Tuesday’s MTV Video Music Awards nominations continue to resonate throughout the pop world, with Taylor Swift’s much-honored video “Bad Blood” now receiving criticism from its putative subject. Katy Perry, the star Swift has strongly implied the song and video are about, remarked that the degree to which Swift has flogged a “feud” between the two is at odds with Swift’s own professed feminism.
The “pit women against other women argument” refers to Swift’s own statements, yesterday, that Nicki Minaj’s open disappointment over recognition for her “Anaconda” video represented unfeminist behavior. This is Perry’s first public remark at all over “Bad Blood,” a song that first was covered in the run-up to the release of the 1989 album as the story of a bitter, uncollegial rivalry. And the manner in which Perry spoke out was as refreshing as Minaj’s honesty over what “Anaconda” represented.
Both women are refusing to put on the happy face entertainers (women especially) are meant to use in the public eye when they lose out. Operating according to a long-established script, Minaj should just be happy for the few nominations she did receive, while Perry should graciously decline comment each time Swift makes money off of a song that depicts Perry as an amoral snake. Perry went on to promote a video by fellow superstar Rihanna, another video by a black artist that had failed to get recognition. Stars are meant to be surprised by the outcome of awards shows, not to openly advocate for themselves and for one another.
But we’re entering a new era of pop star, clearly, and the 2015 VMAs may represent some sort of demarcation line. Swift’s declaration that it was “unlike” Minaj to “pit women against each other” elided the possibility of healthy competition between talented and hard-working professionals. Perry’s sticking up for herself is a feminist act of the sort that’s seen too little in pop. Swift has made money and earned credibility off of a narrative in which she’s, without ever explicitly saying as much, winkingly cast Perry as the villain, which is her right; it ought to be expected that Perry would stick up for herself. That only hadn’t happened yet because to be that direct and frank is outside the courtly, well-established rules of pop.
Perry and Minaj are talking about their careers from two different angles: Perry is sticking up for her right not to be endlessly talked about in a negative light, while Minaj wants recognition for her ability to move the culture. But both ought to be heard, beyond the endlessly tempting angle of a perceived anti-Swift “backlash.”
At least since the glory days of Madonna and Mariah Carey, pop stars especially have been prided for their ability to “shade” one another, speak in a derisive, gratuitous, and mocking tone about their rivals. By contrast, Perry and Minaj are using their wit, their platforms and their well-honed ability to get attention to stick up for themselves. Who would dare to pit them against anyone else?