The intense sting of 'Swarm' might be worth the pain
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains discussion of suicide.
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HARRIS: In the new series "Swarm," Dominique Fishback plays Dre, a socially awkward young woman who's obsessed with the mega pop star Ni'Jah, who's a thinly veiled analogue for Beyonce. Chloe Bailey plays Dre's sister, Marissa. And when a life-changing event occurs, Dre's obsession with Ni'Jah takes on a more sinister tone. Donald Glover co-created the show, and it definitely shares an off-kilter vibe with his previous hit, "Atlanta." I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "Swarm" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining me today is culture writer and critic Shamira Ibrahim. Hi, Shamira. Welcome back.
SHAMIRA IBRAHIM: Hi, Aisha. Thank you for having me back.
HARRIS: Yeah. Also with us is writer Kiana Fitzgerald. She has a book coming out in July called "Ode To Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 Years Of Trailblazing Music." It's available for pre-order now. Hey, Kiana. Welcome back to you, too.
KIANA FITZGERALD: Hey, Aisha. Good to be here.
HARRIS: Yes. This show...
FITZGERALD: This show.
HARRIS: I'm sure we will have so many thoughts. First off, "Swarm" stars Dominique Fishback as Dre, a shy retail worker who's living in Houston. Dre only cares about two things in life - her sister, Marissa, a makeup artist played by Chloe Bailey, and Ni'Jah, a pop superstar played by Nirine S. Brown. Ni'Jah has a loyal and very online fan base known as The Swarm, who have crowned her as queen bee and aggressively sing her praises while defending her against any naysayers any chance they can get. Does that sound familiar? I think it does sound familiar. The show was created by Janine Nabers and Donald Glover. Glover directed the pilot. And all seven episodes are streaming now on Prime Video. We should also note that Amazon supports NPR and also distributes some of our content.
Now, Dre's obsession with both Marissa and Ni'Jah takes a dark turn after a devastating incident. And that's all I'll reveal about "Swarm" for now because this is a very twisty show. We'll go around and give our initial impressions first, take a break, and then we'll dive headfirst into full-on spoiler waters later in the episode because it's basically impossible to talk about this with any substance without also spoiling it. So you've been warned. Kiana...
HARRIS: ...Initial impressions.
FITZGERALD: Initial impressions. From Episode 1, I was like, this show is going to stress me out. And it did. Throughout the entire seven episodes, I found myself just extremely uncomfortable. I'm someone that doesn't really dive much into shows that are stressful because I know that my anxiety is set up a particular way, but for this I was like, I'm going to do it, and I definitely had to take it in parts. I had to watch it over a few days. I couldn't just binge it. And as I was watching and taking notes, I kept writing the same word, which was weird, over and over again.
FITZGERALD: Like, this is weird, this weirdo, etc. So I was like, oh, my gosh, how do I get my thoughts together, like, to talk, you know, specifically about why I think it's weird? And I think some of that stems from the Donald Glover/"Atlanta" formula, which is, like, taking from real life and reality and making it extreme and surreal to the point where you're wondering, like, is this based on something that really happened, or is it fiction? Is it fact? What's going on here? Overall, I just found myself in a perpetual state of, like, incredulity. Most of the time, I was uncomfortable. It was just a show that really tested my patience. I can't say that I would watch it again, but I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it, because even the way that it ends - we'll talk about that later - it's kind of confusing. There are definitely, like, some things that I found misrepresentative about certain cultures or certain people, iterations of a pop superstar or whatever. But yeah, we can just move on along to the next opinion.
HARRIS: Yeah. I - it's funny because the word I catch writing down in my notes was WTF - I was like what? - like, an exclamation point, exclamation point. Thank you, Kiana. I feel similar to you. There - this is a very stressful show. Shamira, how about you?
IBRAHIM: I feel like WTF is very akin to a lot of our sentiments. Yeah. My first thought when I watched this was, you know, they had warned us early on that it's, like, an extension of the "Atlanta" universe, and I definitely got that, right? If you are one of the people who is a fan of those kind of one-off episodes that really were lauded in "Atlanta's" style of hypersurrealism, like the "Teddy Perkins" - right? - or the "Barbershop" episode, you know, this is a show that really kind of plays around with the idea of, what if we took one of those concepts and tried to stretch it out as far as it can - right? - over the course of a season and really played around with all of the experimental bounds of it and really wanted to see how far we could kind of mess with you, right?
And this is a show that really does that in the conceit of, like, one of the more predominant spaces of pop culture, which is, like, digital culture, stan culture and how it really interacts with the kind of terrestrial world - right? - in a time when we're all discussing really pertinent things like mental health and the visibility of Black women - right? - Black women and intimacy. These are all things that are kind of all digested in silos - right? - in a way that's kind of blending really, really pertinent things with really, really relevant, hyperpopular, trending stories. That's a really trendy thing that kind of evolved out of the "Atlanta" style of directing and blending the surreal with very real stories. The Lake Lanier episode is very relevant and pertinent to that style. Some things landed as a style of experimental directing and storytelling. Some things were very jarring. Some things really played with my suspension of disbelief. While there were some strong acting performances, I definitely really played with, like, my level of frustration with what it was trying to tell me.
IBRAHIM: When you have a story that's really trying to land a kind of moral conversation on top of an interesting, surreal, you know, examination, it really kind of frustrated more than it kind of tantalized me.
HARRIS: That's interesting that you say or that you felt that there was sort of a moral implication in the show because I'm not sure I got that. I kind of got a sense of lawlessness...
HARRIS: ...In a way and ruthlessness. And overall, I think - the first couple of episodes, I was like, I'm not jiving with this at all. And then there was a moment for me that clicked. But I do think what Donald Glover and what - Janine Nabors was also a writer on "Atlanta" as well. So she was also very steeped in this world. And the creators have talked about, like, specifically calling back to "Atlanta." And what Donald Glover especially is very good at or at least has shown that he has, like, a unending interest in is this idea of pastiche, taking as many different threads of popular culture and throwing them into, like, a giant gumbo. And, sometimes, it makes sense, and other times, it doesn't. Sometimes, you think, oh, maybe that's the point that it doesn't. But then you have to wonder, or is this just - I'm just asking questions type of person, where it's like, I'm just going to throw this here and then let it blow up and then walk away. And I think that this is an extension of that, and it feels almost like "Atlanta" but with a plot. And that's for better and, I think, for worse. I think Dominique Fishback is really, really good in this performance, yet I'm not quite entirely sure she or the writers kind of figured out who she was supposed to be.
HARRIS: But then there are just moments and references - and I've already talked about how the Ni'Jah character is very much like an analog for Beyonce, although I think she's an analog for many other people, as well, and their fandoms, probably even more so. I do think those kind of moments where the writers are pulling directly from Beyonce's life in ways that are very obvious were sometimes clever and sometimes, you know, a little too on the nose. But overall, by the end of it, I was like, OK, this doesn't all work. But it also just feels kind of like the way I felt about "Atlanta," where there were moments of brilliance, and then there were moments where it was just a mess for me. I did like being able to see this kind of female performance and female characterization, even if it doesn't fully land in a way that I had hoped it would. But those are kind of my overall, very generic (laughter) thoughts. And maybe we should get into spoilers.
IBRAHIM: I think it's about time to dig a little deeper.
HARRIS: All right. So we're going to pause here. And up next, we'll continue our discussion of "Swarm" and dive into those spoilers.
Welcome back. We are getting into spoilers for "Swarm." So here are the biggest reveals. In the first episode, Chloe Bailey's Marissa dies by suicide after discovering her boyfriend, Khalid, cheated on her, and Khalid is played by Damson Idris. This sets Dominique Fishback's character Dre off. And at the end of the episode, she kills Khalid and goes on the run, assuming various aliases and identities. Now, from there, she bounces around and murders several people, including those who have said negative things about both Ni'Jah and Marissa on social media. Some of the unlucky ones who cross Dre's path include a dancer who works with Dre at a strip club who's played by Paris Jackson - yes, that Paris Jackson - a woo-woo wellness influencer played by Billie Eilish and a college student who becomes Dre's girlfriend, who's played by Kiersey Clemons. And we also eventually learn that Marissa and Dre are not actually biological sisters. Marissa's parents fostered Dre when they were kids. And Dre's odd, alienating behavior has left her estranged from the family by the time of Marissa's death. So let's have at it.
FITZGERALD: What do I - where do I start?
IBRAHIM: I think I want to start with one of, like, the biggest things that, I think - I thought it was very - a very striking choice that they chose to make the Beyonce analogue brown-skinned, right? I thought that was just very distinctive just because, I mean, I think Beyonce's fair-skinned presentation is very, actually, constitutive of Beyonce as a persona, right?
IBRAHIM: In all the relationships that Dominique Fishback's character has and her relationships to all the various female intimacies throughout the show, most of them are with fair-skinned characters. And the one that she has that is, like, the paragon of virtue - right? - that she holds above all else is with this titular brown-skinned character. I don't know. I just found that uniquely very striking. I don't know if that was an intentional choice or no...
IBRAHIM: ...Considering, like, everything else is, like, to the T. Like, there are so many things that they, like, parrot almost farcically exactly to, like, these very intentional points in Beyonce's life. I just found that a very interesting choice to make.
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I mean, what do you make of the Ni'Jah character and how she's supposed to be a stand-in very specifically for Beyonce, especially considering that many of the people in the show have worked directly with her on other projects, including Donald Glover working on the "Lion King" remake. And, obviously, Chloe Bailey is kind of one of her proteges.
HARRIS: Did this work for you? And did it feel like an accurate representation or, like, a similar representation of the Bey Hive?
IBRAHIM: I think that the fact that she never actually speaks in the show is very reflective of a specific level of idolization without much engagement, where, like, you know, a common rebuttal is, you know, hey, you don't actually know her. You don't actually speak to her. And so the fact that there's, like, this much idolatry or this much obsessive behavior throughout the show speaks to kind of this very, you know, tilted - right? - dynamic between obsessive community - right? - versus, you know, the actual celebrity. And I'm not saying that that's indicative of Beyonce the person, more so just the dynamic and the power imbalance there.
FITZGERALD: I definitely agree with that. I feel like this show is obviously, like, a visual extreme of standom, taking certain elements that we're familiar with and what they sound like or what we sound like, to some extent, because, you know, I am a Beyonce fan. Would I say I'm a stan? I don't know. I'm not willing to go to certain lengths that her stans have gone to. But, you know, I am a huge fan of her music. So, you know, it's like, I think this show really toys with the idea and the spaces of, how far would a stan go? You know, is it just doxxing? Is it just, you know, trying to get somebody fired or, you know, to protect someone at all costs? Even the recurring question of, who is your favorite artist? - a question that we're all familiar with, but they really take it to definitely violent lengths of asking that question. You know, how does a stan react in the moment, especially, like, when that conversation is in person? Because I feel like a lot of these conversations do happen in the digital space. And that's where, you know, we see the more extreme elements being portrayed. And I can't say that I've ever had a face-to-face conversation with like a stan stan stan. Like, obviously, I have a lot of friends who love her and things like that - but as far as understanding, you know, what is the reality, and what is, you know, the possibility of what could happen?
HARRIS: Yeah. This was an aspect that I thought was really interesting, and I liked the basic premise because I do think we're at a point now where we are trying to examine standom and what it does to both the culture and the way we talk about these artists but also how it affects us personally. Again, it's interesting to me that he chose Beyonce because, obviously, everyone knows Beyonce. And while I do - like, her stans - her stans can be a lot. There are other artists, I think, who have worse stans.
HARRIS: And I will tread carefully and not name them. But there are some that have taken many of the same steps and, you know, gone as far - not as far as Dre does. But they've gone far enough where they might take it to, oh, I'm going to doxx you. I'm going to share your personal information online. That kind of stuff happens. To see it distilled into this lead female Black character and then to sort of kind of twist that and turn it into - in many ways, this show is in conversation with our current obsession with serial killers - "You" and, obviously, "Dahmer" on Netflix. But to then say, oh, we're going to make this a Black woman, which is something we - I've never seen depicted in a TV show or movie, if one exists, I'm sure...
IBRAHIM: Yeah - 'cause we don't have female serial killers (laughter).
HARRIS: Well, yes, there's that.
HARRIS: I mean, they do exist, but they're very, very rare. They don't really - especially if there are Black ones, they don't get the same attention. So for me, I felt kind of at a remove from her character because I couldn't always understand what exactly her motivations were or where this was coming from. You know, we know, obviously, that she's traumatized. Something is wrong, and - but we don't really get a sense of who that character is beyond that.
IBRAHIM: So I actually agree with you. I found that, like, kind of a deep irony throughout the show that, like, there would be multiple points where they would impress, hey, you know that this celebrity is just a human being, right? You don't know these people. They're just regular humans. But, like, you would have just a sustained sense of remove from Dominique Fishback's character, Dre - right? - because we don't have a real sense of interiority to the character, her motivations, you know?
Yes, there are stylistic shifts from episode to episode, but also, there are dramatic shifts in persona from episode to episode, right? And we don't really get a real sense of whether that is actually just, like, due to her own character or whether it's just, you know, out of necessity. And, you know, I think that was kind of a very frustrating thing for me to try to engage in because I know you mentioned that it was really in her scene with Billie Eilish in that commune area that really seemed like a very pointed parallel to NXIVM. But I actually found it in that kind of mock true crime documentary...
IBRAHIM: ...Kind of indicting, like, hey, you want to show them, like, these horrific characters you never want to examine, like, what brings them here, why they need love, what could actually show them why they're discarded. And so it's, like, this, like, lengthy indictment that kind of lingers, right? You know, and it's supposed to shame both the cameraman and the detective who was, like, so gung ho to, like, you know, kind of cast away this Black woman who has been on this murdering spree, right?
And so that was kind of the closest moment to me that we kind of think about, OK, but why is Dre like this? Like, what is actually driving her decision-making? Why is she really snapping and then sitting down and eating - right? - or binge eating while she's kind of hearing the buzzing in her head? And we never really revisit that. And I think that was actually a failure point for me throughout the season.
FITZGERALD: Yeah. I agree with that. Overall, I - of course, I want to love this show. You know, it's, like, Black writers, Black cast, Black directors, like, everything. This, to me, just kind of made a case of anything is open to critique. You know, as a cultural critic, as a writer, I know that. But there's still, like, this level of closeness to events and series and films that have people that look like me. For that reason, you know, I was cheering for - you know, for Dominique Fishback and her character portrayal. And I was like, you know, she's doing an excellent job at making me feel uncomfortable and strange and weird. But in listening to both of you kind of, like, deconstruct the elements of her character and how it was or wasn't portrayed throughout consistently is really opening my eyes to, OK, just because, you know, we have, like, this all-Black whatever doesn't mean that it's infallible.
And this show was a difficult watch. I'm not sure if it's because of my own anxiety issues. I would definitely, like - similar warning out to people who do get stressed out easily. Like, I don't know if this is the show for you. You know, if you do want to support Donald Glover and, you know, the other people who contributed to the show, you know, have at it. But as for me, you know, I'm glad I watched it. You know, I learned something about myself and my boundaries. It's definitely something that will not be escaping my mind anytime soon.
HARRIS: I mean, speaking of Donald Glover - and just, like, Shamira, you and I actually talked about the last season, like, the finale and "Atlanta" as a whole a few months back on the show. We kind of wrestled with Donald Glover, his persona and how that filters through his art and how it often seems like he is provoking us and wants people to not like him or not like his art and whatever. And I wonder if you got that sense. I mean, obviously, he's a co-creator. And this is - in many ways, I think Janine Nabers is kind of, like, steering the ship. Or at least that's the sense that I get, based off of the interviews they've done. But he did direct the pilot, and, you know, his stamp is all over it. Every single thing about Beyonce or references to other artists and standoms are obscured or, like, sort of vaguely referenced or used in analog. They do use one very direct reference, which is Sanaa Lathan, rumored to have bitten Beyonce. That is directly referenced in the show, except it's Dre.
HARRIS: (Laugher) And so, like...
IBRAHIM: I actually thought that that scene was funny.
HARRIS: It was really funny. I enjoyed that. It feels like he's provoking also maybe not us but maybe, like, people in Hollywood. And I - you know, it's...
IBRAHIM: I definitely think this..
IBRAHIM: ...Show is a provocation, right? The quibbles I have - or the frustrations I have are really about how it interrogates certain things, right? So, for example, like, at the different - I feel weird saying it's at the different murders, but, like, at the different...
HARRIS: There's a lot of murder.
IBRAHIM: Right. At the various murders, like, you know, one of the things that I find interesting is that, you know, because Dre is portrayed as this unhinged character - right? - you know, it's kind of like, oh, you're just killing me off of this thing said on Twitter, right? And obviously, it's positioning, you know, stan culture as this, like, unhinged sect - right? - you know, which as someone who has been caught in the crosshairs of stan Twitter...
HARRIS: I feel like all of us have (laughter).
IBRAHIM: ...You don't need to tell me how it's happened. I'm not even going to say. I should leave it alone (laughter).
HARRIS: Let's not bring the swarm on you again (laughter).
IBRAHIM: So I think we've all understood how things can go left, right? But I think one of the things that also kind of caught me sideways is, like, it's their story, it's their right to tell it - right? - you know, but are you telling me that if she's going to kill 10 to 15 people - right? - that all of them are just innocent people that just happened to say foul things about Black women online, and none of them were actually bad people who just, like, were reckless? And I'm not saying that to say that we have to give nuance to reckless murder of people countrywide. It's an interesting choice to make. When I've seen those kind of dialectics on stan Twitter, it tends to be, like, unhinged person versus absolute unhinged person. And they're kind of at odds with each other...
IBRAHIM: ...Right? - you know? And so it's just kind of...
IBRAHIM: ...An interesting way to choose to play out a dynamic, you know, on, you know, a practical level.
FITZGERALD: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of want to jump to a different point about the music used in the show.
FITZGERALD: If I'm not mistaken, "Normal Girl" by SZA plays as she's making out with Rashida - as they're making out. And that, to me, stood out so broadly because obviously, the title of the song itself but just - it was, like, kind of the culmination of the entire show for me, of her being like, you know, I think I made it to a good place, I'm in love, you know, even though she still obviously had issues. That's ultimately, like, people who are, quote-unquote, "disturbed" or "left behind" in terms of maturity or development or whatever, you know, everybody just wants to be normal or whatever normal is supposed to be in our culture. For that song to play at that time, I felt, was very powerful. And just in terms of, like, the way the dynamics of the show kind of played out...
FITZGERALD: ...I was, like, not expecting for that to hit me as hard as it did.
HARRIS: Well, that's the last episode.
HARRIS: That's, again, what I - another thing that I'm saying in terms of, like, kind of holding back and not really finding the character. I feel as though this was the first time we actually see Dre get to have some sort of semblance of emotion or caring for someone else who was not Ni'Jah or Marissa. Even when she winds up killing Rashida, you can tell that this is different. This isn't just like a...
HARRIS: ...There's, like, emotion in her eyes. There's, like, you can tell this is hard for her.
IBRAHIM: Yeah, she's, like, fully sobbing, yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. And then to have SZA playing, it's like, SZA is, for many Black women and Black millennial women, sort of this, in her own way, an icon or representative of what so many women are going to - like, they see herself in her lyrics. And I do - it's interesting...
HARRIS: ...I - it was weird 'cause I was kind of rooting for Rashida and her to work it out in this weird, bizarre way, even though it was like, I know this is going...
FITZGERALD: I know.
HARRIS: ...To end bad, but (laughter)...
FITZGERALD: In my notes, I put, I don't know why I thought she changed.
FITZGERALD: I think my assumption - and I don't know Janine Nabers' - her motives, either, but this, to me, wants to make people think. I think this is a show that will, in their eyes, help people to engage with their own feelings around the people that they stan and interrogate why they do what they do and how they feel and why they ultimately feel as strongly as they do. So I don't know if that's going to actually be successful. I don't know if it's going to make anybody think further than they already are. But that seems to be what this is attempting to do. But yeah, again, I don't know. This is just my guess. And I'm interested to see, like, as more reviews and conversations and interviews come about, you know, what the ultimate goal is for this.
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I'm sure we could spend a lot more time talking about this. And if you've listened this far and you haven't watched it yet, you - maybe go watch it. I mean...
FITZGERALD: Yeah, for sure.
HARRIS: ...I'd say we all agree, as...
HARRIS: ...A recommendation, just, like, proceed with caution.
IBRAHIM: Yes. Yeah. Content warning, for sure. Yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. But overall, I'm glad it exists. I feel like it's the type of thing that really is - there's so much to chew on.
HARRIS: That's - I don't mean that as a pun just because she's always eating, but - unintended. But yeah, there's a lot to talk about, and you should definitely let us know what you think about "Swarm" if you do check it out. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Shamira Ibrahim, Kiana Fitzgerald, thank you so much for being here and helping me parse through this very complicated series.
FITZGERALD: Thank you.
IBRAHIM: Thanks again.
HARRIS: And we want to take a moment to thank our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR+ subscribers. We appreciate you so much for showing your support of NPR. So if you haven't signed up yet and want to show your support and listen to the show without any sponsor breaks, head over to plus.npr.org/happyhour or you can visit the link in our show notes. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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