A musical battle, the hit webcast suggests, is really just a pretext for a party and an occasion to appreciate something.
Steve Harvey, the comedian and game-show host, is not prone to understatement, least of all when it comes to bespoke men’s wear. This past Easter Sunday, he appeared on a studio stage wearing a custom satin suit in a violet hue previously unknown to science. Harvey was there to host an episode of the popular webcast Verzuz, a musical competition in which famous artists face off to determine who has the better catalog. The episode was a big one, a showdown of soul legends pitting the Isley Brothers against Earth, Wind & Fire, and Harvey’s words were as loud as his suit: This would be, he announced, “the most epic Verzuz of all time.”
Onstage, Ron and Ernie Isley sat facing their counterparts, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson. It was indeed an unusual matchup. Verzuz battles typically feature artists — rappers, R&B singers, influential producers — who have made their name in the past few decades. But Earth, Wind & Fire’s debut album arrived in stores 50 years ago; the Isley Brothers’ first hit, “Shout,” was released in 1959, when Steve Harvey was a toddler. Now 64, he faced the camera to address younger music fans. “Ask your mama about this here music,” he said. “If you don’t know their music, it’s ’cause you don’t know nothing about music. So sit down and learn.”
Pop music has always gone hand in hand with strong opinions and heated debates — including the kinds of generational cleavages that inspire finger-wagging lectures. There are times when fans stake personal identities on their favorite records or genres, or sustain fierce debates over rival artists: Beatles or Stones, Michael Jackson or Prince, Nicki or Cardi. Arguing about music may well be as primal a human endeavor as making it. Verzuz is based on this principle. The title evokes a heavyweight bout, and the episodes unfold like a boxing match: Each round presents a track from each artist, with viewers encouraged to pick the victor on a song-by-song basis.
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.
Arguing about music may well be as primal a human endeavor as making it.
One of the subtler values of Verzuz is that it models a saner, more joyful, more pleasurable kind of musical advocacy and competition — in which trash is talked lovingly, both doled out and received in good humor. Here, too, there are politics of a different kind. Last summer, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Verzuz held two “special editions”: a gospel episode titled “The Healing,” featuring the singers Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond, and a Juneteenth celebration, with Alicia Keys and John Legend. Nearly every artist to appear on Verzuz is Black, and the show makes no concessions to any other audience; non-Black viewers enter its virtual spaces as eavesdroppers on an in-group conversation. The point of these battles is not to choose winners, but to luxuriate in the glories of the Black pop canon, and the community forged by that body of music. The critic Craig Jenkins, writing about a matchup between Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle, rendered a pithy verdict that could be applied to the whole Verzuz enterprise: “Blackness won.”
That was true again on Easter Sunday. Despite Steve Harvey’s best efforts to stir up intergenerational beef, the webcast was a showcase of musical continuity across the decades. (In the unlikely event that there were viewers unfamiliar with Earth, Wind & Fire or the Isleys, they would surely have recognized many of the songs, which have been copiously sampled and interpolated by hip-hop artists.) The episode ended in the only way it could have: with members of both groups gathered at the front of the stage, dancing and singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire’s celestial anthem “September,” abandoning all pretense that they were adversaries in musical battle. “Celebrate! Love!” shouted Philip Bailey. “Enjoy! Appreciate!”
Source photographs by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images; Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images; Michael Putland/Getty Images.
Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Two Wheels Good: The Bicycle on Planet Earth and Elsewhere,” to be published next year. He last wrote about the musical prodigy Jacob Collier.