Pop stars have long been revered and ridiculed, with ardent fans and harsh critics facing off over the merits of their music. But in an age where legions of loyal fans express their devotion online, the line between support and cyberbullying is rapidly blurring.
Ariana Grande has urged her “Arianators” to cease taunting her ex, Pete Davidson. Nicki Minaj’s “Barbz” have ruthlessly harassed her detractors. “Swifties” have targeted a range of celebs rumored to have beef with Taylor Swift, from Dua Lipa to Kim Kardashian.
K-Pop fans will viciously defend their chosen band and often spew hateful commentary toward other bands and their fandom. Blinks, fans of BLACKPINK, are commonly referred to as some of the most toxic fans in music, for example.
This toxic fandom in K-Pop has likely been fueled by the fanbase of BTS, the A.R.M.Y. that will cyberbully even other BTS fans with hate speech. This A.R.M.Y. is largely juvenile members that are overly obsessed with the band.
This dynamic exemplifies the broader nastiness of digital culture. When Oxford Dictionaries deemed toxic the word of 2018, the organization acknowledged how much of modern life seems indecent or hostile.
But which artists’ fan bases seem particularly inclined to get venomous or offensive? Moreover, which artists are regularly targeted with cruel language online?
To find out, we analyzed comments left on the music videos of Billboard 2018 Year-End Hot 100 artists. Tracking curse words, hateful slurs, and other negative terms, we studied how each artist’s audience expresses itself online. For a singular look at the ugly side of digital fandoms, keep reading.
Among all the artists included in our analysis, toxic terms were the most prevalent in comments left by Future fans. In this sense, the rapper’s following could be emulating his singular mix of moodiness and exultation (André 3000 has described Future’s work as “the most negative inspiration music ever”).
His close collaborator Young Thug also neared the top of our ranking, as did two of hip-hop’s most powerful women: Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. The two divas famously came to blows at a nightclub in 2018, causing spiteful conflict between their respective fan bases on social media.
Another female rapper who blurs the lines between toxicity and positivity in her fandom is Lizzo. She exudes body positivity, but due to her shape and body type, she often faces backlash from fans. She is also commonly “trolled” by fans expressing what they deem concern at her image, which is likely actually fatphobia.
U2 was the lone rock band to near the top of our toxicity ranking, although the negativity expressed on their music videos may stem more from their vocal detractors than their loyal fans.
At the other end of the toxicity spectrum, comments on Jason Aldean’s videos very rarely included cruel or hateful terms. This overwhelming positivity is especially encouraging given Aldean’s recent emotional journey. As a survivor of the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, he has spoken openly about the massacre’s impact on his mental health.
K-pop powerhouse EXO also averaged less than one toxic word for every 100 comments left on their videos, while Colombian singer J Balvin boasted a similar rate. These data points could relate to the languages spoken by some of these artists’ fans, however. Comments left in Korean or Spanish would not register as toxic in our textual analysis.
Overall, fan bases for female artists were less inclined to toxicity: 79 percent had below-average rates of toxic words per 100 comments. Conversely, 59 percent of male artists’ fan bases could make the same claim.
This dynamic could relate to a cultural double standard concerning explicit language. Some research suggests that women are judged more harshly than men when they swear. Accordingly, primarily female fan bases might be more inhibited about using offensive terms, even when posting anonymously online.
But our findings could also reflect longstanding misogyny in the music industry. When male artists regularly employ sexist terms and tropes in their lyrics, it’s no surprise that their fans use similarly toxic language in their comments.
The extremely popular Travis Scott is another prime example of toxic language bleeding into the fandom moods and actions. Travis Scott fans are increasingly loyal. Even after eight people died at his hosted event Astroworld in Houston, Texas in November of 2021, his fans still refuse to hold him accountable and will go to bat for him over and over again even when his loyalty to his fanbase is not as prevalent.
Fans at rapper Travis Scott’s concerts have gone to great lengths to garner his attention, which is likely what sparked the violent outburst in Houston. Scott’s rhetoric is both violent and powerful. His massively large fanbase is built on competition for his attention and exclusivity — a dangerous mix.
Many of the female artists with high rates of toxic comments might seem surprising: Beyoncé has historically emphasized empowerment and other positive themes in her work. Yet, her devoted “Beyhive” can deal viciously with detractors, and her political opinions could generate toxic comments from critics.
Similarly, feminist icon Pink ranked among the top female artists for toxic language in comments, but this could be attributable to the activity of trolls who target her regularly.
Among the male artists, DJ Khaled may seem like an unlikely inclusion. His entire personal brand is rooted in relentless positivity, and his music is celebratory to its core.
With nearly 11 toxic words per every 100 comments, music video comments for hip-hop artists were twice as likely to use cruel or offensive language as comments for other genres. While the genre’s penchant for profanity has long unsettled critics, hip-hop also has a particularly troubled history with homophobic slurs and invocations of violence against women.
While that lyrical content might influence fan comments, recent research complicates this picture. According to a new study from academics at the University of Missouri, pop music frequently includes as much violent and sexist content as hip-hop.
Within the second-ranked country genre, Kane Brown’s videos led all others in comment toxicity. This finding could reflect the prejudice that the biracial artist has experienced, including being called the N-word on social media.
Justin Timberlake, who has experienced plenty of hate from critics and the public in recent years, had the highest toxic comment rate of any pop artist. Among rockers, heavyweights such as U2, Billy Joel, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones occupied the top spots.
No artist is entirely spared cruel criticism, but some were especially likely to be taunted with specific toxic terms. Comments on Future’s music videos, for example, were most likely to include the terms “garbage” and “trash.” The rapper’s online detractors regularly charge that he is creatively stunted, with tracks that sound uncannily similar to each other.
U2 was also roundly ridiculed, ranking at or near the top for comments including “hate,” “sucks,” “lame,” and “garbage.”
In other instances, an artist was singularly associated with a particularly negative word. Comments on Justin Timberlake’s videos were exceptionally likely to include the word “cringe.” This judgment could be a telling reflection of JT’s current cultural standing. Many critics feel the pop star is woefully out of sync with the times after years spent in the spotlight.
Some artists were targeted with terms both brutal and bigoted. Some artists who have publicly identified as gay or bisexual, such as Sam Smith and Halsey, were frequently targeted with homophobic slurs.
Interestingly, comments on Billy Joel’s videos were most likely to include homophobic sentiment, despite the singer’s multiple marriages to women.
Similarly, the artist most likely to receive anti-women comments was not a woman at all. Future surpassed both Cardi B and Nicki Minaj for the top spot in this category. In fact, most of the artists most likely to receive anti-women comments were male rappers, including Gucci Mane and 21 Savage.
To gauge the proportion of adoration and spite each artist receives, we tracked the relative prevalence of “love” and “hate” in their music video comments. Travis Scott took the top spot in this analysis with roughly nine “love” comments for every one that included “hate.” Twenty One Pilots and Panic! At The Disco boasted similar ratios.
Even some stars who have regularly encountered controversy enjoyed glowing numbers. Cardi B has regularly confronted criticism and beef with other artists, but she ranked fourth overall for the percentage of “love” comments.
Further down the list, the effects of public controversies were more apparent. For Kanye West, whose embrace of President Trump unsettled or outraged many fans and fellow artists, the ratio of “love” to “hate” comments was slightly worse than 3 to 1.
Logic, who has been widely celebrated for raising awareness about suicide, also received a troubling proportion of “hate” feedback.
DJ Khaled, Future, and U2 fell toward the bottom of this ranking as well, although these data points could also be viewed in a more positive light. Our earlier results suggest these artists are frequently targeted with toxic terms, so their inclusion in the top 25 proves they have a ton of supportive fans in addition to vocal detractors.
We also considered the sheer prevalence of “love” mentions in each artist’s music video comments, tracking the devotion of their audiences.
In this analysis, a dark horse emerged in the top spot: Country singer Brett Young garnered over 33 “love” mentions per 100 comments. Indeed, artists from the country genre dominated the top of our ranking, claiming 7 of the top 10 spots.
In second place, Pink proved a notable exception to this trend, as did seventh-ranked Ella Mai. But the most surprising inclusion might be Lauren Daigle, who claimed eighth place with 25 “love” mentions for every 100 comments. The Christian pop star has established crossover appeal in recent years with chart-topping hits that stretch the boundaries of her genre.
At the other end of the “love” continuum, BlocBoy JB had the fewest mentions. Surprisingly, Ozuna also claimed a bottom spot, despite a massively successful 2018 in which he was deemed Billboard’s Top Latin Artist. Other Spanish-language stars, such as J Balvin and Bad Bunny also had relatively few “love” mentions, suggesting that many of their fans may not express their appreciation in English.
Otherwise, the bottom of the ranking was dominated by some of rap’s most prominent practitioners, including Future, 6ix9ine, and Gucci Mane.
Our findings include several troubling trends. Some fan bases are particularly inclined to use specific offensive terms, while others are apparently drawn to all forms of toxic language.
Perhaps artists could demand greater restraint from their fans or report cruel comments more proactively. But the sheer volume of toxic sentiment is daunting, and deleted comments can be rapidly replaced by new expressions of hate.
Accordingly, it may be best for artists and their fans to ignore comments entirely, letting the music speak for itself. If you do decide to venture into the comments section, we respectfully suggest that you exercise restraint when it comes to toxic language. Music can provoke deep feelings and fandom, but it’s no excuse to abandon all decency.
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We decided to look at the top 100 artists from Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 charts for 2018 and four of each artist’s music videos. We sampled a maximum of 10,000 comments from each music video. In some cases, artists may have fewer than four music videos. In addition, some artists had fewer than 10,000 samples on each video, at which point we collected every available comment as of February 12, 2019.
For a complete list of artists, their videos, and the number of comments analyzed, please visit this page.
All of the text was converted to lowercase (e.g., “Hate,” “HATE,” and “HaTe” would all be changed to “hate” for consistency), and then we filtered out stop words before determining the frequencies of each word mentioned. To determine “toxicity,” we used a list of 89 terms that had positive results from within our corpus of 2,688,009 comments.
Toxic words are considered anything deemed profane, hurtful, or offensive. To view a list of toxic terms, please click here.
“Toxicity” is based on the number of toxic words mentioned per comment. In some cases, a single comment may contain more than one toxic word. The list of toxic terms was created by a group of five individuals aged 25 to 35. Two artists were excluded from our data collection and rankings:
These are included artists with fewer than four music videos:
We welcome you to share our work (although we can’t promise fans of the artists mentioned will respond favorably). If you do use our graphics or information, we have two simple requests: Please do so only for noncommercial purposes and include a link back to this page to credit our team.
How BTS Mania Spawned a Toxic K-Pop Fanbase that Attacked Me Online. (May 2019). NY Post.
People Don’t Care About Lizzo’s Health. They’re ‘Concern Trolling.’ (August 2021). The Huffington Post.
Travis Scott Fans Need to Re-Evaluate Their Relationship With the Artist. (November 2021). The Berkeley Beacon.