Tool and Taylor Swift fans clash as a culturally revealing Billboard album battle heats up

But are Swift and Tool really all that different? Can't a handful of millionaires paid to emotionally manipulate their core audiences find some common ground?
Image: Taylor Swift Maynard Keenan
Tool and Taylor make for odd bedfellows at the top of the Billboard charts.
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By Christopher Mosley

The unwitting objectivity of the Billboard music charts sometimes allows for strange bedfellows. Through no fault of their own, the West Coast thinking person's metal band Tool is currently competing for top-chart position with Taylor Swift, a singer with such a plausible innocuousness that she slips through one transformation and controversy after another mostly unfazed. With a consistent sales prowess rivaled only by Drake, she shares a large portion of a small spotlight cast as one of the most consequential artists of her generation.

Swift released "Lover" on Aug. 23. It currently sits at No. 1 on the Billboard top album chart. Tool released "Fear Inoculum" exactly one week later, on Aug. 30. As we enter September, the vying of these seemingly opposing artists for world dominance has caught the attention of the metal press, the pop press — and thanks in large part to Taylor Swift’s rabid fanbase — a lot of us in between. For those hoping that the rockist/poptimist arguments of the last 50 years would go away, they have come roaring back to life.

This alleged battle has all the archaic trappings of the rock versus pop debate that's plagued the music industry since a guy in a leather jacket crashed a sorority party with rockabilly records circa 1959. Swift, a star with one of the past decade’s most squeaky-clean images, finds herself pitted against sullen bad boys; it’s not a new phenomenon in music, but it is good for business.

Tool potentially knocking Taylor Swift from the No. 1 album spot is the revenge fantasy of every rock dad who wanted to talk sense into the youth-dominated social media culture that has replaced the 20th century. It's the perfect story for someone who calls his own audience "whining, entitled snowflake a------s" who should "respect" law enforcement.

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The surprise twist in 2019 is that Swift's fans are the ones made to seem like chain-wielding criminals this time around. Much has been made of the impending backlash should Tool take the top album spot.

Tool potentially knocking Taylor Swift from the No. 1 album spot is the revenge fantasy of every rock dad who wanted to talk sense into the youth-dominated social media culture.

"Swift's fans are acting absolutely ruthless on Twitter, so we'll just sit back with our feet up once the charts are updated," says Loudwire, an online magazine that specializes in hard rock and metal. When Swift's name is mentioned on Loudwire it's usually to point out that it's strange to see her in context with someone like Marilyn Manson. The dichotomy is great for internet traffic. And Swift's fans should feel downright proud to be called "ruthless" by a metal publication. The upending of traditional power dynamics since the dinosaur rock days of the 1990s is breathtaking.

But are Swift and Tool all that different? Can't a handful of millionaires paid to emotionally manipulate their core audiences find some common ground?

The packaging options for both Tool and Swift's new records also speak to a shrewdly profitable sensibility shared by both camps. The music business is, after all, big business and that means taking advantage of all the ways bands can turn nostalgia and emotion into cash.

"Lover" boast four different options for fans that include "a unique set of Taylor's journal entries, handwritten lyrics and archived photos," as well as "blank journal pages." The deluxe editions are promoted as being available at Target and cost several dollars more than the current going rate of a compact disc. The collect-them-all CDs each contain a poster specific to their version.

The limited-edition version of Tool's "Fear Inoculum" was selling at $45 for a pre-order price and is now selling in the $100-$200 range online in the secondary market. While Tool definitely co-opts the language of various countercultures, their lead singer has his own brand of wine. Say what you will about Taylor Swift's own extremely capitalist nature, but she does not yet have her own line of fine wines.

The music business is, after all, big business and that means taking advantage of all the ways bands can turn nostalgia and emotion into cash.

Tool and Taylor have also shared a similar antagonism toward Spotify's dominance as a listening platform. Swift famously yanked her music from Spotify at the height of her 2014 success, when she was promoting that year's "1989." Tool waited until August to officially make it to Spotify. Both acts have complained about the inevitably that was file-sharing, a practice that is impossible to police and generally leaves the artist seeming like a greedy Luddite should they complain.

Part of the reason a dad metal band like Tool is even able to rack up such high album sales numbers is that they are a middle-aged band selling to an audience that is probably still a little partial to physical media. Dads buy things.

It's easy to laugh at Taylor Swift fans for not knowing who Tool is. These soft controversies pop up every so often, usually when a legacy artist gets some recognition in the same breathing space as a newer act. Some of it is likely genuine, and some of it is fabricated. But Tool has not made a record in 13 years. Should they wait another 13, their lead singer will be 68 years old, so the cultural clash aspect is certainly legitimate.

And what of the actual music? Both artists are making statements deep into their careers that don't seem out-of-place anywhere else in their catalogs. Most of the songs from both “Fear Inoculum” and “Lover” could fit seamlessly in either artist’s biggest records. Swift's does shy away from the villainous aspects of her last album, 2017's "Reputation,” and instead returns to the balladry and catchiness on which she has made her name. There are some semblances of protest, in both "The Man" and "You Need to Calm Down," but the album acts as more of a promise to fans that the well-intentioned, pre-"Reputation" Taylor can be summoned at any time.

In the case of Tool, the band has yet to grow out of being the music equivalent of an unfriendly man with a ponytail, scowling in the corner of a Los Angeles coffee shop while muttering about "dysfunctional insecure actresses." That will sit well with loyal fans, whom the band undoubtedly knows how to please. Tool is one of the few big and heavy rock acts from the 1990s that has not succumbed to some form of drug casualty or suicide, and the loyalty of a diehard audience thanks them for that.

"Fear Inoculum" is mostly remarkable for how little the group has evolved since 1992. Heavy on the toms and tricky time-signatures that lend the music an air of undue sophistication with ample amounts of distorted Guitar Center crunch. There are Tabla rhythms that suggest the farthest east one has traveled is Side Two of "Physical Graffiti." There are high school poetry contest lyrics such as "weave my allegorical elegy" and the creepy, hypermasculine whisper that ends in a yell. The emotional range covers everything from sad-boy schtick to abusive boyfriend all in the same song. A crowd attempting to dance to their nearly un-danceable music at Burning Man is almost too perfect of a promotional event for the new record.

Tool has always been a forcefully humorless band and one that has made every attempt to avoid the typical trappings of rock star life. And yet, there are times when it seems that lead singer Maynard James Keenan's flirtations with the supposedly awful entertainment elite are suspiciously part of the branding. Otherwise, why respond when it is revealed that Justin Bieber is a huge Tool fan? Why make a reference to Snooki in a column for The Phoenix New Times? Why record with Jared Leto? Tool may market themselves as anti-mainstream, but they can't help but leer at a world that they inarguably share with their successful peers.

And how does Tool fit into that world? While there is a growing consensus that most large-scale, big music records get a rubber-stamp pass by a shrinking pool of critics more concerned with job security, it helps to remember that some endangered rock giants also are similarly treated with more reverence than they once were, perhaps because they are mostly extinct. It’s a lonely afterlife that not even the darkest of Tool lyrics could have imagined — being one of the remaining guitar-heavy rock bands whose biggest name recognition comes from the chatter of teenage pop fans dismissing their existence.