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Swarm, 2023
Swarm, 2023(TV still)

Swarm, social media, and lessons from stanning too close to the sun

The reception of Janine Nabers’ and Donald Glover’s new project proves just how apt its skewering of fan obsession and the cult of celebrity really is

When Donald Glover posted celebrity cameo shoutouts for Swarm – his new show with Atlanta collaborator Janine Nabers – to his Instagram stories last week, he knew what he was doing. Bringing together everyone from Carole Baskin and Chet Hanks to Flava Flav and HBIC Tiffany “New York” Pollard, the marketing move was another demonstration of just how well the creators of the show know their audience and subject material. The series follows Beyhive-like stan, Andrea “Dre” Greene, who goes to extreme and bloody lengths for her favourite RnB singer (a fictional artist called Ni’Jah). The promo videos play into the same obsession with celebrity  – but also nudge at the bigger picture at play beyond the easy Beyoncé parallels. 

Assembling a seemingly random range of personalities to promote your fake fandom seems absurd, but stranger things have happened in our “I can’t believe this isn’t an Onion headline” version of reality. Instead, the cameos oddly make sense as a way to tap into a wider range of fanbases, while also playfully alluding to the broader application of Swarm’s social commentary, cloaked in its internet-baiting storylines. Glover may have joked “Beyhive, don’t kill us,” at the premiere a week before, but it’s clear the intent to elicit a visceral reaction from Beyoncé’s internet is deliberately built into the foundations of the show, its subsequent release, and reception.

Like most legions in the stan wars, the Hive can be triggered at the push of a button, and the premise alone was enough to generate a buzz (pun intended) even before the parallels between Ni’Jah and Beyoncé became obvious. In a direct inverse of traditional disclaimers to protect creators from lawsuits, each episode of Swarm opens with the reiteration: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to any persons, living or dead, or events is intentional.” The show is purposefully, and provocatively, structured around starting points in real murders and incidents, which invites the unhealthy, conspiratorial online behaviours it critiques. It also holds a mirror up to the way we jump to collective conclusions, powered by our belief in parasocial relationships with people we don’t actually know, and our insatiable appetites for genres like true crime, that have us reporting on deaths as if they were a sport. Though it occupies a similar surreal world honed by Nabers and Glover on Atlanta, Swarm is unsettling in its uncanny approximation to real life – which is only made more obvious by how it was received online. 

It’s fitting that social media, the site for anti-heroine Dre’s unhealthy fixations, is where the themes explored in the show are corroborated IRL. Swarm has been getting picked apart on Twitter, reduced to its lowest common denominators. An example of this can be seen in the overblown reaction to the explicit sex scene between Chloë Bailey and Damson Idris in the first episode. After its premiere, a clip of the scene went viral, with many slut-shaming Bailey for her involvement. Ironically, the singer is meant to be embodying Marissa Jackson, a woman who was rumoured to have killed herself after finding out even Beyoncé gets cheated on when Lemonade was released in 2016, who ended up being viciously trolled online. The instant and overwhelming urge to slut-shame a consenting adult woman for acting in a scene is symptomatic of our pathological blindness to the differences between fiction and real life. Though the real Marissa Jackson rumour was later debunked, social media still passed judgement on her, and the similar treatment of Bailey reinforces how these narratives are disproportionately focused on women. Idris is the more active and visible participant in the scene, but the same comment sections that slapped him on the back used Bailey as a flashpoint for critiques of Black female sexuality, with some even insinuating that she played a role in breaking up Idris’ IRL relationship with Lori Harvey.

While the scene serves to illustrate how Dre oversteps the boundaries with her psychosexual fascination with Marissa, there were other real-life parallels to be drawn. As a recording artist expressing her sexuality through her music, these judgments have plagued everything Bailey has put out so far. And, while the line between the real person and persona is harder to determine in music, to apply the same personal judgements to an actress playing a role in a show is a deliberate misreading that proves just how distorted the way we consume culture has truly become. Like Dre’s parasocial connection to Ni’Jah, the people who feel they can critique Bailey as a person for a valid sex scene in a show is a product of our delusion of proximity and familiarity with celebrities, as if they are people we know personally. Fed by social media, we have never had more access to celebrities than we have today: through Instagram Stories, off-hand tweets and even vlog-like TikToks, more aspects of stars’ lives are visible to us than ever, even if we’re only passive consumers. The blurring of public and personal, combined with the rising cultural cachet of appearing relatable to your audience, has warped our notions of acceptable fan behaviour. Believing the boundaries to be lowered, we feel emboldened and entitled to comment on lives we only have a superficial understanding of. How far away are we from being Dre ourselves? 

Overexposed in this way, we are also increasingly unable to divorce the role from the personality that portrays them. Throughout Swarm, deliberate casting calls attention to this. Bailey and her sister Halle are considered Beyoncé’s real-life protégés, both signed to her Parkwood label, while Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael) pops up as a white-passing biracial woman who strips as “Halsey”, and Billie Eilish is eerily convincing as the leader of an NXIVM style cult Dre finds herself in.

Like the true-crime-styled documentary that allows the audience to reflect and process the revelations of the last few episodes, Swarm taps into this dopamine-hit-led storytelling that speaks straight to a generation glued to endlessly looping true crime TikToks. Delivered in binge-able 30-minute long episodes, the series feels like reading @_zolarmoon’s wild 2015 Tweets in real-time, a call back deliberately invoked in the second episode. Endlessly referential in a way you’ll appreciate the more extremely online you are – who remembers who bit Beyoncé? – Swarm is a character study in stan culture, taking moments from our collective consciousness and reassembling them, to be picked apart, examined and re-interpreted by its fans. In some ways, the cast and crew aren’t lying when they insist in interviews it’s not about Beyoncé – it’s about so much more than her. As a universally beloved figure who inspires a specific level of fan behaviour though, she’s a vessel to tell the wider story of how destabilised our sense of reality has become. Dre’s life-or-death struggle of getting Ni’Jah tickets is exaggerated, but not a world away from how it felt trying to get Renaissance tickets. The literal, diehard fans taking the show at surface level will end up posting deranged, illegible reviews on IMDB that only serve to prove the point of what the series critiques. But Swarm was always meant to make you uncomfortable. In this funhouse mirror reflection of reality is an entertaining lesson in the perils and pitfalls of extreme stan behaviour – just lean in and go along for the ride. 

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