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Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s mutually beneficial feud, explained

Taylor Swift and Katy Perry at the 2011 American Music Awards Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The infamous feud between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift is one of those celebrity feuds that is so dumb and so petty that it is frankly astonishing to think it takes up as much real estate as it does in the pop culture universe. But it’s been a major part of the publicity narratives surrounding both Perry and Swift for years — and with Perry hosting the MTV Video Music Awards this Sunday, on the heels of a newly released single and album announcement from Swift, the story of the feud is almost certainly about to come to some sort of climax.

Maybe there will be a tearful reconciliation duet. Maybe one of them will call out the other one from the stage, à la Nicki Minaj’s immortal “Miley, what’s good?” at the 2015 awards. Maybe they’ll decide to settle things once and for all with a dance-off! (Look, a girl can dream.) (Honestly, neither of them is a very good dancer; it would be a draw.)

Some drama is probably about to go down, is what I’m saying, and if you aren’t familiar with the background, you may find yourself very confused come Monday’s post-VMAs headlines. So here, for your convenience, is the Katy Perry/Taylor Swift feud, explained.

How did this whole thing start?

52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Salute To Icons Honoring Doug Morris - Roaming
Swift and Perry circa 2010.
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS

At the beginnings of their careers, in the heady days of the late 2000s, Swift and Perry cultivated images that were fairly complementary. They were both sugary sweet, a little retro, and very femme, but Perry was sexed up and candy-colored where Swift was all virginal white gowns. They were moving in similar circles, but their images were distinct enough that they weren’t necessarily competing for the same audience.

Accordingly, their relationship as performed in public was sweet and supportive. They sent each other friendly messages on Twitter and posed cheek-to-cheek for photos.

Swift claims that in private, however, things were different. "For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not," she told Rolling Stone in 2014 of a female pop star whom Swift did not name but who is widely believed to be Perry. "She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away, and I would think, 'Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?'"

For her part, Perry responded to the Rolling Stone article by tweeting, “Watch out for the Regina George in sheep's clothing,” a statement that appeared to suggest that it was Swift, not Perry, who was the secret mean girl.

Per Swift, everything came to a head in 2013. That’s when Swift was halfway through her Red tour, and a few of her backup dancers — who had performed with Perry in 2011 — left Swift’s tour to go perform in Perry’s Prismatic tour instead.

“Katy is like family to us, so we were like, ‘Absolutely,’” one of the dancers said. “We weren’t really dancing on Taylor’s tour anyway, so I got a little bored.”

“The experiences were totally different,” he added. “Taylor is untouchable … and a lot more protected than Katy.”

Swift suggests that the backup dancers’ departure was the final straw for her relationship with Perry.

"She did something so horrible," Swift said in that infamous 2014 Rolling Stone interview. "I was like, 'Oh, we're just straight-up enemies.' And it wasn't even about a guy! It had to do with business. She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour. She tried to hire a bunch of people out from under me. And I'm surprisingly non-confrontational — you would not believe how much I hate conflict. So now I have to avoid her. It's awkward, and I don't like it."

(It’s worth noting that Swift and Perry had both dated John Mayer, so there’s a slight possibility it was about a guy, contra Swift’s claims, but Mayer has always managed to stay firmly out of the narrative of this feud.)

Perry, meanwhile, remembers those events differently. In a Carpool Karaoke interview with James Corden this year, she recalled that her backup dancers had to ask her for permission to tour with Swift, which she graciously gave them as a matter of professional courtesy. “I was like, ‘Of course!’” she recalled. “‘I’m not on a record cycle. Get the work; she’s great.’”

But since she did plan on going on tour in the next year or so, she asked them to be sure to negotiate their contracts with Swift so that they could head back to Perry’s camp when she needed them.

According to Perry, when the dancers in question tried to discuss leaving Swift’s tour to join Perry’s, they were summarily fired.

“I tried to talk to [Swift] about it,” Perry said, “and she wouldn’t speak to me.”

Instead of confronting Perry, Swift wrote a song that is widely believed to be about her. It’s called “Bad Blood,” and it’s a kiss-off track about one friend betraying another. In the video, the evil, betraying friend, as played by Selena Gomez, wears a blunt black wig that looks remarkably similar to Perry’s hair at the time.

“Bad Blood” went on to the Video of the Year award at the 2015 VMAs.

Swift had fired her shots. As she released 1989 in 2014, she was firmly in control of the story about what happened between her and Perry, and Perry was stuck playing defense.

The subtweet years

In 2014, Perry was between albums. Prism had come out in 2013, and Perry was on the road for her Prismatic tour until 2015, when she started to campaign for Hillary Clinton. She wouldn’t have the chance — or the publicity cycle — to do a full Swift-style response to “Bad Blood” until this year’s Witness.

So for a few years, Perry contented herself with vague subtweets that those in the know could interpret as commentary on her feud with Swift. There’s the infamous Regina George tweet discussed above. And when Swift got embroiled in a mini feud with Nicki Minaj in 2015 — Minaj objected to the fact that she was passed over for a VMA Video of the Year nomination, and Swift said that Minaj was pitting women against each other — Perry noted, “Finding it ironic to parade the pit women against other women argument about as one unmeasurably capitalizes on the take down of a woman...”

And in 2016, when Calvin Harris accused Swift of trying to “bury” him “like Katy ETC” (Swift had just revealed that she wrote the lyrics for Harris’s “This Is What You Came For” under a pseudonym), Perry replied with a delighted Hillary Clinton GIF:

But it wasn’t until this year, when Perry released Witness, that her response to Swift’s claims began in earnest. Now she had a press tour and an album of her own to work with.

Here’s where we are now

Perry’s salvo was Witness’s central diss track, “Swish Swish.” A collaboration with former Swift foe Nicki Minaj, the song’s title is remarkably similar to Swift’s name, and it informs the world that “Karma’s not a liar / She keeps receipts.”

And while Swift has mostly played coy with the press, refusing to officially confirm that “Bad Blood” is about Perry, Perry spoke openly about the feud on her Witness press tour.

“It was a full shutdown and then she writes a song about me!” Perry told James Corden incredulously. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, cool, cool, cool, that’s how you want to deal with it?’” She clapped emphatically. “Karma!”

“I’m not Buddha — things irritate me,” she told NME. “I wish that I could turn the other cheek every single time, but I’m also not a pushover, you know? Especially when someone tries to assassinate my character with little girls. That’s so messed up!”

Perry says she’d be happy to let the whole thing go, however. “I forgive her and I’m sorry for anything I ever did, and I hope the same from her and I think it’s actually … I think it’s time,” she told Arianna Huffington. “There are bigger fish to fry and there are bigger problems in the world.”

Swift, meanwhile, has stayed out of the spotlight for the past year — though she did make a notable strike against Perry without saying a word in public. In June, on the same day that Perry released Witness, Swift made her own entire back catalog available on Spotify, after famously removing it in 2014. It easily outperformed Witness.

And when Perry announced that she’d be releasing her celebrity-studded “Swish Swish” video during the week of August 21st, Swift quickly announced that she’d be releasing her new single the same week.

"I don't know. I can only do me," Perry said when an interviewer asked her how she felt about Swift’s streaming move.

What’s next?

As we approach the VMAs, there are a few options for how the Swift/Perry feud could work itself out — or move into whatever its next phase may be. Swift is not officially on the roster of performers for the VMAs, but it’s widely rumored that she’ll be doing a surprise performance. If so, that would be a perfect opportunity for her to make a show of burying the hatchet with Perry, just as she did with Nicki Minaj at the 2015 VMAs.

It could also give Swift a chance to magnanimously forgive Perry on her own, as she did to Kanye West at the 2010 VMAs. Or, as she suggests she plans to in “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift might instead choose to discuss at great length all the ways in which she is the wronged party in this feud, and all the ways in which she plans to take her revenge.

But as Lainey Gossip notes, by drumming up so much noise this week with a new single and news of an upcoming album, even if Swift doesn’t show up at the VMAs, she’ll still have won the news cycle: “Even if she doesn’t actually appear in person, she’s making a point that she’s THERE even when she’s not there.”

We have no way of knowing for sure how deeply invested either Swift or Perry is in this whole thing, whether either one of them is angry or hurt or just doing it for the headlines. Because what we know for sure is that regardless of how stupid and petty this whole feud looks from the outside, it’s done wonders for both Swift and Perry’s public profiles.

Perry has successfully established herself as the righteous, put-upon victim. She’s the underdog, and everyone loves an underdog.

Swift, meanwhile, keeps pulling power moves on Perry that establish her as the major player: Perry may be in the right, but Swift can beat her new material with her old material.

In this whole situation, the only person who we can be positive is telling the complete truth is that sage Nicki Minaj when she raps in “Swish Swish,” “Silly rap beefs just get me more checks.”

This is a very silly beef, and it’s getting both Swift and Perry a lot of checks.