when rumours of Kanye and Kim’s divorce began to get louder, the Swifties soon showed they hadn’t forgotten. “Now it’s legit national divorce day”, one responded. Others replied simply by copying Kardashian’s Tweet and replying it back to her. Another merely aped the structure, rephrasing it to “national rats getting divorced day” and replacing the snakes with emojis of rats and broken hearts. Ouch.
Even though Kanye and Taylor probably haven’t spoken since this incident, the fans are the ones who won’t let it go. The fight is being sustained willingly by people like you and me. Nobody is paying us to defend our faves (sadly). So why do we love doing it?
Well, in our increasingly liminal, uncertain world, it gives us a real sense of identity. As one superfan said when speaking to The New York Times, you see yourself in your favourite artists. I’d go slightly further and say that you don’t just see yourself in your favourite artist: you define yourself by your favourite artist. Look at the increasing number of Twitter, Instagram and TikTok accounts with Swift, Ariana Grande, or BTS profile pics. Look at the massive number of fancams being posted – you can’t scroll into the comments of a viral tweet without encountering one. People define themselves by who their favourite artist is, even when they’re posting about something else, they have to include their fave in the post in some way.
Identity has always been the driving force behind musical feuds. As everybody has been quick to point out, the Blur vs Oasis feud was soon turned into “posh southern kids [vs] working class northerners”, according to Mike Smith, Blur’s publisher, despite the fact that most of Blur were hardly born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
The Kanye West vs Taylor Swift feud became overtly political when Swift backed the Democratic party in Midterm elections, while Kanye West was an overt supporter of Donald Trump throughout his turbulent presidency, and even had an ill-fated run at politics himself. These endorsements were valuable to both parties, because fans will be more susceptible to changing their identity to fit in with the tribe than they would normally. Indeed it seems many Kanye fans soon found overlap with Trump, with Twitter accounts like @KanyeVotesTrump and @KanyeTrumpPower springing up.
As an anonymous Tweeter going by the name Perg, who is an ‘extreme metal enthusiast’, put it when I asked them about feuds and identity, “if a Death Metal fan doesn’t like Cattle Decap (Cattle Decapitation, a Californian deathgrind band) then I get defensive about the specific band”. And, of course, it’s the fans powering it. “There are a lot of people who get really into one or two and don’t care about the others, so there are mini tribal rivalries between fans of different scenes,” they said. “Of course, the bands don’t care. It’s a very online thing”.
With no sign of human nature changing dramatically, or even Twitter going down, it looks like our love of musical feuds is here to stay.
Words by Gabriel Rutherford
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