Why Do Artists Troll Us?

What did we ever do to you, Father John Misty?

Earlier this week, beloved troll king Father John Misty released a teaser of his upcoming project, Jazz Imposters — which turned out to be less an actual project than a way for him and Trevor Spencer to channel La La Land.

And in FJM’s defense, the joke was pretty obvious, despite his assurance that Jazz Imposters was all very serious. Plus, the man has a reputation for trolling hard: He launched the Life of Padre merch line, covered Taylor Swift in the spirit of Lou Reed, and promoted a fake streaming service called SAP. Father John Misty lives every day like it’s April Fools', and that’s all well and good, but is there a point? What purpose does trolling actually serve?

In a word: control. Considering the way we devour, digest, and spit out the actions of our favorite artists, it makes sense that to gain control over their own life stories, musicians make a few of them up. Remember that before being uncovered as ex–husband and wife, Jack and Meg White told journalists they were brother and sister. And back in 2010, Drake and Nicki Minaj briefly pretended to be married, adding another layer to their already existing “are they or aren’t they” dynamic. In 2009, Björk celebrated April Fools' by announcing to the world that she was joining Led Zeppelin. Ultimately, we’ve been trolled by musicians since before The Beatles convinced us to wonder whether Paul was dead. And for the most part, it’s all been relatively fun and harmless.

Because there’s a difference between trolling as a means of reclamation and trolling to fuck shit up. When artists make up or plant stories, they’re usually not hurting anybody. They may annoy us, we might get irritated or resent having to type “Jazz Imposters,” but when it comes to musicians using the media against itself, it’s on par with Ferris Bueller rigging his bedroom to make it seem like he’s sick. Trolling creates a window of freedom through which artists can do whatever they’d like for a limited time: While false leads are being chased, they can live their real lives. In short, they’re the captains now.

But then there’s the other end of the spectrum: the type of trolling that exists solely to start beefs or to undermine another artist. Back in February, Justin Bieber “trolled” The Weeknd after his Grammys appearance by posting a photo of him and a friend laughing after claiming “Starboy” was their favorite song. But that wasn’t trolling so much as it was a meager way to try to garner media attention. It was similar to the way Zayn “trolled” Naughty Boy on Twitter back in 2015 after the producer allegedly leaked a video.

The thing is, in real life, most people send emails to handle a misstep. So to troll on social media looks as thirsty as it is immature. It may still give the artist a platform on which to project a standpoint, but the media can quickly co-opt the narrative to feed into a bigger theme. Bieber didn’t look “better” than The Weeknd, he looked like a little boy who didn’t know how to articulate his feelings over Selena having a new boyfriend. And Zayn looked unnecessarily mean.

So to that end, whether trolling has a purpose relies on how we define trolling. If trolling is used to instigate feuds and beefs and quick-grab headlines, then its purpose is to snatch a flash-in-the-pan brand of attention; it’s a means of claiming the spotlight for just a sec to remind the world one is still alive. But it also makes the troll look bratty and weak and bad at being an adult person. It certainly isn’t the reclamation of anything but one’s ranking on Google.

But to plant a story or to make something up can be purposeful. On top of flipping the script and putting artists in charge of what’s being reported on them, it plays to our own zest for fucking with people’s heads. (I mean, there was a reason Punk’d ran as long as it did.) Harmless trolling — or pranking, which it is — not only ushers in a slew of media attention but also promises a second wave of it, because inevitably, it will have to be reported that the joke was on us. Then, in the wake of updates and corrections, we’ll share a laugh, congratulate the musician on being funny or playful or straight-up weird, and move on.

So to that end, trolling makes sense. It’s still annoying as hell if it’s an artist’s norm, but considering that so much of a musician’s career relies on the perceptions of fans and the media, a decent troll can keep each preoccupied long enough for the talent to breathe. Or, in the case of FJM, long enough to plan his next troll.

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