This week, Cardi B made history by becoming the first female rapper since 1998 to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. She and “Bodak Yellow” took the crown from Taylor Swift, whose “Look What You Made Me Do” had clinched the top spot for the last three weeks.
Which is massive not just for Cardi B, but for the way our approach to pop culture has evolved. Upon releasing her single back in August, Swift came under fire for lyrics that served to further victimize herself (while fuelling the feud between she and Katy Perry that most of us were sick of by 2010). Ultimately, in an attempt to rebrand, Taylor ended up pushing us further away by failing to exhibit any self-awareness or personal growth. Her song told us that she’d been wronged, that she was vengeful and that she wasn’t taking responsibility for her part in it. It didn’t tell us anything outside a specific narrative that she was pushing, and we were left with no idea who Taylor Swift actually is at all.
Compare this to Cardi B. The rapper rose to prominence through her posts on Vine (and later Instagram and Instagram Stories, where she still shares her wit and parts of her life) before being cast in Love & Hip-Hop: New York. And, after releasing two mixtapes and the 2015 single “Cheap Ass Weave,” she was signed to Atlantic and dropped “Bodak Yellow,” a song steeped in transparency. As a former dancer, Cardi put herself through school, helped her parents and left an abusive relationship. She’s never shied away from sharing her story, nor should she. Which is why “Bodak” feels like a celebration: she celebrates her power, her independence, her hustle and the work she used to do. It’s strong, honest, funny, and a reflection of the woman who delivers it. One listen, and you know exactly who, and how talented, Cardi is. So it’s not surprising that after 12 weeks on the charts, her debut single made its way to to the top—nor that we’d connect to it (and her) so enthusiastically.
The thing is, the world is burning. Everything feels terrible, anxiety is the norm, and we’re desperate for human connection and for proof that we’re in this misery marathon together. So to be fed lines about a pop feud no one cares about while the artist bathes in diamonds doesn’t provide human connection, an escape, or even a laugh. In Swift’s case, “Look What You Made Me Do’’ (the song and video) are proof that she doesn’t really get it; that after her silence during the election and subsequent chaos, she’s happy to exist in a reality separate from our own. And while some musicians can absolutely get away with that, the most exciting ones don’t. (Lest we forget how powerful Beyoncé’s Formation Tour was, or that recently, she was street level in Houston, donating her money and time.)
Which isn’t to say Swift’s been ousted by her refusal to speak up or stand for something. Instead, she’s lost her footing as a result of her inability to be a person before being a pop star. In a year where Louis Tomlinson admitted how talentless he felt in 1D, where Zayn’s opened up about his anxiety, where Lady Gaga has gone on record about her battle with depression and chronic pain, and where Fifth Harmony have politicized themselves, authenticity has become currency. The realer you are, the more you share and the more human you seem, the better. To make audiences feel less alone is a necessary gift in an era where it’s easy to feel isolated.
And while Swift’s rebrand was obviously an attempt to establish herself as a villain, hers is not the villain we need nor the one we deserve. She’s not using her “Look What You Made Me Do” persona to call out the names we want to hear, or to spill the type of tea we want to consume (the latter is what Kim Kardashian is for). Instead, we get veiled references and an outgoing voicemail message. And that’s not powerful for anyone.
Because there’s power in owning who you are, flaws and all. There’s power in reconciling your past and your present, in admitting weakness or wrongdoing, or even unhappiness. There’s also power in apologizing—or alternately, being upfront about why you’ve refused to. Cardi B used “Bodak Yellow” to tell us about who she was as well as why she’s so proud of who she is. She embodies humanness and complexity.
Had Taylor used her single as a way of embracing the comfort she’s found in not giving a shit about what other people think, there’d be a sense of realness to her message and her music. Sure, it’d be annoying, but it’d also be hard not to respect an artist who, when given a platform, uses it to relish in her own God complex. At least there’s honesty in that.
That’s not to say there isn’t room in the pop world for artists like Taylor Swift. There is, they just don’t get to camp out at number one anymore.