clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Beyoncé builds stardom by being an idol. Taylor Swift wants to be your best friend.

Pitting them against each other doesn’t make sense.

2009 MTV Video Music Awards - Show
Beyoncé cedes the stage to Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs.
Christopher Polk/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.

At the Billboard Music Awards last week, Taylor Swift made what appeared to be a major tactical error in the rollout for her new album. She performed her new single “ME!” with a pink-clad marching band accompanying her, and she did it just weeks after Beyoncé released Homecoming, a documentary about Beyonce’s highly acclaimed Coachella performance. And Homecoming features Beyoncé performing with an alternately yellow- and pink-clad marching band.

The similarities were striking and undeniable. Accusations flew thick and fast that Taylor Swift was plagiarizing from Beyoncé.

“Taylor Swift’s Beyoncé ripoff wasn’t just blatant—it was hurtful,” said the Daily Dot.

Some “might call it derivative (or worse),” CNN allowed of Swift’s performance.

And the racial politics made the controversy especially loaded. “This controversy is about more than one performance; it’s about the long history of black women’s achievements being ignored, appropriated and undermined,” said the Guardian.

Taylor Swift fans were quick to defend their fave, pointing out that Swift was performing with a marching band back during her Fearless tour days in 2009, nine years before Beyonce did the same during her two-night headlining Coachella performances. But with the release of Homecoming, Beyoncé made every aspect of those performances instantly iconic, including and especially its loving homage to HBCUs and their marching bands. Swift’s performance followed almost immediately on Beyoncé’s heels. Intentional plagiarism or not, it was a bad look for Swift.

“It’s like two people wearing the same outfit a week apart,” wrote Elaine Lui at Lainey Gossip. “If you were planning on a certain look but someone else happened to be in the same look before you, if you had resources, would you come out a few days later in the same look — or would you maybe wait a while before you decided to go out there in that look?”

The controversy is an odd wrinkle in Swift and Beyoncé’s largely cordial professional relationship (Beyoncé has gone to Taylor’s birthday party). Although they’re occasionally pitted against each other by other people (Kanye West, the Grammys), for the most part, they’ve avoided any direct competition. There’s no reason for them to be adversarial with each other, because they make completely different kinds of music and are completely different kinds of stars.

That difference is only emphasized by the way both Swift and Beyoncé dropped new material this April. The two strategies were so different that they could have been designed in a lab to be polar opposites: Beyoncé went with the bare minimum of promotion and threw in some surprise material on top of what she was already advertising, and Swift went with a months-long viral campaign full of Easter eggs.

The difference between their promotion strategies is telling. It speaks to the difference between the way each star relates to her audience — and how each star has honed her image into a wildly sellable weapon.

Beyoncé loves a surprise album drop. Taylor Swift prefers a scavenger hunt.

Beyoncé innovated the surprise album drop as a promotional strategy with her self-titled album in 2013, and since then, she’s made an art of it. She’s always careful to one-up herself: With 2013’s Beyoncé, she gave her listeners a visual solo album. When she did it again in 2018, she gave them a collaborative album with her husband Jay-Z. When Beyoncé sets out to surprise her audience, she refuses to repeat herself.

Homecoming the documentary was not exactly a surprise release — Netflix announced the documentary a few weeks before it came out — but there wasn’t much information available about it before it dropped. Netflix’s announcement tweet was so minimal that one fan imagined the pitch meeting as Beyoncé communicating psychically with her fanbase:

Beyoncé: Tweet it the week before with no caption or context

Netflix: but how will they know

Beyoncé: They’ll know.

And when the documentary dropped, Beyoncé threw in an accompanying album on top of it too, because Beyoncé’s unannounced record drops always have to one-up each other.

When Beyoncé releases new material with no warning, it’s a flex. She’s showing the world how powerful she is. She can control an entire news cycle for days without ever needing to give an interview or buy an ad. That’s how much cachet she holds.

Taylor Swift works in an entirely opposite way. When Taylor Swift drops new material, she makes sure you know it’s coming.

Swift built up to the release of her new single “ME!” by setting up a giant, mysterious clock on her website counting down to April 26, refusing to say what it was for. She changed the look of her Instagram, going from the reds and blacks of the Reputation era into swaths of rainbow-saturated pictures, and she seeded the pictures with Easter eggs. She teased the reveal by announcing an interview with Robin Roberts, to air during the NFL draft broadcast on April 25, during which she said that she was going to release a song at midnight. She hyped the fuck out of that single — and she’s still scattering around Easter eggs that hint at what her full album will look like. She hasn’t released any concrete information about it yet.

That’s the Taylor Swift flex. It’s her showing the world how powerful she is by controlling the news cycle for days without releasing any new material. That’s how much cachet she holds.

Swift and Beyoncé release their music so differently because they have completely different relationships with their audiences. Beyoncé’s persona is one of an untouchable goddess: She’s personal in her music, where she sings of infidelity and heartbreak, but she holds her private life back from public eyes. She slips jokes into her songs about making her friends sign NDAs. Her fans get only the access she deigns to grant them, and that’s a key part of her allure.

Swift, in contrast, works hard to make herself into her audience’s best friend. She sends her fans Christmas care packages and invites them over to her house for cookies. She debuted both 1989 and Reputation at secret, fan-only listening sessions. She earnestly cultivates an intimacy with her fanbase, one that they reward with intense loyalty.

So when Beyoncé withholds information about her music before she drops it, that’s Beyoncé being the untouchable goddess we want her to be. And when Taylor Swift sets up elaborate treasure hunts around the internet fueled with hints about her new music, that’s Taylor being the accessible bestie we want her to be. And for both Swift and Beyoncé, their promotional strategies only confirm their cultural dominance.

All of which is why a Taylor Swift-Beyoncé feud is hard to imagine. They’re playing different games in different fields, and there’s no reason for them ever to face off head to head.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.