Only Twitter Benefits from a Celebrity Feud
There are a little over 1,500 words in a story and Q&A published by the LA Times this week about Damon Albarn, the English artist best known from the bands Blur and Gorillaz. The first 500 words or so are about his latest solo album and an upcoming concert he’ll be performing. Presumably, those 500 words are the reason he agreed to the interview in the first place.
Unfortunately for him, the readers, and thousands of Twitter stans, the other 1,000 words are little more than bait.
Words #471–489 are when he took the bait. Words #490–510 are when he was reeled in for the catch.
Q: You think a lot of modern musicians are relying on sound and attitude?
A: Name me someone who’s not.
Q: She may not be to your taste, but Taylor Swift is an excellent songwriter.
A: She doesn’t write her own songs.
Those 50 words would escalate into perhaps the dumbest celebrity feud in recent memory, a stan war, and a few hilarious hours of memes. In the end, though, the only real beneficiary was Twitter.
Here’s a breakdown of the events:
Monday, 2:16 PM — The LA Times Twitter account posts the article in a thread. The first tweet is about Albarn’s upcoming concert. The second tweet is about the Taylor Swift quote.
Less than 2 hours later — Taylor Swift tweets this:
A little over an hour after that — Albarn responds:
In that roughly four-hour time span, Twitter exploded with defenses of Swift’s songwriting — from fans, from other celebrities, and from virtually everyone she’s ever collaborated with. By the next day, dozens of think-pieces on the subject had been published.
The whole debacle served less as a discussion of songwriting and more as an indictment of social media’s effect on journalism.
After all, the easiest way to get people to read a niche article is to get the subject to comment on something with broader appeal. While Albarn may have a loyal fan base, he isn’t exactly a household name, especially in the US. Hence, the 1,000 words of baiting. In the rest of the Q&A, the interviewer goes on to ask Albarn about everything from Boris Johnson’s “partygate” scandal to the new Beatles documentary.
And of course, there’s no better celebrity to ask about than Taylor Swift, a singer that social media loves to talk about and who has one of the largest and most dedicated fan bases online. Anytime she’s mentioned anywhere by any celebrity, no matter how niche, her stans will know about it. There’s a reason she’s served as commentary bait in countless interviews, even for already popular artists — everyone from Lana Del Rey to Billy Joel. It helps, too, that even off-hand comments can be repeated by the hundreds of clickbait-based news sites, which will then link back to the original story.
In this case, the LA Times created the perfect storm by baiting Albarn, because his comment then baited Swift into commenting, which baited all of her stans, friends, and collaborators to come to her defense, which in turn generated enough buzz to bait non-stan Twitter into discussing the story, which in turn baited news sites everywhere to comment, thereby generating even more discourse.
To be sure, I can’t really blame the LA Times, the interviewer, or the social media managers. They clearly have a strong understanding of how social media amplifies some stories over others, and they successfully gamed that system. I can, however, blame Twitter and other social media sites for creating an ecosystem that benefits these kinds of stories.
I’m also not in any way defending Albarn’s comments. The question of Swift’s songwriting was settled a long time ago — she wrote her entire third album alone to defend against this exact criticism — and while the interview may have been edited, Albarn still said what he said. At best, his remarks were ignorant, and at worst, an anachronistic and sexist comment leftover from the anti-pop days that musicians and critics abandoned decades ago.
The issue is more that Albarn should have never been asked about Swift in the first place. These are two artists operating in completely different circles, and if even the topic did come up naturally, it was far from the most important aspect of the story, let alone the headline.
The root of the problem lies not in Albarn, Swift, or the LA Times, but in the social media culture that benefits a journalistic practice which baits celebrities and fans into creating discourse around even the most insignificant thoughts.
I wish I could be optimistic that Twitter will recognize this issue, but unfortunately for all of us, these situations benefit them more than they benefit anyone else. The only hope lies in readers and social media users recognizing the issue when they see it. I can’t say I’m very optimistic about that either.