Stan wars raged out of control in May. Taylor Swift fans tried to cancel Burger King for a tweet poking fun at her songs about ex-boyfriends. Barbz called for Usher’s head when he downplayed the prospect of a Verzuz battle between Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim, calling the Young Money chart-topper a “product” of the Bad Boy pioneer. Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande fans united against Tekashi 6ix9ine for the suggestion that their collaborative No. 1 single “Stuck with U” cheated its way past his comeback track “Gooba,” which landed at No. 3. Doja Cat caught smoke from every direction throughout the long Memorial Day weekend for dalliances in nebulous internet chat spaces and cavalier use of slurs popularized by racists on forums. Lana Del Rey got lit up by a coalition of Nicki, Beyoncé, and Cardi B fans last week for an Instagram post expressing frustration about the feeling that she isn’t allowed the same leeway for self-expression and sexuality as her peers earlier in her career; almost immediately it was noted that most of the singers she named were women of color, which drew accusations of racism and insinuations of a darker edge to the “Summertime Sadness” singer’s taste for the iconography of mid-20th-century Americana she has struggled to shake.
These cases are notable because they are all easily avoidable. They’re evidence of a slow and peculiar shift in the relationship between fans and the musicians they love over the last decade, as maintaining a social-media presence went from being a novelty to a necessity for public figures, and saying the right thing at all times on social media has become the ground-level expectation of prominent internet citizens. Social media is a bucking bronco; you can make an educated guess what it’ll do ahead of time based on history and experience, but you can never know for sure until you hop on. In 2018, Kevin Hart thought defiance would get him out of hot water for dry gay jokes in old tweets when it was announced that he’d be the host of the 2019 Academy Awards, and LGBTQ Oscar viewers balked. It did not. In 2018, Kanye West seemed blindsided by the passion in the reaction to a statement he made on TMZ saying African slaves in America may have chosen their captivity. These are all stories of celebrities being cavalier and overconfident, of the belief that the internet forgets everything in two days’ time.
Fandoms are fierce, dedicated, and organized. Their loyalty works two different ways. Modern fandoms are unparalleled in the arts of signal boosting on social media, racking up record sales and video views, and staging gestures of appreciation for their favorites. Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage” remix reached No. 1 this week in part because of strategic streaming parties scheduled throughout the days following the song’s release by Beyhive accounts like BeyLegion on Twitter. Showers of adulation from thousands of loving admirers can go to an artist’s head if they’re not careful. They can get a little too cozy, and they can get themselves in a lot of trouble. Last April, Lizzo hit at Pitchfork writer Rawiya Kameir’s evenhanded review of her album Cuz I Love You, and Lana went after NPR pop critic Ann Powers for what was a fairly reverent review of the singer’s exquisite Norman Fucking Rockwell album. Both albums charted well, with aggregated review scores in the 80’s indicating nearly unanimous praise; both artists caught flak for fixating on the lone less than fawning review of their work. What they wanted, it seemed, was worship. Conditioning them to want it was, perhaps, a mistake. For all its great banter and interviews, Nicki’s Apple Music show “Queen Radio” has occasionally used its reach to sic fans on people who anger the rapper. That kind of heat isn’t easily quelled. Rev the kids up, and they only stop when they’re tired.
Fandoms are a place for people to find comfort and forge valuable friendships, but any organizing force capable of creating as much noise as artist-centric interest groups have been able to in the last decade also holds great destructive power. Now, toxicity in music fandom is a years-old practice. The visceral reaction to the 1913 premiere of Russian composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is remembered, perhaps melodramatically, as a borderline riot. In 1979, nearly 50,000 rock fans packed into Chicago’s Comiskey Park to see a radio DJ detonate disco records after a White Sox doubleheader on what went down in history as “Disco Demolition Night.” The internet is a unique playing field and a fertile breeding ground for misinformation and targeted harassment. With so many voices and opposing ideas occupying the same space, it’s hard to parse truth from fiction. Nuance is scarce. Last week was a master class in the inability to stop a crowd that’s gotten an idea into its head. The shift over the people dragging Doja Cat to prematurely apologizing to her to dragging her written apology is proof it’s nearly impossible for the audience to be tamed and for the artist to control their own narrative. (The irony of boisterous “stans” borrowing a name from the Eminem song about a supporter whose love for his favorite artist devolves into violence is not lost on anyone, least of all Marshall Mathers, who is currently selling “Stan” sweatshirts to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the song and the album housing it.)
The consequences for stumbling in the court of public opinion are loud, swift, and severe, and the cabin fever everyone is experiencing in quarantine has ratcheted tensions up to ten. Suddenly, everyone has time. This does not bode well for anyone who speaks in error or out of turn or without a filter. Traversing the internet as a public figure means creating an image for yourself, whether you intend to or not. People watching your moves from afar create a profile in their heads, like detectives. Lana, whose tiff with Ann Powers centered around the singer’s insistence that she isn’t consciously playing a character, is seen as no-nonsense and outspoken, a firebrand who “won’t not fuck you the fuck up” for crossing her, who once led her following in a mass hex against the president. But in her eyes, the Instagram post that got her in trouble was her first declarative statement on the internet. Doja Cat is an internet humorist who is present as a celebrity as much for absurdism and prop humor as for music; “Mooo!,” the song that put her on a lot of listeners’ radars two years ago, is quite like Tekashi 6ix9ine’s “Gummo” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” in that all three songs made struggling rappers famous by marrying their internet savvy and sense of humor to a low stakes song with high replay value. Doja’s scandal underscores the fact that people don’t yet know her beyond the jokes, behind the bars, so they can’t gauge what she’s capable of.
Both performers seem trapped in gilded cages. Both got burned for leaning into the outspoken internet omnipresence audiences expect of pop stars and learned the lesson Taylor Swift uncovered in the Reputation era, that you can only control your narrative inside your constituency. Outside the castle walls, the wolves are hungry. That neither artist knows how people really see them, that neither could tell how the public would process the actions they’re being criticized for, speaks to the fact that, for celebrities, social media is one part echo chamber, where fans flatter them year round, and one part firing squad when they screw up.