Music

Why Taylor Swift, SZA, and Sexyy Red Leaks Matter


On the morning of Feb. 6, “Drake” was trending on X (formerly known as Twitter); not too unusual for one of the world’s most successful rappers. The reason, though, turned out to be extremely unusual for the pop star and reverberated across the internet for a week – what looked like a video of Drake engaged in a solo sex act was circulating. He hasn’t commented on the video or its veracity explicitly, but he seems to be taking the commotion in stride. 

On Feb. 7, Drake’s first night in Nashville for his ongoing tour with J. Cole and Lil Durk, his football-themed set included a mock ESPN broadcast from real-anchor Stephen A. Smith and social media star BenDaDonnn where Ben asked, “And then, correct me if I’m wrong, Stephen A., but didn’t [Drake] start an OnlyFans yesterday?” Then, once onstage, Drake seemed to taunt the crowd a bit. “I know y’all probably waitin’ on me to address this; so the rumors are true,” he said, with a pause…”My dad is here! That’s what y’all were waitin’ for?” On the day the alleged leak circulated, Kick streamer Adin Ross claimed to record a voice message to Drake while live (“You’re blessed with your voice, you’re blessed with performing, you’re blessed to be you, you’re blessed to be number one, but you’re also blessed to have a fucking missile,” the streamer fawned). According to Ross, Drake almost immediately responded with a flurry of laughing emojis and an idea: “He said ‘this might be my next album intro,’” Ross said. 

This is just the latest installment in a series of leaks and questionable disclosures across the entertainment world, and they haven’t all been taken so lightly: Isaiah Rashad ducked from public life for a few months when a video of him being intimate with men leaked in February 2022, effectively and nonconsensually outing him. Sexyy Red appeared to be devastated last fall when an alleged sex tape of hers was posted to her own Instagram, seemingly without her consent as well. The intrusions aren’t always sexual. Last month, SZA took to X in all-caps to express her frustrations with her music leaking: “LEAKING MY MUSIC IS STEALING,” she wrote, having also bemoaned the emotional impact of having her autonomy snatched by the release of unfinished songs. She promised to fight back legally. On Feb. 6, the same day of the alleged Drake leak, it was reported that Taylor Swift’s lawyers threatened legal action against a college student using public flight data to track and post her private jet usage online.

There has long been a tabloid industry devoted to salacious tell-alls and privacy invasions when it comes to celebrities; though, for a period of time – particularly after the New York Times’ Framing Brittany Spears documentary honed in on the way constant intrusion contributed to the pop star’s unraveling – there seemed to be a new sympathy for stars. But technological advancement and social media have created even more insidious conditions than the tabloid industry as everyone now has the tools to spread private information, and even fewer ethical considerations to make. Even the seediest press outlets are too visible and institutional to test privacy or copyright laws by posting nudes or leaked albums. At its best, the press is engaging with things like dick vids and flight paths only to contextualize their role in the social fabric of our lives – to say not just that it happened, but why it matters. 

Informal Insta-blogs and individual Tweeters don’t have any codes of conduct to adhere to and can gossip for gossip’s sake much more anonymously. Social media pages dedicated to petty tea-spilling have become more prevalent, content moderation on platforms like X and Instagram has historically been complicated (to say the least), and the new attention economy online has bred a culture where more people can be kinda famous than ever before. Think about all the prominent social media creators you know of, like Tiktoker-turned-podcast-host Bobbi Althoff, who saw a sexually explicit deepfake of herself trend on X for a day, despite violating the site’s non-consensual nudity policy (X did not respond to a request for comment);. Consider all the ordinary people whose most intimate or embarrassing moments have become memes. Two academics with expertise in celebrity psychology, culture, and fandom tell Rolling Stone that when we use media to invade people’s privacy, we may be filling cognitive and emotional holes in our own lives – and especially when it comes to celebrities, it’s so rewarding that we lose sight of the humans in the icons’ shell. 

Hilde Van Den Bulck is the Head of the Department of Communication at Drexel University’s College of Arts and Science. She researches celebrity, media, and fandom.  She says that celebrity gossip – from condemning a scandal to celebrating a birth – may make us feel closer to these bodies we’ve made celestial. “We may not know about being famous or being rich, but we do know about heartbreak or joy,” she says. Fans in particular may want to feel like a part of their favorite stars’ lives, which can easily and unintentionally become antagonistic, she explains. In the case of leaking music, fans may be competing to prove how much access and information they can get, even at the expense of the artists themselves. “It’s very inconsistent,” says Van Den Bulck. “There’s incredible dissonance there.” 

Fandom can also devolve into what Van Den Bulck names as schadenfreude, a German word for the pleasure found in someone else’s pain – perhaps feeling like all the access, wealth, and beauty celebrities have didn’t keep them from suffering just like you. And when a celebrity succumbs to a vice you think you’ve escaped, you might feel superior as they crumble. However, Van Den Bulck is even more concerned with who she calls “anti-fans”: put simply, these are the unabashed haters. “The interesting thing is that they are as intense and as knowledgeable as the fan,” she says. These are the Taylor Swift denouncers who spend as much time online figuring everything out about her as the Swifties do. “It’s the sense that you still know more than anybody else and you can really see through them,” she explains. 

While this may be fueled by jealousy or the pursuit of moral high ground, when anti-fans try to bring down a celebrity, they may also feel like they are taking on a system that often overwhelms or subjugates them. That drive to exert control and extract accountability extends from fans to anti-fans, to QAnon fanatics, she hypothesizes. “I think like the kid tracking the flight…” she says, “…to some extent, maybe it’s about calling out environmental hypocrisy. All these celebrities saying, ‘Oh save your environment,’ and then they fly with a private jet to go and tell us that we should not use plastic straws, that kind of thing. I think it gives people a sense of empowerment.”

But what are the real ramifications of this behavior, particularly on the celebrities themselves? 

“I feel like for some people, fame is a trauma,” says William Todd Schultz, a professor of psychology at Pacific University Oregon. Schultz is a leading academic in the field of psychobiography, which applies psychological theory and research to the lives of important historical figures, from artists to politicians. “I think their gifts and their talent results in them achieving fame and they probably, in some ways, wanted fame initially. Everybody wants their music to be listened to; they want their books to be read.” But the price of fame, of course, can run high.

SZA expressed a similar sentiment to Rolling Stone as the cover star of October’s Grammy Preview. “People always say shit like, ‘You signed up for this,’ ” she had said. “That scares me. Because like, no, we didn’t. We signed up to make music and share our art. Some of us didn’t even sign up to make grand millions. I didn’t think I would get rich making music. But I did want to be cool and get my shit off and be like, ‘Look, my ideas were as cool as I thought they were in my head.’ I failed out of college and, like, I can’t keep a job, but I am a smart, creative person, and have a purpose and function.”

“Their careers and their financial well-being is based on being out there in the world,” Van Den Bulck also rationalizes. “Because you can’t be a celebrity without fans, they want us to engage with them and build this information for us to engage with them, but that doesn’t mean that they would not be entitled to or have a need for privacy.”  

The late sociologist Erving Goffman used the allegory of the theater to theorize about everyone’s behavior, not just performers. Our onstage behavior, Goffman proposed, is dictated by the world around us – what we think it expects from us, and what we must do to get what we want from it. “Then I go home and I close all the doors and I’m backstage,” says Van Den Bulck. “I want to not care about anything. Every individual needs that to have a sort of balance in life.” When the backstage is forcibly made front, the feeling can be akin to a loss of physical security, she proposes.

In the case of entertainers and public figures, fame begins with earnest attempts at expression, connection, and employment and instead can become a “kind of endless assault on their experience,” says Schultz. For some people, the assault proves deadly. For example, he says, Kurt Cobain wrote about agonizing over his celebrity status in his suicide note. “There are millions of other examples from Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley,” Schultz adds. The more sensitive the artist is, the more vulnerable they may become. “The same qualities that make for better art in an artist can also make for a difficult time managing fame,” he says.

One thing fame breeds, says Schultz, is paranoia: “If I was in a restaurant with you and I was like, ‘Wait, all these people are staring at me. All these people are whispering about me. All these people in this restaurant are secretly taking photos of me,’ you would think, ‘Oh, this dude’s insane.’ But for famous people, that’s a reality.” That paranoia, Schultz explains, begets itself. It can snowball, growing stronger and more dense over time. “It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of mental energy.”

Then, Schultz adds, you can lose yourself. “I’ve been friends with a fair number of famous people, and one thing that they always say is that they’re acutely aware of what people expect them to be,” says Shultz. “They say that it’s really difficult to fend off all the preconceived ideas because they start almost acting out the fantasies.” Shultz wrote Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, on the indie rocker who’s 2003 stabbing death was reported as a suicide. From his work, Schultz believes Smith “ultimately just sort of foreclosed on this image that people had of him, of being this impossibly fucked-up dude who was destined to commit suicide,” he says. 

Under constant watch, some people may become paralyzed. Some dodge the spotlight altogether. Isaiah Rashad took two months before addressing his leaked video on one of the country’s biggest stages: Coachella. Rashad’s music has always been forthright about his struggles with depression and suicidality; many fans, drawn to his striking vulnerability, condemned the leak. “I see all the messages and all that shit, all the positivity,” Rashad said at the top of his performance, after a mashup of reactions to the leak played on a screen. “Y’all niggas done kept me alive these last couple months.”

Others may adopt a persona that’s the antithesis of the one that’s been watched and expected – they rebel. The substance abuse and addictions that historically plague the entertainment industry may serve as a place of refuge. Schultz, however, posits that fame can be a bit of an addiction in itself. “If you’re a certain kind of person who really feeds on the completely prostrate love that fans send your way, you don’t want to relinquish it,” he says. “You kind of start to depend on it. You can count on them to shore you up and tell you how wonderful you are all the time, and how perfect you are, and how you never do anything wrong.”

One necessary consideration in Drake’s seeming easygoingness about his alleged leak is gender: broadly, our social organization shames women’s sexuality and rewards men’s, so the air around a very similar thing can become very different. When women are sexually exposed, they’ve often expressed feeling betrayed, intruded upon, and embarrassed. While Sexyy Red vehemently denied leaking her own sex tape, there was the sentiment online that she was lying, or worse, deserved it, because her rap persona is extremely sexual. “I’m so heartbroken anybody that kno me knows I wouldn’t do no goofy shit like that,” she posted on X.

This was also less than a year into Sexyy Redd’s public ascent. Drake, on the other hand, has been one of the most revered artists in the world for over a decade, with a life in the spotlight for even longer. However, Drake did express discontent when rapper Young Thug’s private and intimate call from jail with his girlfriend, singer Mariah the Scientist was circulated, calling it “disgraceful.” Billboard reports that the video was not leaked, but rather accessed through open records requests per a spokesperson for Georgia’s Cobb County Jail (where Thug is detained as Atlanta’s RICO case against the rapper and members of his record label unfolds).

Open records requests bolster the ethos of the First Amendment, which grants the press freedoms from government persecution for the health of the national body, particularly so people can track and criticize politics and commerce, Robin Barnes a law professor, explained when discussing her book, Outrageous Invasions: Celebrities’ Private Lives, Media, and the Law. However, America’s free press culture has also fostered an industry that pries into the mundane lives of public figures, circulates unsolicited records of their sex lives, and thirsts after their every move. Barnes frames these things as distractions from more consequential stories on political and economic misdeeds. In the case of Young Thug, incarceration in itself is already degrading, and many have opined that the case against him is unfair in its reliance on rap lyrics and tropes. Spreading innocuous footage of his private moment with a loved one compounds the inhumane nature of jail and the bizarre nature of his trial, but the sensationalism of the call also distracts from it. Instead of being watchdogs, the public becomes gossip hounds.

Public records also make the tracking of Taylor Swift’s private jet flights possible. In Aug. 2022, Yard, a sustainability marketing firm, used such data to rank the celebrities who flew private the most that year, subsequently spewing the most carbon dioxide. Swift was found to be the most frequent flyer, though a spokesperson said she frequently loaned her jet, and others questioned the study’s accuracy. The current X account tracking Taylor Swift’s jet also tracks the carbon emissions with each flight and posts her jet’s movements with a 24-hour delay.

There is arguably public utility to knowing her CO2 production as climate change rages and her fans, essentially, fund her flights. Celebrities do wield significant influence, like when Taylor Swift pointed to a voter registration site in 2018 and it saw a record-breaking spike of 65,000 registrations within 24 hours. As consumers, we also, in turn, can have some influence on them. Though the connection, of course, is unsubstantiated, Business Insider reports that Swift did sell one of her private jets on January 30, leaving her with one. 

When pursuing the tracker last December, Swift’s lawyers alleged that she and her family were suffering from “direct and irreparable harm, as well as emotional and physical distress.” Swift had already faced alleged stalking, but the tracker’s programmer, Jack Sweeney, claimed he wasn’t revealing anything unique. “This information is already out there,” he said. “Her team thinks they can control the world.” Yet, it is one thing for FAA records to be public under the bureaucracy of accessing them; it is another thing to hand it to the world on a silver platter, unprovoked. “I think her reaction to it is that privacy is also about security, to feel safe from intrusion,” says Van Den Bulck, the communications professor. 

“I mean, if Taylor Swift is my daughter, I’d be like, ‘I don’t like this,’” Schultz, the psychobiographer, says, also recognizing the web of conflicts around tracking Swift’s flights. Couldn’t her emissions be shared without the jets’ whereabouts? Does real climate action hinge on individuals like Taylor Swift, or on far-reaching regulation? And what kind of chaos would ensue if Swift ever tried to fly commercial, anyway, among a public that clearly can’t mind its business?

“There are probably way more people who are not famous in the least who emit more emissions with their private jets,” says Schultz. “I mean, there’s kind of an ulterior motive in focusing on Taylor Swift.”

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Van Den Bulck theorizes that only a sort of radical empathy might change the cultural dynamics around celebrity privacy. “Another sort of inconsistency is that while people seem to feel very comfortable in digging up everything about these celebrities, people still get very upset when it happens to them personally,” she says, citing ordinary people’s reactions to having their identity stolen or feeling cyberbullied themselves. 

“I know of someone who studied the cyberbullying of celebrities. When you confront these cyber-bullies, they kind of shrug, ‘Yeah, well what the hell? It’s a celebrity, who cares?’” she adds. “There is this sense that well, they’re open territory. But the long term is that I do think that that undermines any boundaries, because as always, what we do with and about celebrities always echoes what’s going on in the rest of our society.” And as even non-celebrities’ livelihoods increasingly depend on public stature – from streamers to gym influencers to jewelry makers to parenting gurus – more and more people will look like fair game.





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