In her video for ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, Taylor Swift takes an unusual step and fully embraces the negative side of her reputation. Long depicted as a jealous feud-starter who kicks fellow stars out of her so-called ‘girl squad’ the minute they put a foot wrong, Swift’s various disputes over the years – with her supposed enemies ranging from Katy Perry to Kanye West – get almost as much airtime as her music. And for her latest album she transformed herself into a full-blown pantomime villain. It was all inspired by Kim Kardashian calling her a snake, apparently.
By surrounding herself with snake iconography and fur coats cut straight out of the Disney baddie playbook, Swift tapped straight into the public’s love of a good old dramatic celebrity scrap. While it’s difficult to feel especially sorry for Swift – there are far more worthy causes out there than a wealthy white woman ‘reclaiming’ a relatively harmless insult – it’s still a pointed move from somebody tired of being reduced to “another day, another drama, drama.” And it’s not just Swift who’s sick of it, either.
Take a look at music’s most high-profile beefs – Lady Gaga’s supposed rivalry with Madonna, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj’s ongoing argument – and you’ll quickly see that all this brewing hate we’re meant to be cheering on from the sidelines… well, it isn’t really that deep. And it’s definitely got nothing to do with jealousy, either.
In Madonna and Lady Gaga’s case, the pair have actually expressed mutual admiration, and they jokingly played each other’s rivals in a 2009 episode of SNL. The whole ‘feud’ comes from one comment: Madonna claiming that Gaga’s 2011 single ‘Born This Way’ bears audible resemblances with her own hit ‘Express Yourself’. There wasn’t much in the way of actual tea, here (Madonna was drinking coffee during the interview in question, for starters) but she did go on to call the song “reductive”. To rename Gaga’s film debut for a second, A Beef Was Born.
The ensuing articles made it sound like Lady Gaga was actually spending her days scavenging through Madge’s bins, searching for scraps of new music to copy, while Madonna angrily pelted her with paint-bombs. In reality, neither of them really cared that much. “The only time I ever criticised Lady Gaga was when I felt like she blatantly ripped off one of my songs,” Madonna told Rolling Stone. “It’s got nothing to do with ‘she’s taking my crown’ or ‘she’s in some space of mine.’ She has her thing. I do think she’s a very talented singer and songwriter. It was just that one issue.”
Everybody also forgot about the fact that Gaga reacted to the whole thing with good humour. “I just want Madonna to push me up against the wall and kiss me and tell me I’m a piece of shit,” she said in her documentary, clearly referencing the fact that she actually sees her so-called enemy as an icon. Elsewhere in her Rolling Stone cover feature, Madonna added: “we live in a world where people like to pit women against each other.”
It’s true – when we see high-profile ‘beef’ unfolding between female stars, the most common cause, we’re told, must be envy. In conversations around Cardi B and Nicki Minaj’s ongoing feud, we don’t speak about all the other characters involved, or the behind the scenes details we’ll never hear about. People forget that Nicki and Cardi were still collaborating together up until recently, and we also don’t speak about the fact that after years of being repeatedly asked about your issues with another artist, you may well grow to resent the constant comparisons.
Instead, all of the weight is given to an altogether different question – which rapper is better? Who is more jealous? And then it all turns into yet another bitchy mess, where only one woman is allowed to be successful in any given genre, at any single time.
There isn’t this same accusation of jealousy when men clash in music. When Drake and Meek Mill exchanged diss tracks earlier this year, it was a conflict about authenticity; Meek originally accusing Drake of using a ghostwriter. When the two artists made up in September with a surprise performance together, that was the end of it – we don’t tend to give any airtime to the unresolved hatred between the two. In the case of Eminem’s ongoing feud with Machine Gun Kelly, meanwhile, Pusha T simply pointed out that diss tracks are a longstanding tradition in hip-hop. “The back and forth exchange is what hip hop is all about, and I think they’ve both done a good job,” he told NME.
Compare this with the language used around Cardi B and Nicki Minaj – or in fact virtually any other rivalry between two women in music – and there’s a noticeable difference in the level of emotion involved. While their male counterparts trade blows and quips as part of a wider tradition, we’re told that women bitch about one another, and get into petty scraps. We decide they must just hate each other, and look on with glee to see who will triumph.
Competition is all well and good, but when we pit women against each other in this way, we’re actually reducing the space they’re able to take up in music. It shouldn’t be a question of who will snatch the throne next. Sometimes beef is just beef. It’s that simple.