“Cardi B is the epitome of the American Dream,” explains a superfan of the rapper who asked to be identified only by their Twitter handle @barzfan. “Born in the streets of the Bronx, but now on [magazine] covers … She is absolutely phenomenal.” This sentiment is common among the rapper’s loyal following—so loyal, in fact, that they spent the weekend streaming her song “Bodak Yellow” on repeat in order to leap frog the single over Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” and into the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100.
For the legions of young people who make up the fanbases of contemporary pop stars, charts aren’t just dry industry sales trackers—they’re war zones, and Cardi B fans are armed to the teeth. It’s rare to see such ferocious engagement for an artist’s first ever chart appearance—typically, fanbases like Rihanna’s Navy and Ariana Grande’s Arianators emerge after the artist has cemented their reputation with several hits. But the powerful currents swirling around Cardi have whipped up unprecedented support from fan communities. I reached out to dozens of diehards who spent the weekend streaming “Bodak Yellow,” hoping to get more insight into why they’d devote this kind of energy to an artist so unlike anyone else in the mainstream pop sphere. Their answers varied, but the general sentiment can be summarized by Twitter user @laurendelbae_: “Cardi is THAT BITCH.”
Gaming chart position used to be difficult, since few people are willing to buy the same song more than once. These days, streaming has added a powerful new weapon to fans’ arsenal. All they need to do is leave a song on repeat all weekend—”I’m streaming bodak yellow on all my phones to get Cardi B to number 1,” tweeted @Cartierburgundy, a sentiment echoed by hundreds of tweets over the weekend.
For many, the attempt was framed as a battle between Cardi and Swift (although, in the frothy world of social media fanbases, there’s always more going on—”Barbz are streaming taylor to block Cardi B, katycats are streaming Cardi to snatch #1 from Taylor, and nobody is streaming swish swish [sic],” tweeted user @clearlyiconic). This conflict between the two fanbases has real socio-political import. “Though unintentional, it feels as though these two women represent warring American factions,” points out Splinter, arguing that Swift represents “white privilege desperate to retain power and crappy Confederate statues, taking up torches (‘Look What You Made Me Do’)” while Cardi stands for “people of color on a mission to improve their status and push forward, despite the obstacles and opposition, ignoring the haters (‘Say I don’t gotta dance / I make money move’).” In addition, no female rapper has achieved a number one hit without a feature since Lauryn Hill did in 1998 with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which speaks to vital issues of African-American female representation in pop.
But the socio-political angle is only part of a wider cultural divide that these two artists represent. Taylor Swift is one of the greatest contemporary examples of a pop star who exists as a larger-than-life figurehead. She refuses to engage with politics, has a highly sculpted public image, and filters everything through PR—even her meticulously stage-managed beefs. Authenticity is not what she’s aiming for. Her music videos take place in fantasy lands, high school soap operas and distant safaris. The Taylor Swift project has been successful on a vast scale—for many people, fundamental American archetypes like “innocent high school girl next door” and “spurned lover taking revenge” now incorporate Swift as part of their DNA. But in order to achieve this kind of ubiquity, she’s had to limit access and sand down her edges. Emptying parts of her image so that people can fill it with the specifics of their own lives—this is the grand bargain of superstardom that’s existed for decades.
Cardi B, meanwhile, represents a new, contemporary mode of fame. She engineered her own ascendance with a social media presence that was equal parts raunchy, vulnerable, and hilarious, starting as an exotic dancer in the Bronx and earning a spot on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop through little more than charisma. Now that she has a genuine hit, she hasn’t toned herself down at all. Her rise defies conventional pop narratives—it’s impossible to imagine Taylor Swift starting off a cover story by telling a reporter that she has to take a shit, as Cardi did during her FADER interview, or saying something like this on Instagram: “If I ever give my man a threesome it’s gonna be out of town so I can make sure he never gon’ see that bitch again!” She isn’t shy about politics either, shouting out Colin Kaepernick and denouncing police brutality. Her confessional social media, working class roots, political engagement, and DIY success have provided her with a deadly combination of bulletproof authenticity and bracing novelty. Lots of previous artists who’ve had a number one single have looked and behaved like Swift; few have ever resembled Cardi B.
And they love her for it. “Cardi remains the same regular degular girl from the Bronx even as her success grows,” explains Daniel Vidal, 22, from Los Angeles. This notion of relatability popped up a lot—”‘Bodak Yellow’ is not just a regular rap song,” added @barzfan. “It’s a testament to her actual life and improvements … Even if we don’t have bloody shoes … she gives the public this glimmer of hope that we can achieve anything.”
From Bernie Sanders to 21 Savage, it’s clear that youth culture places an increasingly high value on authenticity, even as it becomes harder to find and corroborate. But in Cardi’s case, her whole rise has been documented on social media—no one can doubt she’s for real. “She’s a grafter. We’ve seen her progression. It’s a Cinderella type of deal,” explains @thenameis_tati, adding, “There is nothing contrived about her.”
Cardi’s working-class roots only add to her appeal: “Came up from the hood in the Bronx and now she’s out here reminding people that NY still has great rappers, more so if she reaches number one,” remarks @ohzambrano.
After a weekend of relentless streaming, Cardi just missed the mark. Taylor Swift stayed on top of the charts when Billboard released the rankings Wednesday, with Cardi coming in at number two. However, the rapper managed to topple Swift from her perch on the Billboard Streaming Songs chart. It’s a remarkable achievement, and a good omen for her chances at claiming the overall number one position next week. Her fans are still on the offense: “DON’T FORGET TO STREAM AND BUY CARDI B’S BODAK YELLOW THROUGH OUT THIS WEEK LETS GET OUR GIRL TO NUMBER 1 ON BILLBOARD 100,” tweeted @chuuzus. Sure, Swift has the the pop machine working overtime, but Cardi fans have boots on the ground, and everyone knows streaming wars are won in the streets.