The Little Mix fallout might be the most depressing feud pop has ever seen

Little Mix (L-R): Jesy Nelson, Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall and Leigh-Anne Pinnock – Getty Images

Spare a thought for Jesy Nelson’s publicist this week. In her campaign to launch herself as a solo artist, the former Little Mix star has seemingly revoked all the points that made her so championable mere months ago. Following some backlash to her first single Boyz last week, which featured go-to rapper Nicki Minaj, and inspired The Guardian to write a dismal two-star review, describing the song as “derivative and dated”, Nelson has seemingly doubled down on the criticism.

On Monday night, she appeared on Instagram Live alongside Minaj to promote the song, but what should have been a celebration soon descended into petty drama and swipes taken towards the remaining Little Mix members.

“If you want a solo career baby just say that,” Minaj said of Leigh-Anne Pinnock, following the release of some quite clearly fan-fabricated screenshots which detailed a bitter conversation between Pinnock and an influencer, who she urged to make a video on Nelson’s “blackfishing” (a riff on the term “catfishing” coined on Twitter in 2018 which refers to non-black people who use cosmetics to appear black or mixed race).

“Take them text messages and shove them up your f—— a— because when you do clown s— I have to speak to you and talk to you like you’re a clown,” Minaj said, prompting Nelson to laugh in the face of her former bandmate. With lines clearly divided, Minaj continued her complaints against Pinnock into the night, sub-tweeting, “Don’t call things out when they benefit your personal vendetta to ppl”, which then prompted an onslaught of Barbz (the name for Minaj’s fandom, who have gained an infamous reputation for their stop-at-nothing, defensive approach towards the rapper) to nonsensically rail against Pinnock, too – who had only just given birth to twins barely two months before.

With fans mobilised and on the attack from all sides, the last thing on anyone’s mind was the music itself, though that’s done little to harm the single’s sales – Boyz landed at number one on the UK’s official Trending Charts on Tuesday.

Nelson’s return to the charts has been mired in controversy after she was accused of ‘blackfishing’ – AP

The increasingly tribal nature of fandom, though it might diminish the character of some artists, ultimately stands to benefit them fiscally nonetheless. It’s just a shame that the commercial success of Boyz is buttressed on trolling, bullying, shaming, the pettiest depths of “stan” culture – everything that Nelson has purportedly been against. In a single week, her brand has unravelled.

It once felt good to root for Nelson, a victim of both online and industry abuse, who was outspoken about the constricting effects that came with being in a girl group which appeared to represent female liberation, albeit in a vague and limited way.

Alongside her former bandmates, Nelson came of age during the reign of the Spice Girls in the 1990s, and in the 2010s, Little Mix repackaged the group’s Girl Power mantra for the era of digital surveillance, their music and branding poised as an empowerment-core antidote to (particularly online) shaming. In November, 2018, for instance, they promoted their single ‘Strip’ by posing naked, covered in the words of online abuse they’d each received: “Ugly”, “Bossy”, “Flabby”, “Stupid”, “Insignificant” and “Not Good Enough”.

A year later, Nelson revealed she had been working on a documentary for BBC Three. Entitled Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out, it took an intensely personal look at Nelson’s downward spiral following Little Mix’s early X Factor days, during which she received fatphobic and unsavoury remarks about her appearance, most notably from Katie Hopkins. Within two years of winning the singing competition as Little Mix, Nelson had developed depression, an eating disorder, and attempted suicide, the one-off programme unearthed.

Little Mix: Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards – PA

Not long after the documentary received a National Television Award for best factual programme in 2020, Nelson announced that she would be leaving Little Mix after 10 years together, citing the toll it had taken on her mental health as the main impetus for her departure. It was, the public mostly agreed, a brave and admirable stance, refreshingly bold. There was hope that Little Mix wouldn’t be prey to trite post-breakup “us versus them” storylines.

It’s a shame, then, that Nelson’s debut single has inspired one of the most piddling celebrity feuds in recent memory, and those hopes of a change in narrative have been squandered. Then again, perhaps we’ve always put too much faith in each member of Little Mix, and their shared – and unshared – project of empowerment. After all, how can any one of them hope to challenge trolling, bullying, shaming, exploitation, when they are part of an industry that is built on those terms?

The public has merely become a reflection of that culture, as the faff of online drama and discourse continues to overtake the music itself. You’d far sooner find someone who could recite all the drama of Nelson’s week before you could find someone who knew a single lyric of her new single. And isn’t that the problem here? Someday soon, I hope, the music will be exciting enough to drown out the growing clamour of vituperative stans.

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