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How Pop Music Got Too Personal

Did Taylor Swift write “Bad Blood” about Katy Perry? Did Katy Perry fire back with “Swish Swish”? Recent years have seen a significant rise in songs that seem to be about the particular people and problems in singers’ lives, rather than soundtracking our own. Amateur sleuths scoured Beyonce’s Lemonade for clues about her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity, while Ariana Grande’s “Thank U Next” was far less subtle about name-checking her ex-boyfriends. More than ever today’s pop music feels rife with messages for fans to decode, requiring us to do the research to figure out why Drake is beefing with Meek Mill, Kanye West, or Pusha T. But shorn of their gossipy contexts, do these songs stand on their own? Here’s our Take on how we came to care so much about the stories behind the songs, and whether music that asks us to do supplemental reading robs it of something essential.

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Taylor Swift: “They use, kind of, you writing songs about your life as a way to play detective.” - 2Day FM Sydney Interview, 2014

Music has always spoken to us. But more and more music feels like it’s speaking to someone else. Recent years have seen a significant rise in songs that seem to be about the particular people and problems in singers’ lives, rather than soundtracking our own. Did Taylor Swift write “Bad Blood” about Katy Perry? Did Katy Perry fire back with “Swish Swish”? Amateur sleuths scoured Beyonce’s Lemonade for clues about her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity, while Ariana Grande’s “Thank U Next” was far less subtle about namechecking her ex-boyfriends. While artists have long written about themselves and the people they know, more than ever today’s pop music feels rife with messages for fans to decode, requiring the casual listener to do the research to figure out why Drake is beefing with Meek Mill, Kanye West, or Pusha T.

Drake finally speaks about beef with Pusha T: “This is a sport at the end of the day, and you know from a very early point I’ve never shied away from defending myself.” - Rap Radar Interview, 2019

Buoyed by stan culture, and aided by sites like Genius that annotate and dissect the subtext of lyrics, we’ve become increasingly used to approaching music as part of an overarching tabloid-esque narrative that’s advanced with every new single and cryptic allusion. But shorn of their gossipy contexts, do these songs stand on their own? Here’s our take on how we came to care so much about the stories behind the songs, and whether music that asks us to do supplemental reading robs it of something essential.

Chloe Melas: “We don’t have time to get into the backstory. Google it, people.” - “Taylor Swift ‘Bad Blood’ Video - The Real Meaning, ” HollywoodLife

The Rise of the Confessional Song

In 1972, Carly Simon set rumors swirling with one sly lyric: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” As her single hit number one, it seemed like everyone wanted to know: Who’s so vain? Could this enigmatic character she describes—with the apricot scarf and “the hat strategically dipped below one eye”—be her ex-lover, Warren Beatty? Simon later admitted that at least the second verse is about Beatty, but she teased the real story across nearly five decades’ worth of interviews. The mystery has become as important as the song itself.

Simon released “You’re So Vain” amid the heyday of the confessional song. Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours turned the band members’ various romantic dramas with each other into searingly personal songs full of palpable anger and heartbreak.

Lindsey Buckingham: “I’ve always been a firm believer that much of the appeal of Rumours went beyond the music itself.” - “Inside the making of ‘Rumours,” Interview with Dan Rather, 2015

The following year, Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” laid bare his acrimony over his divorce from his first wife. 1970s albums were filled with singers singing about other singers—

Leonard Cohen: “There’s a line in that song [Chelsea Hotel #2]: ‘I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best.’...That specifically meant that I wasn’t one of Janis Joplin’s closest friends.” - Interview in The Song of Leonard Cohen (1979)

Audiences didn’t always want to be let in on the secret. The earliest, most successful pop stars like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, or Perry Como cut their teeth on jazz standards, show tunes, and The Great American Songbook.

Elvis Presley — intensely beloved by fans— still performed songs written by someone else: he was an actor, starring in whatever story that particular song was trying to tell. But all of this changed with the arrival of two groundbreaking artists The Beatles & Bob Dylan. The Beatles became famous not just as a rock band but as a group of distinct personalities. Paul McCartney being “The Cute One,” John being the “Smart One,” George being the “Quiet One,” or Ringo Starr being “The Funny One” was reinforced across films like A Hard Day’s Night and cartoons which turned them into only slightly exaggerated characters, allowing fans to feel like they really knew these guys.

At the same time, the Beatles’ songs and albums were peppered with personal pronouns. Titles likeMeet The Beatles”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret ” made it seem as though they were reaching out to you. As a result, fans became intimately invested in The Beatles’ personal lives, turning up to weep openly at their weddings. By the end of the decade, they were singing along with John Lennon, as he complained about being hounded by the press on his honeymoon.

Meanwhile, as Bob Dylan’s protest music got him heralded as the “voice of a generation,” he drew on details torn from real-life events. For many, Dylan was the truth, which led to people looking for verisimilitude in all his music. Critics combed through his lyrics seeking hints about the real-life “Mr. Jones” in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” or the “Miss Lonely” at the center of “Like A Rolling Stone.” Songs like “Positively 4th Street” were bitter, first-person kiss-offs that definitely seemed directed at someone—like the Greenwich Village folk crowds who’d turned their back on him for “going electric,” as many speculated. Like the Beatles, Bob Dylan was a hero to his fans, who hung on his every enigmatic word.

Audience member: “Your songs are meant to have a subtle message.”

Bob Dylan: “Subtle message?”

Audience member: “Well they’re supposed to.”

Dylan: “Where’d ya hear that?!” - Interview, 1965

Dylan helped to foster the importance of authenticity in pop music. This watchword had long been a manifesto of sorts in the folk and country scenes, embodied by Dylan’s own hero, freight train-hopping troubadour Woody Guthrie, and in the wake of Dylan’s rise, audiences increasingly gravitated toward artists who seemed true. Singer-songwriters like Carole King (who began her career writing popular songs for others) were no longer writing tunes for the perfect voices and idealized images of pop stars past, but singing themselves, about themselves.

Carole King: “The one thing I can do as the songwriter is deliver the songwriter’s version of that song…it’s just as close to the source as you can get.” - CBS This Morning, 2015

That sort of raw, intimately personal songwriting endures today in modern folk artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Bon Iver. But the soul-baring confessional has increasingly wound its way into other genres.

Kesha: “This song I think is just really important because it talks about me personally, going through something really hard.” - Good Morning America, 2017

Hip-hop in particular has owned and perfected the idea of the confessional song. Hip-hop songs are almost always told from a first-person perspective, with artists often delving into the details of their real lives—no matter how dark or uncomfortable. Like with Dylan or Woody Guthrie, rappers’ identities are intrinsically tied to their authenticity, often conveyed through narratives of hardships they’ve overcome. And these confessions create an intimate bond between artist and audience that engenders their trust—and their loyalty.

Logic: “They’ve said things like, “Your music has saved my life. You’ve saved my life.” - “1-800-273-8255 Official Lyrics & Meaning,” Genius Verified

The Birth of Beef

While artists like Bob Dylan and Carly Simon were purposefully cryptic in their insults, others have been more direct, using their songs to openly call people out by name—and start beef with other artists. Examples of the “diss track” exist across genres, but as with the confessional, hip-hop all but owns the diss track, ever since 1981’s legendary face-off between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee.

The battle rap—largely consisting of anything-goes insults—remains foundational to the very idea of hip-hop, with rappers typically squaring off over not only who’s the most talented, but also who’s the realest. So again, authenticity is the key. Hip-hop’s first rivalry, The Bridge Wars, saw MC Shan and Boogie Down Productions locked in a dispute over which New York neighborhood actually started hip-hop. And as hip-hop expanded from East Coast to West, intense regional loyalties and beef became crucial to the genre’s explosion.

Notorious BIG: “Beef is when I see you/guaranteed to be in ICU” - “What’s Beef”

The most famous rap beef, between East Coast rapper The Notorious B.I.G. and West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, grew out of tragedy—the 1994 near-fatal shooting of Tupac at Quad Studios, which he suspected Biggie, who was also in the building, of being involved in—but it also out of a lyrical misunderstanding. Tupac was convinced that Biggie’s track “Who Shot Ya?” was directed at him, even though Biggie and his associates insisted it was not about Tupac and written before the Quad incident. The East Coast/West Coast feud consumed hip-hop, fed by Tupac tracks like “Hit ‘Em Up” and figures who profited from it being good business, like Death Row label head Suge Knight.

And even in the wake of both Biggie’s and Tupac’s devastating murders, beef remained an integral part of the genre: from Jay-Z vs. Nas to 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule, to Drake vs. … well, almost everybody. While hip-hop is no longer strictly divided along the coastlines, the call to action remains the same for fans: Pick a side, and stay loyal to your team.

The sense of tribalism this creates is powerful. It’s also innate. In his social identity theory, psychologist Henri Tajfel theorized that people instinctively split the world into in-groups and out-groups—us vs them—while using negative aspects of the other to enhance their own self-image. Music beefs foster loyalty because they help fans cement their own identities.

Reign LaFreniere: “Music is identity. Every belief, ideology you ever come up with or anything you’re passionate about tends to link with the music you listen to.” - “Music Is Identity,” TEDxMountainViewHighSchool

And for the parties involved, they make good business sense: Beefs increase brand awareness, lifting relatively obscure artists into the limelight, and keeping major artists’ names in the headlines even when they don’t have anything new to promote.

Nicki Minaj: “Silly rap beefs just give me more checks.” - “Swish Swish”

Meanwhile, every rapper that Kendrick Lamar called out during his verse on Big Sean’s “Control” went on to experience career-best sales.

Kendrick Lamar: “Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller, I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you n*****.” - “Control”

Some argue that the creative one-upmanship of beefs has been key to the history of hip-hop’s success. But there are also obvious downsides to the musical beef and its culture of war that has sometimes spilled over into brutal real-life violence. In rap, in particular, the threats made in lyrics have actually been used to prosecute artists. And our cultural fascination with the “diva feud,” which is shamelessly exploited by the media, is based in an underlying misogyny. As i-D’s Andre-Naquian Wheeler writes, “it reinforces the idea that only one woman can own a piece of a pie in a very male-dominated industry, forcing them to compete with each other in unfair ways.”

Artistically, too, the beef can rob music of its inherent significance. It reduces music to a branding message, part of an external narrative that turns our musical heroes into something more like professional wrestlers. It also forces the fan to stay on top of all the artists’ shifting loyalties, just to understand what they’re singing about. The feud between Biggie and Tupac may have been relatively clear-cut, but understanding why Tupac also once took a shot at The Fugees requires untangling a complex narrative involving Tupac’s acting career, his sexual assault charges, and a shadowy music exec named Haitian Jack. It’s a lot to ask of a fan. Taking sides often means taking pains to keep up.

Taking Sides

Psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell: “Fan relationships in the context of musical acts is much stronger because every time we listen to that song the reward centre of our brain is stimulated.” - Interview in “How Does A Fan Become A ‘Stan’?,” Genius News

Fans have been replaced by “stans”—the kind of overzealous, obsessive follower that Eminem introduced in his 2000 song of the same name. Stans are a veritable army, dedicated to discussing, defending, even attacking on behalf of their leader.

This obsessiveness—when combined with the intimacy of confessional songwriting, and the tribalism of musical beefs—has greatly affected the way music is received.

Beyoncé’s seminal, genre-hopping visual album “Lemonade” is a multilayered work about grief, femininity, and black identity. But on its release, fans and critics alike seemed far more interested in what it revealed about the tabloid scandal in Beyonce’s personal life.

Beyonce: “You better call Becky with the good hair.” - “Sorry”

And when fashion designer Rachel Roy posted a photo to Instagram with the caption “Good hair, don’t care,” the Beyhive swarmed Roy’s account, vandalizing her Wikipedia page, and even accidentally going after celebrity chef Rachael Ray in confusion.

Some artists seem to encourage this behavior. Taylor Swift has made an art of peppering her videos with allusions to the various people in her orbit, giving her fans plenty of alleys to run down. Publicly embracing and making art out of her feuds with Katy Perry on “Bad Blood” or with Kanye West on her album Reputation has been seen as evidence of her maturing, outgrowing her squeaky-clean image, and owning her narrative. But it also makes all of her music part of that narrative.

There is definitely a gender bias at play here: Women in music (like female creators in general) have complained for years about their work being read as autobiographical automatically, in a way that never happens with men. Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, told i-D, “I believe it’s a subtle kind of sexism where people just assume that women are “more emotional” or “more intuitive” and they can only write about their emotions instead of ideas.” And while Taylor Swift may consciously incorporate her personal life into her music, she’s also been a victim of the inaccurate and misogynist criticism that this is all she writes about.

Taylor Swift: “You’re gonna have people who are gonna say ‘she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends,’ and I think, frankly, that’s just a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says it about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing about their exes.” - 2Day FM Sydney Interview, 2014

Not only is this assumption limiting for the artist—it’s limiting for the art. Songs cease to be stand-alone works of music and instead are treated as something akin to an expanding cinematic universe. Indiewire has argued that “millennials are actively keen on long-form narrative” thanks to being raised on binge-able TV shows and 50-hour video games, but this approach is also about constantly consuming the newest episode, then quickly forgetting it and moving on to the next chapter. Music benefits from being lived with. While today’s artists may have more dedicated, more involved fans than ever before, the tendency to look at songs as a conversation means those listeners might miss the bigger picture of what the music is really saying.

Bruce Springsteen: “How much of this was I thinking about when I wrote the song? None of it. How much was I feeling when I wrote the song? All of it.” - VH1 Storytellers, 2005

By focusing on the autobiographical, we are in danger of missing the universal—the way songs capture feelings in a way that relates to our lives, not the artist’s. “You’re So Vain” still resonates all these years later not because the listener enjoys the sick burn on Warren Beatty, but because it reminds them of their own ex-lover. You may have never been called out by the Greenwich folk scene, but when Bob Dylan sings “You’ve got a lot of nerve / To say you are my friend” in “Positively 4th Street,” you think of your own betrayals.

Playing into the current cultural narrative and generating viral speculation and online discussion can be key to a modern song’s success. But music that’s too tied to a moment can easily be rendered disposable, unlikely to retain its power as the years go by, feuds are forgotten, and beefs are healed.

Ice Cube: “It’s hard to listen to those songs now cos we cool, I love Dre and Ren and Eazy and Yella, they’re my guys.” - Late Night with Seth Meyers Interview, 2017

When music relies too much on us to do the reading, we don’t do enough listening. And that’s where we learn that, with apologies to Carly Simon, the song isn’t about you. It’s about us.

Ariana Grande: “I just want people to listen to it and have their own experience.” - “Thank U, Next” Interview, Zach Sang Show, 2019