2015: Sexed-Up Twitter Flatulence How the humble feud was transformed into an industry

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

So, what was your favorite feud this year? Was it Brock Lesnar versus The Undertaker? No? Then how about Rusev against John Cena? No again? Okay, then maybe it was the epic rivalry that first began in 2014, when Sheamus dirtied his lips on Jiggler’s backside in a “Kiss My Ass” match? Still no? Right, well then maybe your favorite feud didn’t come from WWE at all; maybe your favorite feud of 2015 was actually Meek Mill versus Drake, which began when Mr. Robert Rihmeek Williams (figuratively) rubbed his ass on Mr. Aubrey Drake Graham’s face in a tweet that “called out” the Canadian rapper for not writing his own lyrics.

Yes, that’s your favorite beef, and it must have been a very titillating one indeed, since in 2015 the sheer quantity and “quality” of feuds reached new, glorious heights. There was the deadly conflagration that gripped Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, the Earth-shattering tête-à-tête between Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, a similarly epochal war of words concerning Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, the slanging match launched by Fat White Family against Mac DeMarco, the quasi-bar fight between Jack White and The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, Mark Kozelek’s Herculean attempt to take on the entire Ottawa CityFolk festival single-handedly, and even the rekindling of Heather Mill’s bad blood for Sir Paul McCartney.

In other words, 2015 was a good year for beef. It certainly wasn’t the first revolution around the Sun to treat us to cat fights between Twitter profiles and media-generated caricatures, yet it was arguably the first to justify the comparison of arguments involving musicians, artists, or so-called politicians to those involving pro wrestlers. It was the year when, following the precedents set by the less obviously contrived tiffs of 2013 and 2014, the “feud” became a fully integrated cog in the media circus, a simple yet inexpensive frame for repackaging non-news and idle twitter flatulence in a sexier outfit. Instead of providing anything in the way of substantive argumentation or interesting information, it became a vessel for performers to self-promote and for media outlets to increase their internet traffic. As such, it enticed clickers with the false promise of seeing the enviably famous defamed, shamed, and blamed, only to deliver a pantomime that served merely to heap yet more celebrity on their already famed shoulders.

And yet, even if “the feud” as a cultural phenomenon doesn’t appear to be disappearing any time soon, this year-end retrospective aims to analyze its emergence and existence. Linking its systematic assimilation into the music industry to the growth of social media and the shift in media economics, I’ll look at how it became a remarkably facile way to generate content and hype. I’ll also look at the mechanics of beefs, covering how they work and who they benefit, including the press and the performers. After that, I’ll explore the public’s morbid attraction to them and discuss why this attraction almost always obtains the opposite of what it seeks. Finally, I’ll suggest that, in a world witnessing the proliferation of identikit musicians and media providers with little to distinguish themselves from each other, feuds will similarly proliferate.

And very finally, I’ll propose that such beefs represent and exacerbate the dumbing down of music, art, and politics, a dumbing down that, far from being a desecration or dilution of popular culture, is one of its central roles.

Feuds in the Pre-Digital Media Age
The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac

Of course, insofar as mass culture is the product of both the media and corporations like the Big Three music publishers, feuds were always a little fake. That said, even if one of the most documented feuds — the conflict between Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. — was nudged by the release of mass-produced albums containing diss tracks and by a press that continually reported on the animus between the two rappers, it definitely wasn’t orchestrated in the manner of today’s so-called differences. Back in 1994, when Tupac was shot five times and consequently suspected Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) of setting him up, beefs were potentially dangerous, bottom-up affairs that most likely would’ve continued even if there hadn’t been a mass media to fan their flames. The rivalry between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop potentially (yet still allegedly) precipitated the deaths of both Shakur and Wallace, while other less fatal contests still possessed a measure of autonomy, spontaneity, and — as Nas put it in a 2014 interview with Zane Lowe — “importance.”

And Nas should know, involved as he was in an ongoing spat with Jay Z that reached its apex with 2001’s “Takeover,” in which he was informed by the “H.O.V.A.” that he fell from “Top 10” to “Not mentioned at all.” Yet, aside from the world of rap he inhabits, rock was also privy to feuds that weren’t as manufactured as they are now in 2015. At the 1992 VMAs, for example, the enmity between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose almost resulted in fisticuffs, while at the 2007 edition of the ceremony it went one step further for Kid Rock and Tommy Lee. Similarly, the longstanding feud between Dave Mustaine and Metallica began after Mustaine was kicked out of the band in 1983 for his drunken and violent behavior, which included punching James Hetfield in the mouth.

Admittedly, most rock musicians weren’t quite as violent or aggressive in their past bickering as Mustaine’s or Kid Rock’s examples would suggest (with perhaps the honorable mention of Jack White). However, despite their relative mildness, their entries into the history of the feud contained appreciable quantities of genuine impulsiveness and animosity, both of which qualified their quarrels as extensions of the self-expression inherent to their art, and both of which stand in marked contrast to more recent instances of celebrity squabbling.

Enter the Internet
Pioneering MTV headline from 2010

As for these recent feuds, they began to emerge with the flourishing of the internet and social media. This is especially true when it comes to Twitter, which since 2006 has enabled musicians and celebrities to connect with each other and blather to a prodigious degree. From this inauspicious year, such luminaries as Courtney Love and the Veronicas in 2009, Joan Rivers and Lindsay Lohan in 2010, Lily Allen and Cheryl Cole in 2012, and Joey Bada$$ and Lil B in 2013 have slung mud at each other across cyberspace, often bringing their fans and followers along for the ride. Far from being titanic struggles between intellectual or artistic heavyweights that involved the frank debate over ideas, principals, or beliefs, these altercations involved petty insults and cheap jokes right from the start.

For instance, in reference to Lindsay Lohan’s encounter with the firm hand of the law, Joan Rivers quipped, “Lindsay Lohan said she wouldn’t mind being under oath because she thought Oath was a Norwegian ski instructor.” Being no less edifying than the late Ms. Rivers, Courtney Love devoted her feud against the Veronicas to the passing complaint that the Australian duo had stolen her wardrobe, a subject that demonstrates how Twitter and other social media have allowed notables to publish their idle thoughts so easily that the level of the ensuing “conversation” and “discourse” has descended as a result.

As vacuous as these first forays into the world of Twitter sparring might have been, things have only worsened since the earlier years of the social network’s life. However, contrary to what some aggrieved commentators have implied (“Musicians act on impulse”), the reason why the upsurge in social media use has brought culture to the point where feuds are now a streamlined, routinized part of the machine is not simply that such media has afforded musicians and celebrities more opportunities to mock each other, but that they’ve also afforded the press more opportunities to detect, witness, and report on their trivial exchanges. Thanks to the existence of Twitter as a voluntary mass surveillance device, gutter-sniping blogs like Inquisitr, Star Pulse, KpopStarz, and Reality Tea were able to quickly pick up on this year’s tussle between, say, LeAnn Rimes and her husband’s ex-wife, and then gossip about it for the salivation of their readers.

Indeed, this is why feuds became so ubiquitous in 2015: not because musicians or the human race have become more argumentative as a species, but because a skyrocketing number of online publications learnt that they can very easily and rapidly swoop in on social-media face-offs. Even better, they also realized that such face-offs are a fantastically inexpensive and abundant source of clickbait, a source increasingly necessitated by the business models employed by most online publications nowadays. With feuds, they realized that they could attract even more visitors and post even more “content,” thereby attracting the advertisers they depend upon for their streams of revenue.

This is why the likes of PopSugar and Mashable jumped over themselves to run stories on the “Twitter fight” between Calvin Harris and Zayn Malik, a difference of egos that turned on whether musicians should be compensated more equitably for the music they provide to Spotify and other streaming services. What was interesting about this and other similar episodes was that, aside from demonstrating the willingness of websites to construe even the feeblest of confrontations between celebrities as a “feud,” it demonstrated how such a willingness reduced an argument about a potentially important issue (the music industry and its economic fairness) to the level of a playground scuffle.

Billboard upping the feud game with an incredible graphic design

Instead of weighing up what each side of the skirmish stood for, instead of considering whether upping artist royalties might be a good thing, Mashable’s coverage of the “story” took a magnifying glass to the use of the word “dickhead”and to how Harris’s girlfriend, a certain Taylor Swift, had once dated Harry Styles, who was Zayn Malik’s former bandmate in One Direction. The same heights of forensic scrutiny could be found in Billboard’s treatment of the affair, which ran with the headline of “Zayn Malik Calls Calvin Harris a ‘Dickhead’ in Twitter Scuffle,” rather than with, perhaps, “Zayn Malik and Calvin Harris Argue Over the Merits of Streaming.” While the actual header was probably better suited to the tone and quality of the “debate” between Mr. Malik and Mr. Harris, the fact that it came from a quote-unquote “trade magazine” is a somewhat disconcerting indication of the degree of awareness in 2015 regarding such matters as record-label avarice.

Not only that, but it’s a somewhat disconcerting indication of how the base appetite for feuding has conquered any interest in what artists and celebrities feud over, of how such nouns as “feud” are used to deflect attention away from any serious concerns that might be at stake and to redirect it onto the pettiness of egos and taunts. This could be seen with the Nicki Minaj-Taylor Swift encounter, which began in July when Minaj protested that her “Anaconda” video was deprived of a VMA nomination in the Best Music Video Category because it didn’t “celebrate women with very slim bodies.”

Rather than write an article on the basis of this tweet alone and the prejudices it cites, the media was brought to life only when Taylor Swift assumed it was crabbily directed at her and her VMA nomination in the Best Music Video category. She complained to Minaj via Twitter (always the best place to resolve interpersonal problems) that “It’s unlike you to pit women against each other,” and from there a thousand websites had their news sections all fitted out for a day or so. Buzzfeed declared that the two were “Going At It On Twitter” and Business Insider proclaimed that they had “just duked it out,” while even that bastion of reputable journalism — The Guardian — defined the event as the trading of “Twitter barbs” rather than as anything more substantial.

To be fair, a small minority of the websites that featured this trade dedicated a paragraph or two to the underlying controversies, yet virtually all of them framed and packaged these controversies within the prism of the “feud,” thereby lowering them to the status of mere context. Hence, they all diverted attention away from important causes, and rather than this being an accidental facet of “beef reporting,” it’s one of its essential characteristics, since by definition such beefs are always about personalities and egos rather than issues. Or to put it differently, the diversion of attention is inherent to “beef reporting,” since to define a discussion about issues as a “beef” is simply to relegate it to the level of personalities.

Hollywood Life presumably meaning “no disrespect” to Miguel and Frank Ocean

But it gets worse, because the desperation of websites to discover feuds for the delectation of their bored patrons also meant that, in addition to debasing and cheapening serious topics, they spent much of 2015 fabricating beefs out of nothing. To take a pretty flagrant case study, the website Hollywood Life published a news article in July on how Miguel had “dissed” Frank Ocean in a “new feud.” Rather than reveal a clash in a nightclub or even an exchange of acidic tweets, the so-called feud turned out to be a sub-creative way of dressing up a fairly mundane interview. Miguel was described as “picking a fight with his old rival, Frank Ocean,” not because he had actually picked a fight with Mr. Ocean, but because he had answered a probing question with the candid reply, “To be completely honest — and no disrespect to anyone […] I genuinely believe that I make better music.” The magazine’s response to this answer in the next paragraph was to write, “No disrespect, eh?”

The article then sank even lower, asking Miguel for his thoughts on whether the careers of Ocean and The Weeknd would outlast his. He responded with, “It’s interesting, but we’ll see who’s in it for the long haul. It’s like a marathon, you know?” Unless I’m insane, this seemed like quite a reasonable and measured return, yet Hollywood Life followed this quote by the mind-boggling encapsulation: “Shady!”

There’s an outside chance that such a commentary was tongue-in-cheek, but given the earnest (yet grammatically incorrect) headline and the ubiquity of similar items, it becomes all-too apparent as to how cheaply and effortlessly publications like Hollywood Life have been spinning even the most innocent of happenings and statements into “beefs.” Since they appear to have an inexhaustible hold on the public’s imagination, and since they can be concocted out of anything celebrities say about each other that isn’t incontrovertibly positive, the media have been “documenting” them whenever they have nothing else to post.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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