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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Are Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish actually feuding?

The recent epic drama between Kendrick Lamar and Drake may have made the brutal diss track trendy again, but in the pop realm, indirect shade-throwing seems to be the order of the day. When the clash involves two of the biggest pop stars alive, and their mighty fandoms are the ones decoding their insinuations, even subtle or unintentional slights can become amplified to the point of absurdity.

Yet that also leaves the rest of us asking what is and isn’t real. Are Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift really feuding? From a certain angle, it certainly seems like Eilish has spent the past couple of months using her promotional cycle for her new album, Hit Me Hard and Soft, to drop casual but pointed criticism at Swift. From another angle, it seems like Swift may have retaliated in her own Swiftian way — by releasing bonus editions for her new album, Tortured Poets Department, timed to compete with Eilish’s album release.

While Swift’s reputation for petty feuding is so well known that she made a whole album about it, this fight seems totally out of character for the notably laid-back Eilish. Yet it seems to have been Eilish whose thinly veiled barbs against Swift first gained notice and steadily fueled the fire. Have we entered an era where fans look to turn everything into an epic rivalry — and they’ll find a way to do it, even when there’s nothing there at all?

Or is the Eilish/Taylor beef — with layered jibes leading to battles waged by fandom foot soldiers on social media feeds across the internet — just how pop stars fight these days? 

The drama is all about which album tops the Billboard chart — but it’s also about shade

At the heart of this feud is the Billboard album chart. Swift’s Poets has been at the top since its April 19 release, and Swifties have a single-minded goal of keeping it up there as long as possible. One of the ways artists gamify the charts in a highly competitive digital age is by releasing variant album editions — a trick Swift is well-known for using. For Poets, she released a standard album, then immediately expanded it to a double album with 30 songs, then suddenly dropped three more surprise, limited-time album variants on May 17. 

To Eilish fans, the timing of these three new album drops was sus: They landed the same day as the release of Eilish’s own new album, Hit Me. Swifties argued the timing was purely coincidental — just one more way of boosting Swift’s goal of keeping her album at No. 1 for as long as possible. For Eilish stans (who don’t have a collective name, oddly enough), that explanation fell flat: If the timing didn’t matter, why did Taylor step on Eilish’s release date? Especially since they were limited editions, meaning fans had a narrow window of time to buy them — a window of direct competition with Eilish.

For their part, Swift’s fans were side-eying Eilish’s camp: They soon realized Eilish’s manager, Danny Rukasin, had liked and retweeted (and hastily deleted) a tweet implying that Swift had a long history of intentionally “blocking” other artists’ paths to the top of the chart by strategically dropping her own releases. The calendar is finite, so Swift’s releases are likely to be less about spiting other artists and more about limited space, and Rukasin may have been motivated less by this particular gripe and more by a general dislike of Swift as an artist. Fans soon dug up another instance when he shaded Swift on social media, which fed the flames of hostility between the two camps. 

Meanwhile, both artists waged a back-and-forth with competing bonus editions of new tracks throughout the week, in an effort to cinch the top. Ultimately, Swift retained the No. 1 spot, with Eilish slotting in at No. 2.

Of course, all of this might easily have been chalked up to unfortunate coincidence, inevitable competition, and heated emotions rather than beef — nothing that really rises to the level of a full-blown, two-sided conflict. 

But what fandom these days thrives on a lack of conflict? It’s easy to see why neither fandom has backed off the drama. You don’t have to dig deep to find evidence that the beef might be real, and that Swift might have intended to go head-to-head with Eilish. That’s because Eilish might have been sitting on some longtime animosity toward Swift — a resentment that could have started with another artist altogether. 

If this feud exists, it might have started, not with Eilish or Swift, but with a man’s garden-variety sexism

To find the source of this mess, we might have to jump back to 2022. Damon Albarn, the frontman of seminal British bands Blur and Gorillaz, kicked off the year by bizarrely bashing Taylor Swift’s songwriting ability. In a January interview with the Los Angeles Times, Albarn first flatly claimed that Swift “doesn’t write her own songs,” then doubled down by adding that she doesn’t even co-write her own songs. Since Taylor Swift’s primary claim to fame is her songwriting ability, this was a very odd — if not outright misogynistic — hill for Albarn to randomly die on. 

But within almost the same breath, he took things in an even weirder direction, by comparing Swift’s music to that of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, with whom Eilish frequently co-writes:

I’m not hating on anybody, I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes. Doesn’t mean that the outcome can’t be really great. … A really interesting songwriter is Billie Eilish and her brother. I’m more attracted to that than to Taylor Swift. It’s just darker — less endlessly upbeat. Way more minor and odd. I think she’s exceptional.

For all we know, the incident could have ended there — Albarn apologized to Swift after massive backlash, blaming the Times for “clickbait”-editing whatever he actually said. 

Eilish holding a camera, filming O'Connell on the floor of the Kia Forum.

Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell at the listening party for her new album Hit Me Hard and Soft at the Kia Forum on May 16, 2024, in Inglewood, California.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for ABA

However, fast-forward a few months, and Billie Eilish herself took things a step further. During her history-making gig at Coachella, where she was the youngest headliner in history, Eilish brought out Albarn for a surprise guest performance. This could have been a purely fannish gesture on Eilish’s part. However, while Eilish was praising Albarn and the influence he had on her own music, an unidentified male voice on a hot mic could be heard on the concert livestream joking, “We’re getting sued by Taylor Swift.”

At the time, Swifties leaned toward the culprit behind the voice being Eilish’s brother O’Connell. Fans seemed torn on whether or not to view this as deliberate shade toward Taylor on the part of Eilish and O’Connell: After all, O’Connell had previously praised Swift’s songwriting as “inspiring,” and he attended her birthday party in 2021.

Still, it’s easy for things to get twisted in the cutthroat game of entertainment, and we know how Swift can hold a grudge when she feels her art has been disrespected. And judging by multiple comments Eilish has made in the promotional cycle for Hit Me Hard and Soft — comments that certainly seem to be directed at Swift — the vendetta might go both ways.

Eilish can’t seem to stop shading Swift — or are fans just reading into things?

On March 23, weeks before Swift’s Poets release, Billboard published an interview with Eilish in which she spoke of the “wasteful” practice of artists releasing vinyl albums primarily to garner more album sales and secure longevity or higher sales rankings on the Billboard charts. Although the entire interview was about Eilish’s broader efforts to promote environmental sustainability, she was especially sharp in her criticism of this (admittedly, yes, wasteful) practice:

I find it really frustrating as somebody who really goes out of my way to be sustainable and do the best that I can and try to involve everybody in my team in being sustainable — and then it’s some of the biggest artists in the world making f–king 40 different vinyl packages that have a different unique thing just to get you to keep buying more. It’s so wasteful, and it’s irritating to me that we’re still at a point where you care that much about your numbers and you care that much about making money — and it’s all your favorite artists doing that sh-t.

Since, again, this is a tactic for which Swift is famous, fans read the entire sidebar as a swipe at Swift specifically. Eilish herself quickly responded via Instagram and denied that she’d intended to slight any specific artist. “It would be so awesome if people would stop putting words into my mouth,” she reportedly wrote. “I wasn’t singling anyone out.”

If this had been a one-off statement, it would probably have been easier for fans to believe Eilish. Instead, this was just the beginning of a string of moments when Eilish’s general complaints could also be read as specific criticism of Taylor Swift. It’s worth noting that each of these subsequent interviews came after Swift’s May 17 “block” of Eilish’s album, so it’s also possible that what started out as pure coincidence on Eilish’s part quickly became personal.

In a May 21 interview for Apple Music, Eilish drew still more attention for remarks that seemed to shade overtly autobiographical songwriting — you know, like the kind Swift is again notorious for

“I really wanted the songs to not be like, ‘Oh, I know what that’s about,’” Eilish says

I think that we live in such a world where everyone knows everything … Everyone is aware of the beef that happened and aware of the people that don’t like each other and aware of this and that.

People put songs out, especially in the pop world — and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it necessarily, but it’s just, we live in a world of, like, somebody puts a song out and everyone’s like, ‘So this is who this is about and this is the entire story of what happened,’ and it’s like, it doesn’t even give the listener a chance to interpret it how they want to interpret it and how they naturally hear it. And that I find really frustrating. I don’t want to hear a song that I’m like, ‘Ooh, my god’ — every single lyric, I’m like, ‘Oh, my god, this is about that person.’

At this point, her brother, O’Connell, chimes in, agreeing, “No, it can be gross … I don’t listen to ‘The Luckiest’ by Ben Folds and think about his wife. I think about who I’m in love with.” 

Taken by itself, this is all pretty innocuous kvetching about the creative process. But taken as part of an ongoing pattern of the siblings subtly shading Swift, her songwriting, and her production process, it feels a lot more damning.  

Oh, and then Eilish apparently added Swift-style performances to the checklist of things she doesn’t like.

It’s no secret that a celebrity rivalry like this one drives sales. But there’s something frustrating about the ephemeral nature of this one.

Last year, Eilish called both Swift and Beyoncé “untouchable superstars” in the LA Times, referencing their epic stadium shows, which can each run three hours or more. “The fact that they can put on a show that long, and it’s filled with so many incredible moments, is really amazing,” she said. At the time she sounded admiring, not confrontational. 

Following the album release clash, however, her tone changed dramatically. In a May 23 broadcast on social radio platform Stationhead, Eilish stated, “I’m not doing a three-hour show. That’s literally psychotic. Nobody wants that. I don’t want that … I don’t even want that as a fan. My favorite artist in the world, I’m not trying to hear them for three hours.” Once again, Swifties rushed to allege that Eilish was shading Swift specifically (and Beyoncé, but the Hive seems less pressed).

We’ve never known Eilish to overtly antagonize Swift before, and indeed in 2019 she thanked Swift for “taking care of [her]” through her music when she was a child. Yet this wouldn’t be the first time a younger female artist found herself in opposition to Swift. Just look at Olivia Rodrigo, who borrowed liberally from Swift as a key influence in her music. Swift embraced the young singer, until the pair had a rumored falling-out over the issue of song credits. That kerfuffle may or may not have led Rodrigo to burn Swift in the scathing 2022 song “Vampire,” in which she depicts the titular fang-bearer as a significantly older figure who exploits the singer’s youth and naivete. 

Have we mentioned Rodrigo and Eilish are good friends? And that Eilish has said she feels “very protective” of her? Indeed, in a May 22 interview with Stephen Colbert to promote her new album, Eilish riffed poetically about the need for young artists to have the freedom to copy other artists while they’re finding their own style. “Inspiration is going to turn into more inspiration is going to turn into more inspiration,” she said. Though Eilish was ostensibly talking about her own vocal development, some gawkers watching the unfolding beef interpreted it as Eilish commenting on the Swift-Rodrigo feud. 

It makes sense; there’s some speculation that Swift tapped Sabrina Carpenter to open for her “Eras” tour in part because Carpenter and Rodrigo have a longstanding enmity over a messy love triangle. Rodrigo likewise has been teasing an upcoming remix of “Vampire” as a collaboration with Lana Del Rey — who’s allegedly currently on the outs with Swift. Other celebrities also seem to be taking sides in the dispute. Sza, who incidentally is one of the artists whose album Swift was previously accused of trying to “block,” had previously denied there was ever any beef between the two. She was recently spotted “liking” an Instagram post dinging Eilish for her high concert prices and short performance times — an apparent subtle shade on behalf of Swift.

For her part, Swift has yet to comment on the ongoing war between her fandom and Eilish’s — though her PR team’s Twitter account did make a post on May 25 referencing the line “try and come for my job” from Swift’s song “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” — a post that many fans interpreted as a diss against Eilish for being unable to swipe the No. 1 chart ranking from Swift.

Is any of this real or is it all just a manufactured face-off? It’s hard to tell. But the animosity has certainly driven attention and renewed energy toward both artists. In the middle of the feud, Swift’s album Midnights reportedly became the fastest album by a woman in history to reach a whopping 9 billion streams on Spotify. Meanwhile, Eilish’s album lead, the racy bop “Lunch,” reportedly became her fastest single ever to reach 100 million Spotify streams. 

It’s no secret that a celebrity rivalry like this one drives sales. But there’s something frustrating about the ephemeral nature of this one. On the one hand, there’s plenty of plausible deniability around each of the statements from Eilish that fans are up in arms about. On the other, the fact there are so many statements during an active press tour implies Eilish isn’t playing. She also hasn’t bothered to clarify that she’s not talking about Swift. (Vox has reached out to both camps for comment.)

When hip-hop artists create diss tracks, the general sentiment is that the gripes create good music, and the music is what matters. We’ll undoubtedly hear Swift’s side of this latest dispute in her next album. But the vacuum of real information about what’s going on here has left a gap that fans have chosen to fill with a lot of finger-pointing and side-taking. It’s a familiar routine for anyone who’s spent time around stan culture, but the drama detracts from the accomplishments of both artists. It’s hard to feel served by this fight the way, for example, Kendrick’s beef with Drake doubled as a commentary on authenticity in hip-hop culture. If Eilish really does think Swift’s songs are too literal, her concerts too long, her release strategy too wasteful, and her feuds too petty, there must be better ways to air those grievances. 

Perhaps she should write a song about it.

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