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Understanding why Beyoncé and Taylor Swift get compared

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I think it's safe to say that 2023 was the year of Beyonce.

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BEYONCE: It's because of you and your support that I'm doing exactly what I dreamed of doing my whole life, and I thank you.

(CHEERING)

BEYONCE: Thank you so much for making my dreams come true.

DETROW: And Taylor Swift.

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TAYLOR SWIFT: We're about to go on a little adventure together, and that adventure is going to span 17 years of music. How does that sound?

DETROW: My co-host, Juana Summers, took a look at the superstar's year and asked the big question - why, when you have two accomplished artists like this, do people feel the need to compare them and make them compete?

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: These two women dominated the summer. You had Beyonce's "Renaissance."

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: Renaissance, renaissance.

SUMMERS: And you had Taylor Swift's Eras Tour.

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SWIFT: (Singing) If you love like that, blood runs cold.

SUMMERS: Online, it seems like everyone was talking about these tours, and they were certainly being discussed in the media.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Calling all Swifties. Your wildest dreams are coming true.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Well, it's time for a summer renaissance here in the U.S. Beyonce is...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Despite the heat and the chance for rain, Beyonce fans are piling into MetLife Stadium.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Tonight, Taylor Swift is in her Levi's era. The Silicon Valley hasn't seen an event like this in years.

SWIFT: Are you ready for it?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: They are ready, and local economies can thank Swifties and the Beyhive for a summer cash boost.

SUMMERS: The summer frenzy of Beyonce and Taylor Swift was a major success. Both released film versions of their tours in theaters, which allowed people a front-row seat to experience their artistry. And the films increased the incredible amount of money the two made. Beyonce and Taylor Swift are economic powerhouses.

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SUMMERS: The artists generated more than $10 billion for the U.S. this year. And beyond money, in 2023, Beyonce broke the record for most Grammy wins, and Taylor Swift was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. They both triumphed this year, and yet, in the midst of their success, the question of who is better has come up again and again. The origin of Beyonce and Taylor Swift being pitted against one another goes back to 2009 at the Video Music Awards. That year, Taylor Swift won the award for Best Female Video, and while she was in the middle of her acceptance speech, Kanye West came up on stage, and, well, this happened.

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KANYE WEST: I'm really happy for you. I'm going to let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.

(APPLAUSE)

WEST: One of the best videos of all time.

(BOOING)

SUMMERS: Boos from the crowd, a stunned look from Beyonce, a pop culture scandal playing out in real time. Later that night, when Beyonce won the award for Best Video of the Year, she brought Taylor Swift up on stage so she could finish her speech.

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BEYONCE: So I'd like for Taylor to come out and have her moment.

(APPLAUSE)

SUMMERS: Despite that, the controversy at the 2009 VMAs cemented years to come of comparing these two artists. But this is not a new phenomenon - pitting women against each other in the music industry. Nicki Minaj versus Lil' Kim, Britney Spears versus Christina Aguilera, Cher versus Celine Dion - the list of comparisons goes on.

TAMMY KERNODLE: My fear is that we're not going to see the real development of women artists, and we're going to still have these competitive tropes.

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SUMMERS: Conversations were mainly playing out amongst fans on podcasts and on platforms like TikTok. Let's take a listen to some of what was being discussed.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Who's more famous, Beyonce or Taylor Swift?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Taylor Swift.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Beyonce. She got more money than Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Taylor Swift.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why do you think so?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Eras Tour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't want to put - I, like, am both of their biggest fans, so I don't want to put them against each other. But I have to say Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You're doing a disservice to Beyonce to compare her to Taylor Swift because Taylor is in another galaxy. You can't tell me Beyonce has the same amount of hits, no features, as Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: No, she does.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Take away the feature...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Who's the bigger artist, Taylor Swift or Beyonce?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Beyonce.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Because...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Because it's Beyonce.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: That's what I'm saying. Like, what else? Like, no hate to T. Swizzle, but Bey Swizzle got it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Who do you think is the bigger artist, Taylor Swift or Beyonce?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: They're both equally very talented women.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: That wasn't the question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I need for y'all to stop comparing these two. I'm just annoyed that y'all do this anytime they're in the same vicinity. Yes, they're both on tour. Yes, they're making millions. Why do y'all got to compare?

SUMMERS: All right. It is clear that Swifties and members of the Beyhive have very strong opinions about these artists. But as we just heard, there are people questioning why both women can't coexist as individual musicians. To unpack that question, I spoke to Tammy Kernodle, a professor of music at Miami University in Ohio.

There seems to be this impulse - you take these two women who are both having these incredible years - there's this collective impulse that we have to compare the two of them. Why do you think that is?

KERNODLE: Now, that's such an interesting question, particularly given the fact that when you look at the rankings of the top tours from 2023, no one is talking about Bruce Springsteen competing with Ed Sheeran or any of these male artists who have been identified, you know, in these top tours. Why is it that women are always pitted against each other? And I think it has a lot to do with the way in which, you know, we define artistry, we define acceptable space in certain social spheres, but also, in reference to music, whether women can be within the narrative.

And oftentimes, what has happened, particularly in the history of popular music in America, is that there's only been space for one woman, and she has to be an exceptional woman. And the way in which that exceptionalism is measured or marked continually changes, according to genre of music, sometimes race, sometimes generation. You know, it just varies. But hard and fast, there's only been space for one woman.

SUMMERS: And I mean, this is clearly a phenomenon in our culture that did not start with Beyonce and Taylor. It did not start in 2023. It dates back decades, centuries even. Can you take us through some of the history of how we have ended up pitting women against each other in the music industry?

KERNODLE: One of the earliest examples of this I can draw on comes from jazz and in particular, when you see how pianist Mary Lou Williams...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "THE MAN I LOVE")

KERNODLE: ...Was often pitted against pianist Hazel Scott...

(SOUNDBITE OF HAZEL SCOTT'S "THE WHITE KEYS AND THE BLACK KEYS")

KERNODLE: ...During the 1930s and '40s - both very consummate, proficient, genre-bending, extraordinary musicians but both operating within the jazz paradigm as pianist. And while that's acceptable, you know, there's still this contested space about them. And so there are literal reviews of records, and there's literal commentary by jazz journalists where they say, you know, Hazel Scott needs to listen to this Mary Lou Williams record to know what real jazz is.

So this question of competition is one about who gets to define what is authentic in sound and musicianship in a genre, right? So there's this constant pitting female artists against each other. Sometimes it's wrapped up solely in sound and talent and musicianship, and other times, it's just based in petty observations that, before the advent of social media, were just simple conversations that we, as fans, might have had amongst ourselves. But now they get amplified into bigger, you know, narratives.

SUMMERS: We are having a conversation about arguably two of the biggest and most iconic female artists of our day, but I want to bring the conversation, if I can, back to the men again, for the moment. And the point you made earlier is that this kind of comparison does not happen between male artists of the same caliber. Why do you think that is?

KERNODLE: Because everything about our public sphere has been defined in masculinity - our language, our way of thinking politically, economically, socially and also culturally. We have yet to fully untap, really, what are the roles of women as it relates to cultural expression? And so we still in some ways have looked to male voices as the progenitors, as the definers, as the tastemakers as it relates to so much of our social culture. And so they can exist in a space where it can be more than one of them, and what they can also exist in is a state of mediocrity. Women cannot. So we always have to be exceptional, no matter what, in order to rise to the top.

SUMMERS: Another thing that strikes me when we talk about this so-called rivalry between Beyonce and Taylor Swift is the fact that it has always seemed to be nonexistent on their part and a creation of people external to them. I mean, these are two women who have, over the years, outwardly supported one another. I mean, when Taylor Swift was named Time's Person of the Year for 2023, she said this - and I'm quoting her here - clearly, it's very lucrative for the media and stan (ph) culture to pit two women against each other, even when those two artists in question refuse to participate in that discussion. What did you make of that?

KERNODLE: It's exactly true. It is more lucrative to stir up, you know, so-called rivalries or tensions between artists because what it does is it calls for us to claim positions. It also causes for us to speak with our dollars. And so the people who benefit from this are not those two artists, so to speak, even though we do see in their case, you know, the economic residuals of this. But more so, it fuels an industry that's always been based in controversy in some type of way. The cultural industry thrives off of that because what it enables is their continual production and dissemination of culture without us scrutinizing - what are their practices? - without us scrutinizing, you know - what is the exploitation and the manipulation that is taking place?

SUMMERS: So Tammy, I want to end by asking you for solutions. How do we get away from this narrative, this idea that there can only be one, that exceptional woman? What do we do?

KERNODLE: I think it's responsible journalism. I think that's kind of where it starts. It's responsible journalism. I think it also calls for people like me who write and teach and research in these areas to continue to illuminate - what are these historical narratives? - because when we understand that women artists have been present through all of these different progressive ages of change and musical evolution, then we can understand that this has always been an inclusive conversation and that women did not hold a trivial place in these subcultures and these ecosystems that surround the music. We just have to keep telling the story. We have to keep uncovering historical narratives.

SUMMERS: That was Tammy Kernodle, professor of music at Miami University in Ohio. Thank you so much.

KERNODLE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON BOY")

SWIFT: (Singing) I love my hometown as much as Motown. I love SoCal. And you know I love Springsteen, faded blue jeans, Tennessee whiskey. But something happened. I heard him laughing. I saw the dimples first, and then I heard the accent. And then I heard the accent. They say home is where the heart is, but that's not where mine lives. You know I love a London boy. I enjoy walking Camden Market in the afternoon. He likes my American smile, like a child when our eyes meet...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUFF IT")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I feel like falling in love. I'm in the mood to roll something up. I need some drink in my cup. Hey, I'm in the mood to pull something up. I want to go missing. I need a prescription. I want to go higher. Can I sit on top of you? I want to go where nobody's been. Have you ever had fun like this before? We going to roll up tonight.

DETROW: That was Taylor Swift and Beyonce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.