The format has links to feisty musical blood sports: jazz’s cutting contests, Jamaican sound clashes, rap battles. But Verzuz has emerged as the warmest and fuzziest musical phenomenon of the past year, one of the internet’s most reliable suppliers of good vibes. Verzuz began on Instagram Live during the early weeks of the pandemic, with a battle between its co-founders, the hip-hop producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. That first webcast, which stretched for five hours, was a novelty: an odd combination of a Zoom conference call, a D.J. set and a languid late-night hang. Timbaland played one of his hits (Aaliyah’s “One in a Million”), Swizz Beatz answered with one of his (DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”). The scrolling comments filled with emojis and exclamations (“Timbo range too much for swizz”). The interface was wonky and the sound muddy, but the spectacle — musicians glimpsed through laptop cameras, grooving to their own records — was strange and thrilling, a more intimate encounter than showbiz normally permits. In a world that had ground to a halt, the two producers had hit upon a whole new way to stage a concert.
Today, pop fandom marinates in online swamps similar to those that breed conspiracy theories and political extremism, with almost comically toxic results.
A year later, Verzuz is somewhat spiffed up. It was recently acquired by TrillerNet, the parent company to a TikTok competitor, and has a sponsorship deal with Cîroc vodka and a partnership with Peloton. Competitors no longer stream in from remote locations on jittery Wi-Fi. But the show retains a gonzo charm, and a sense that unscripted weirdness may erupt at any moment. A battle between the dance-hall titans Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, livestreamed from Jamaica, was interrupted by the local police. (“There are 500,000 people watching us right now from all over the world,” Beenie Man told them. “Do you want to be that guy?”) The R&B star Ashanti was forced to stall when her adversary, Keyshia Cole, ran an hour late. The Wu-Tang Clan rappers Ghostface Killah and Raekwon finished off their battle singing and dancing to old disco hits.
This shagginess extends to the competition itself. There’s no formal means of determining a Verzuz winner; victory is in the ear of the beholder. Viewers weigh in on social media, and journalists write recaps. But their judgments are, of course, subjective, maybe even beside the point. A musical battle, Verzuz suggests, is really a pretext for a party and an occasion for art appreciation. This has always been true: From the primeval pop hothouse of Tin Pan Alley, where songwriters vied to churn out hits, to today’s pop charts, dominated by hip-hop producers chasing novel sounds, one-upsmanship is often the motor of innovation, an engine of both musical art and commerce. Great songs, beloved albums, groundbreaking styles — all have resulted from musicians’ drive to outshine their colleagues.
Competition is also a driving force in music fandom — for better or, often these days, for worse. Today, pop fandom marinates in online swamps similar to those that breed conspiracy theories and political extremism, with almost comically toxic results: Some super fans organize themselves into “armies” that devote disturbing amounts of energy to the coordinated harassment of anyone seen as speaking ill of their favorite stars.