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

Creating Connections Between Our Clients and the Audiences Important to Them

That their scouting for likely candidates became systematic in 2015 should be apparent from the increased quantities of purported feuds blog and zines chronicled over these past 12 months, from the lukewarm acrimony between P!nk and Demi Lovato to the bald-baiting of Blake Shelton versus Adam Levine. Yet access to the inner workings of the media machine also disclose a number of muckrakers conniving assiduously behind the scenes to transform the world into a scandal.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, one of the guiltiest culprits of such muckraking for the sake of numbers is the PR and marketing industry, who in a convulsive bid to increase the fortunes of their clients even lobby more esoteric zines like Tiny Mix Tapes to cover nonexistent disputes. For one example, DKC News — apparently one of the “top 10 independent PR firms in the US” — emailed Tiny Mix Tapes to write a news story about yet another interview in which, this time, Keith Richards “bags on the Beatles and calls Sgt. Pepper rubbish.”

Esquire inventing a storm in a teacup

The interview had been published in Esquire, which is shown by the DKC News website, funnily enough, to be one of their clients. What’s more, they are very lucky clients indeed, since even though the request for publicity could barely have been tawdrier or more pitiful, and even though this blog somehow resisted the incredible temptation to lavish attention on a competitor, other websites seemed to have no qualms about taking the bait. Consequence of Sound plumped for a headline, which ran, “Keith Richards trashes The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, calls it ‘rubbish,’Rolling Stone chose something very similar, and NME went with the more verbatim “mishmash of rubbish,” among many others. Meanwhile, DKC News were congratulating themselves on a job well done, having established “connections between our clients and the audiences important to them” simply by inventing a storm in a teacup.

How often they and other PR firms goad publications into dressing up news as salaciously as possible is beyond the scope of this article, yet it might suffice simply to note that numerous magazines other than Esquire have either external or internal public relations help. For instance, DKC News also represents Billboard, who have spent much of the year dishing out stories of feuds left, right, and center. Furthermore, despite the unlikelihood that PR gangs spend all their time rustling up stories related to put-downs and arguments, it’s equally unlikely that they conduct their work in an ad-hoc, unmethodical, and irregular fashion, meaning that tipping off editors to beefs has, in 2015, become a formal, methodical, and regular part of the promotional toolkit for some. This isn’t any surprise, since the job of PR firms or directors is less to care about the profundity of a news story and more to care about how many people it can coax through the proverbial doors. Thus, they send the media a plentiful supply of requests for the most attention-grabbing coverage of their clients’ output as possible, becoming a significant factor in this year’s hike in schoolyard scrapping.

Playing the Game
OK! Magazine nailing the art this time

This is doubly true for any PR personnel attached to musicians and celebrities themselves, and increasingly true for any musician or celebrity who wants to take the plugging of their latest masterpiece into their own hands. For one, there are smaller acts like Fat White Family, who in late August entered something like a feud with Mac DeMarco after “threatening” to join ISIS in Syria if DeMarco didn’t exit the world of music. It’s quite likely that they were attempting to bask under the Canadian’s expanding glory, to siphon off some of the fanfare now hovering around him, since they had in 2014 also lambasted Alex Turner — the frontman of the much more popular Arctic Monkeys — for being “a moron.” Their singer, Lias Saoudi, had ended his diatribe against Turner by saying, “Massive cock. Print that,” and the fact that he asked to have his words printed attests to how he knew exactly what he was doing.

Other performers know exactly what they’re doing as well, a contention supported by the observation that many of the feuds in 2015’s music universe revolved around a certain Taylor Swift, who’s the biggest pop star in that universe right now. This year, the “Bad Blood” singer was caught up in an imbroglio with Nicki Minaj, in a trading of “blows” with Katy Perry, in a faint continuation of her grievances with Diplo, and in a butting of heads with Miley Cyrus.

Or, to speak more accurately, these performers (and others) all directed venom in her general direction, regardless of whether she actually returned in kind. Consciously or not, they all received more attention than they would have if they’d belittled, say, John Searle. More to the point, in view of their fortuitous gravitation toward the most followed singer currently residing in the Western world, it’s hard to deny the conclusion that there was, if not an outright intention to their acts, at least the awareness that their unkind words would have the added benefit of attracting more eyes their way.

Such awareness illustrates how 2015 can be defined as the year in which musicians and celebrities learnt how to use feuds to their advantage. With their new learning, with their new aptitude for posting Twitter comments at just the right time and inserting juicy statements about the right people into their interviews, they contributed to a process that saw beefs codified into a superficial formula, into a rote method for manipulating the public’s interest. 2015 saw the beef transmuted into a form of celebrity “networking,” as a way for musicians and celebrities to pool their respective fan bases together.

This is particularly evident with the Nicki Minaj-Taylor Swift rumble, which according to a Huffington Post article by the CEO of Fifth Avenue Brands PR actually saw them gain more followers on Twitter and concomitantly strengthen their “brand images.” They both gave the baying public what they wanted — “bad blood” — and for their efforts, they were each rewarded with more of the baying public.

Schadenfreude and Simulacra
Uninspired feud image by JustRivals

But one question remains: why is the “baying public” interested enough in feuds to be vulnerable to the connivances and machinations of the press, the PR sector, and the notables who do all the feuding? Well, as speculative as an answer to this question must surely be, there is evidence that corroborates the old view that the anonymous public enjoy it when the famous are knocked off their pedestal.

Specifically, a 2014 study in the North American Journal of Psychology (Green et al., 2014) discovered that people who score high for “interest in celebrities” also tended to exhibit higher levels of “materialistic values and envy” (my emphasis), while a 2014 paper in Celebrity Studies detailed that one of the main roles of celebrity gossip is its enabling of “mockery, pity and hostility towards celebrities” (Fronen, 2014). Taken together, such investigations bolster the idea that the public’s increasing obsession with celebrities (O’Neill, 2012) serves to facilitate envy-busting feelings of schadenfreude (Littler & Cross, 2010). Taken one step further, they also offer support for the assertion that the increasing tendency toward celebrity gossip and envy has fed into, and is being fed by, this year’s explosion in feud news.

Given this relationship, it becomes clear that the feud essentially functions as a “mini-scandal,” as a shaming, ridiculing, and slandering of people whose notoriety is more or less envied by the general public. It grants this public the opportunity to experience a fleeting sense of justice or vindication, to sit back as at least one lucky celebrity is humiliated and brought back down to earth. It drools over the spectacle of once-perfect idols being stained by jibes and jeers, and consequently feels a little better about its own imperfections, anonymity, and insignificance in the mainstream media world.

It almost goes without saying that such an impression of justice is entirely illusory. Not only are the musicians implicated in feuds not being damaged or besmirched by the dirt thrown at them, but their reputations and fame are being heightened even further, as the turbulence between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj evinced. The public thought they were being awarded the rare chance to see both songstresses humbled by articles adverting to a so-called argument between the two of them; instead, this public’s excitable hunger for feuds was harnessed so as to achieve the exact opposite.

In other words, the attention they lavished on the feud worked only to boost the standing and success of the parties wrapped up in it, providing these parties with extra attention, followers, and (most probably) revenues. Thus, instead of chipping away at anyone’s fame or at the massively unequal media machine itself, the public’s desire for schadenfreude played right into the hands of their manipulators.

In light of this deceptive and frustrating turnaround, the feuds of 2015 expose themselves for what they really are: the simulation of criticism and scrutiny. They are the hollow, superficial pretense of criticism, a veiled decoy for a critical engagement with media, culture, and politics that has long since disappeared (if it ever existed) from the public arena. Clothing Meek Mill’s indictment of Drake or Action Bronson’s “ruckus” with Ghostface Killah in July as personal feuds counts as little more than an attempt to satisfy public demand for hard-hitting, denunciatory analysis without actually satisfying it. Too scared to call celebrities and their industries to account with any tangible force or penetration, on- and offline publications have simply flooded the market with a cheap, ersatz substitute, hoping this substitute will placate the general public without displeasing the musicians, labels, and corporations on whom they parasitically depend.

And this substitute is certainly not unique to the music industry, as 2015 has also been the year when the political “beef” became an increasingly diversionary front for the withdrawal of sustained, issue-focused political debate. It saw the Governor and Mayor of New York City “feud” over transport finances, Texas politicians and businesses “feud” over Medicaid expansion, Republican presidential candidates “feud” over 9/11, Republican presidential candidates “feud” yet again, and US senators “feud” over the extent of NSA surveillance powers.

Even if the actual substance of these arguments were covered to some extent by the media, the adjustment in emphasis more toward their “feuding” elements indicates a personalization of politics, a dumbing down that could potentially distract public attention away from the serious challenges at hand and toward irrelevant egos. That this is happening at all suggests that, as if with music and popular culture, even consequential debate, criticism, and analysis is being gradually usurped by its inconsequential simulacrum.

Lowest-Common Denominator

Does this mean that 2015 will give way to subsequent years that see only the merest sham of journalism and engagement? Probably not, but on the other hand, there’s reason to believe that the frequency and volume of beefs will increase, perhaps to such an extent as to compel once feud-shy outlets to report on the latest Twitter nonsense, so as not to lose advertising and other revenue streams.

That’s because, as the number of musicians, artists, and celebrities peak beyond its already superfluous level, they might feel the increasing need to resort to unorthodox tactics to individuate themselves from the pack. This would become doubly true, considering how their expanding numbers would mean that there’d be even less to differentiate Act 203212 from Act 203213 on a purely artistic level. And even if this doesn’t occur on any grand scale, the growing quantities of zines, websites, and blogs all competing against each other will also entail a continued elevation in beefs. And the more these publications methodically gravitate toward social media and monitor the accounts of any remotely newsworthy celebrity, the more they will spin any imperfectly civil exchange of words into a “feud.”

This would be especially true if they need to maintain ever-higher turnovers of content and of advertising, which together drive a reliance on the cheapest possible sources of vaguely salacious “news” and vaguely titillated readers, which in 2015 just so happened to be celebrity run-ins. As harmless as these run-ins may be in themselves, the possibility that they will swamp out more important events in the coming years is disquieting, since a stifling of awareness and discourse could follow, with almost any issue being whittled down to a meager butting of heads.

Hopefully this won’t be the case, since things are already bad enough in 2015. Instead of conversations, debates, and culture, “The Year of the Feud” has given us the vanities of Drake, Meek Mill, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and Donald Trump for company. It’s given us sensationalism, triviality, and vulgarity, when just below the surface there was a world of substance, complexity, and richness waiting to be discovered. Maybe we’ll regain such a world next year, underneath all the tweets, news articles, and blogs that compete with each other to see who can reduce everything to the lowest-common denominator. But if we do manage to find it, you can bet your bottom dollar there’ll be someone waiting in line to turn it into a feud story.

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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