Summer 2017 brought us indelible scenes of racial tension in America: monuments to Confederate generals toppled and torch-wielding white nationalists marched, while families were ripped apart by armed government agents and a woman died protesting bigotry. Fall begins in one week, and as we close out the hottest season of the year, there’s another racially charged showcase showdown happening—on the pop music charts, between Taylor Swift and Cardi B.
At this very moment, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” holds the number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100, while Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” is sitting at number two. Since most of the year was dominated by “Despacito,” Ed Sheeran, and Bruno Mars, this is a big deal; according to a piece on Glamour.com, the last time two women were atop the Billboard Hot 100 was in December 2014. Yet the narrative here is not one of female triumph. It’s one of white privilege versus underrepresented voices.
On one side there’s Taylor Swift—white, blonde, moneyed, the daughter of a wealth management advisor, beloved/admired and deemed an “Aryan goddess” by neo-Nazis; on the other is Cardi B, brown-skinned, born in the Bronx to a Trinidadian mother and Dominican father, a former stripper and exotic dancer Vibe describes as a “black Latina rapper and hood feminist.” At their current chart positions, what we have is an avatar for white privilege dominating a proxy for people of color.
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In “Look What You Made Me Do,” Taylor is on the attack and laying blame on a thinly-veiled unnamed party:
I don’t like your little games
Don’t like your tilted stage
The role you made me play
Of the fool, no, I don’t like you
I don’t like your perfect crime
How you laugh when you lie
You said the gun was mine
Isn’t cool, no, I don’t like you
But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time
I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined
I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!
Ooh, look what you made me do
She also sings, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” a catchphrase that feels like it could be embossed on the letterhead of our current president and his administration.
In “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B is also on the offensive, but she’s congratulating herself on socio-economic ascension—she doesn’t have to dance as a stripper anymore; she can now afford pricey “red bottoms,” aka Christian Louboutin high heels—while scolding an anonymous yet clearly inferior enemy:
Said little bitch, you can’t fuck with me
If you wanted to
These expensive, these is red bottoms
These is bloody shoes
Hit the store, I can get ‘em both
I don’t wanna choose
And I’m quick, cut a nigga hustle
Don’t get comfortable
Look, I don’t dance now
I make money moves
Say I don’t gotta dance
I make money move
If I see you and I don’t speak
That means I don’t fuck with you
I’m a boss, you a worker bitch
I make bloody moves
Though unintentional, it feels as though these two women represent warring American factions: White privilege desperate to retain power and crappy Confederate statues, taking up torches (“look what you made me do”) and people of color on a mission to improve their status and push forward, despite the obstacles and opposition, ignoring the haters (“I don’t gotta dance I make money move/If I see you and I don’t speak/That means I don’t fuck with you”).
In addition, Cardi B’s backstory—a rags to riches arc, daughter of immigrants, domestic violence survivor, who found fame via popularity on Instagram and reality TV—has fans feeling personally invested in her success. As one fan puts it, she’s gone “from the hood to Hollywood.”
Cardi B’s song was released in June and immediately hustled up the charts; Billboard reports it was “the quickest ascent to No. 1 by a lead artist’s debut chart entry since Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ shot to the summit in its second frame in 2012.” But at the end of August, just a few weeks after Cardi B went to number one on the Rap charts, Taylor Swift dropped “Look What You Made Me Do” and went directly to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking “Despacito” out of the top slot—the white woman deporting the immigrant and sliding into first ahead of the woman of color.
Furthermore, at the MTV Video Music Awards, Cardi B gave a shoutout to NFL star Colin Kaepernick—who, last season, kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence against black people—saying, “As long as you kneel with us, we’re going to be standing for you, baby. That’s right, I said it!”
The result is a battle for number one that feels more like a battle for America’s soul, with fans hopeful that Cardi B can reach number one, thereby taking with her and uplifting everyone who’s ever felt oppressed, outnumbered, underrepresented, disadvantaged, or underprivileged. As journalist George M Johnson put it on Twitter, “If Cardi B unseats Taylor Swift, we might have a shot of surviving Trump.” The new Billboard charts are released on Tuesday. Stay tuned.
After publication we were contacted by a representative for Ms. Swift, who strongly asserted that “Ms. Swift neither supports, nor is associated with nor silently supports white supremacists and has been strongly denying and denouncing any such erroneous and vile claims since 2013.”