Art is its own thing, and it’s the most important thing, but when stardom is at stake it’s never the only thing. A famous artist is the product of a complex series of decisions regarding representation (style, theme, content, tone) in their work, but also in spheres that overlap only partially with the aesthetic: political maneuverings, publicity gambits, business investments, and even religious commitments all matter greatly in the creation and sustenance of stardom.
As Kendrick Lamar demonstrates, it’s possible to be an excellent artist while at the same time excelling in every last one of these secondary fields. But in general, stars have an affinity for one field or another. Drake is always reaching out to underserved constituencies and offering to represent them: His musical career is an election campaign. Then there’s Taylor Swift, with whom Drake shares a personality but not a body: She always views her music with the hard, appraising eye of a businesswoman. (How could it be otherwise, when she comes from a family of owners and executives?) Swift’s best songs shine as if they’ve just passed quality control, and their major theme, “settling accounts,” is as much economic as it is emotional.
When Swift gangs up in photos with her collection of friends, it’s hard not to be reminded of the congregation of logos of corporate donors to music festivals, or the mass of ads for corporations festooning a NASCAR racer. On the rare occasions when she slips, it’s when she attempts to deploy cultural capital like she would actual capital. It wasn’t enough last summer to merely throw her weight around against an opponent as unpredictable as Kanye West or as strategic as Kim Kardashian, especially when the couple showed receipts. By exposing Swift’s innocent image as a facade, he and his wife made her infamous.
Katy Perry, Swift’s other longtime rival, has always had fewer resources than Kanye to resist Swift’s implacable hostility. As her background in faith-based music and the title of her new album Witness suggest, Perry’s talent is — whatever its actual depth and whatever the quality of her songs — evangelical in nature. It’s not enough to experience faith: One has to testify, vocally and enthusiastically, to its glory. (Even apparently irreligious songs like “I Kissed a Girl” are structured like conversion experiences.)
Perry has always stood or fallen on the strength of her singles, which puts her at a disadvantage in terms of sales and art against Swift, who, though hardly lacking for hits, is a bigger-selling, album-oriented artist. Swift isn’t cool, but Perry isn’t either. Whatever their Christian or country origins, Perry and Swift are currently pure pop artists, young white women primarily serving a core audience of female suburbanites. Moral, economic, or aesthetic, there’s no high ground available for Perry to take, which means that if Swift, being the bigger star, wants to shove her around sumo-style, Perry lacks the weight to push back or the judo skills to turn Swift’s mass against her.
All this is to say that when Taylor Swift made her albums available on Spotify and other services on the eve of the release of Witness, Perry was going to have to take the flex and hope her fans turned out in sufficient numbers to keep her from embarrassment.
But to simply read Swift’s flaunting of power as a sign of strength would be a mistake. Swift only came to terms with the streaming companies because her attempt to boycott them had failed; treating her music like a business didn’t work out well against corporations that literally make a business out of everyone’s music. Not to mention trying to squash Perry’s new album with old Taylor Swift albums wouldn’t nearly be as interesting as doing it with a new Taylor Swift album, which is, by all indications, nowhere to be seen.
The most remarkable thing about the Swift-Perry beef is that it even exists to begin with. Pure pop superstars gain nothing from protracted conflict with one another. Since they’ll never lack for publicity anyway, the only thing long fights guarantee is a loss of brand synergy as their most devoted stans boycott their idol’s nemesis. Nothing is at stake in a spat between two artists performing in the same medium and catering to the same demographic, neither of whom are known for standing for much else beyond their own image. There is no way to even pretend, as one can with Kendrick-Drake or Taylor-Kanye, that any higher principle than ego is involved.
So it was a relief to hear, in the midst of Perry’s clunky Witness rollout over the weekend, that she’s willing, assuming Swift is too, to put an end to their hostilities — call it a draw. It’s a shame that nothing of the sort will happen: Taylor Swift holds grudges like an alligator’s jaw grips prey. Swift’s recent years have been a crash course in limitations — it turns out that there’s some things that her money can’t buy, her fame can’t overawe, and her power can’t coerce. At this point, keeping Perry around as a punching bag likely takes her mind off everything that she can’t impose her will upon.
The conflict has to continue. Swift will keep pushing and Perry will get pushed around some, but that will never make the former a champion or the latter a martyr. It’s dull (if this squabble were a food fight, it’d be corn syrup versus creamed corn), but maybe that’s what makes it relatable. At the very least you can feel like you’ve won just by not taking part in it. The whole affair is steeped in boredom, so much so that one can’t help but imagine that that’s how it started — one megacelebrity swiping hard at the other just to make time pass less slowly.
Neither Perry or Swift would ever be “cool” beyond the basic meaning of “incredibly popular.” This was just one thing among many that they shared in common; Perry and Swift were, and are, the only ones on each other’s level. Superficial differences couldn’t conceal an essential affinity: the same lean-in feminism, the same nine-figure net worth, the same Swede precision engineering their hits, the same level of corniness, the same melanin level and gender. Superstars, perhaps especially pop stars who are female, young, and white, are compelled to engage in relentless self-affirmation as part of their career: For all their ludicrous advantages in life, the ordinary human privilege of disliking oneself intensely is forbidden them. The Perry-Swift feud is a tiresome spectacle, but maybe its function has nothing to do with the public at all. There’s a good chance that their clashing is as close as either one is allowed to get to self-distaste.