For almost three years, it was the Voldemort of pop diva beefs: a roiling public battle whose generals could not, would not be named, even if everyone had both on their tongues almost from the start. Taylor Swift came out first, swinging hard with “Bad Blood” in 2014, but in interviews she demurred when it came to describing the subject of the song beyond saying it was “about losing a friend” and that the person (ID’d as a fellow female pop star) did something “so horrible” they became “straight-up enemies.”
Katy Perry, her alleged target, subtweeted a short time later about watching out for “Regina George in sheep’s clothing” and then weighed in on a side beef between Swift and Nicki Minaj with another tweet in 2015. Fast-forward to last month, when Perry revved up the promo machine for her Witness album by menacingly telling Entertainment Weekly: “You can’t mistake kindness for weakness and don’t come for me.”
It was the first of several shots fired from Perry, who went on to give the most complete rundown to date of the source of the duo’s beef during a “Carpool Karaoke” segment — it was, as rumored, over shared backup dancers — during which she doubled down on her previous finger-wagging comments. The singer tripled and quadrupled down in subsequent interviews, telling the NME that Taylor tried to “assassinate my character with little girls” after releasing the not-at-all-subtle Minaj duet “Swish Swish.”
So there’s been a flurry of activity in a battle that everyone thought was pretty much over. In every war, there must be a winner and a loser, so Billboard asked some PR experts to weigh in on who they think came out on top, or whether two of the most powerful women in pop should just call a truce and work together to make a change.
Karen Civil, author, social and digital media strategist
“I ran my first marathon listening to ‘Roar’ the whole time, and I loved how Katy was always so empowering, but with this project and her demeanor, I was confused,” said Civil, who took particular issue with Perry’s Migos collabo “Bon Appétit,” which she said just confused her. “Her and Taylor had their quarrels, but they never said each other’s names — you had ‘Bad Blood’ — but when you go public because you want it to be part of your press campaign? You always let the records talk.”
Civil said Perry might have looked better if she had arranged a performance where the two women hugged it out, but with Swift keeping quiet, there is no clear winner or loser in this public feud. “Katy usually wins with her music, but this time, it’s not resonating, and Taylor coming back being petty releasing her music on Spotify [the same day Witness dropped], that’s not what I want to see,” she said. “These are both great women and I hate in our society that there can’t ever be more than just one [woman who wins].”
Given the choice between Witness and grabbing all her favorite Swift songs on Spotify, Civil opted for neither, instead grabbing SZA‘s CTRL album. “It’s just Katy beating a dead horse, and, you know, Taylor’s not paying it any mind and will just come out with a hit record while Katy’s album will come and go,” she said. “Taylor needs ammo, and music is therapeutic for her. You’re just giving her ammo for a No. 1 hit about you. I’m expecting ‘Bad Blood… Continued.’ This is a one-sided beef, and I’m not into it.”
Verdict: Swift by a nose
Howard Bragman, veteran publicist and crisis manager, founder of Fifteen Minutes PR
Bragman is a longtime proponent of the “everyone loves a good comeback story” line of reasoning when it comes to America’s obsession with redemption tales. When it comes to this kerfuffle, though, he thinks it’s mostly a teen-pop tempest. “I think in the world we live in, it depends on who you liked going in,” he said. “The one you like better going in is probably the one you will like going out. We all have an amazing ability to see the world through partisan eyes.”
Given Perry’s massive career, including what she’s done and what she will likely do in the future, Bragman doesn’t see her shots fired at Swift — followed by a series of olive branches and even a “Swish Swish” lyric swap during a performance Monday that switched “don’t you come for me” to “God bless you on your journey” — as a game-changer either way. “This is a non-controversial controversy,” he said. “It benefits them both and it doesn’t do any real damage. They’re both laughing all the way to the bank. I think if they saw each other in the real world, they would hug each other.”
Verdict: Both winners
Holly Baird, veteran publicist, crisis manager
Baird isn’t even really sure if the Taylor vs. Katy beef is as big a deal as Taylor’s skirmish with Nicki Minaj over VMA nominations. Plus, she thinks the dancer tug-of-war is only half the story and that the real beef between the women might be the unspoken girl-code breaking that occurred when Perry dated John Mayer after Swift had a brief fling with him in 2009.
“When you’re making friends in the industry, any woman, when you call someone a friend and that friend dates someone after you do… you have to wonder, ‘Was that person my friend?’ and wonder what their motives were,” said Baird, who would also rather see women in the industry collaborate than bicker. That said, Baird thinks Swift has taken a “much more gracious route” in this latest digging up of dirt, especially for someone whose every move is placed under the microscope and analyzed in minute detail.
“I love Katy, but I’m not sure if these antics and the interviews where’s she’s saying, ‘You can’t mess with me’ are really her. It’s so edgy and it might not be who she is,” she said. “Taylor releasing her music on Spotify is a smart cover move, but I think it would have happened whether Katy was releasing an album or not. I don’t think the Spotify thing is a quick call that instantly releases everything. It’s a longer process. It’s not that deep, but maybe just a sh–ty coincidence.”
The bottom line for Baird is that the silent moves are the best, in which case Swift’s best one is to not mention, acknowledge or give it any attention. “If you do that, then the situation can’t control you — that’s what I tell my clients,” she said. “Just release better music and have better contacts and friends. Katy has always been such a great advocate for women standing up for themselves, but sometimes you get in a situation where your emotions are caught up. The best is if they say, ‘Let’s bury the hatchet and discuss ways we can work together to help other women.’ Because that’s the message she’s trying to get out. She’s not being [counseled properly] and decided to get into dirt and that message isn’t getting out.”
Marvet Britto, publicist, brand strategist and Britto Agency founder who has worked with Mariah Carey, Foxy Brown, Eve, Angela Bassett and many others
In a career aimed at helping female artists make the most of their brands, Britto has a very simple rule: Stay focused on you. “They’re each fueling a beef that is not in alignment with their brand — being a wholesome advocate for girl power,” she said. “They should talk through it privately, because young girls are their base and they should focus on being champions for young women, girl power and feminism. That’s what has allowed them to have such vast audiences.”
Britto noted that Swift has stayed mostly above the fray this time, coming off as the more mature artist and following her golden branding rule: “The moon never barks down at the dog.” In other words, when you’re on top, you should focus on what’s ahead and not what’s beneath or behind you. “Responding is a distraction that takes you off course,” she said. “[Perry] should get back to music and why people fell in love with her in the first place rather than building her career on the back of someone else. True stars at the top of their game are focused and deliberate and don’t allow distractions to take them off course.”
Verdict: Call it a truce