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Alt band Big Thief's TikTok beef over "Vampire Empire" song

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Photo by Alexa Viscius
Photo by Alexa Viscius

On all music platforms

Big Thief releases anticipated single

Brooklyn-based band Big Thief released a new single on July 19, marking their first release since 2022's Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. The album was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the Grammys, and its track "Certainty" was nominated for Best Alternative Music Performance. The band has kept busy touring for the past year, performing all over the world and making guest appearances on late-night talk shows.

The new track, an emotional rocker called "Vampire Empire," highlights the intricacies of a toxic relationship. Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief's frontwoman, is openly Queer, a fact often on display in her lyrics. Those lyrics are chillingly personal, letting the listener in on the emotional beats of whatever relationship she is writing about, whether that be a relationship to a person, a community, or the universe.

The new song is no different in this regard, gut wrenching in its portrayal of the realities of a deteriorating romantic partnership. Lyrics like "you spin me all around and ask me not to spin" portray a relationship where control over one's partner has become expected. The song underscores this point further in the third verse, with the line "I walked into your dagger for the last time."

Sonically, the song is a groovy and thumping composition. The electric guitars stay chugging and lowkey during the verses, while a colorful bass and grounding drums follow the groove with a careful and human imperfection. Accompanying this are electric guitar flourishes that build into the choruses, which then flood the song with heaviness. This deluge contrasts with the song's earlier restraint, especially when paired with Lenker's vocal delivery, which builds to heightened moments of screaming — the song's emotional catharsis. The dynamic composition connects the quieter, more somber parts with the loud, emotional, and bombastic parts. And I would be remiss not to mention the fun percussion employed during the chorus, which sounds like well-tuned pots and pans!

Song debuted early
Though the song was released just two weeks ago, it has been teased on tour multiple times. Its debut for fans that hadn't seen the band on tour was around five months ago, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The performance went viral on social media, quickly making it one of the band's most popular songs. The version of the song they played, described at the time as an "unreleased song," was similar to the version they ended up releasing. However, in the released version a flute that featured in the live performance was removed, and a few lyrics were omitted.

The first of these omitted lyrics was in the chorus, where the unreleased version had the lyric "I am empty til she fills / alive until she kills / in her vampire empire I am the fish and she's my gills / falling." The released version says instead, "I am empty til she fills / alive until she kills / in her vampire empire I am / falling." Another lyric was changed from "I walked into your dagger for the last time in a row," to "I walked into your dagger for the last time," simply omitting a few words.

Though the changes may seem innocuous — a flute and some lyrics — a significant number of fans felt the band had ruined the unreleased song.

Photo by Alexa Viscius  

Fan reception on TikTok
On TikTok, reaction to the song's changes has gone more viral than the song itself. TikTok displays close to two thousand videos using "Vampire Empire" as a sound; in most if not all of them, fans discuss their reaction to the changed lyrics. Some claim the changes ruin the flow of the words, while others claim they actually alter the meaning of the song. Though this isn't the first time a band has come under fire from fans for changing a beloved unreleased song with its official version, this does seem to be one of the most high-profile examples of a backlash against a song's release.

One fan posted a video of herself singing the original lyrics in protest. Another claimed to have gotten some of the original lyrics tattooed on their body, only to find that those lyrics hadn't made the final cut. Some even took issue with Big Thief for releasing a changed version, claiming it was "disrespectful to fans."

Not every reaction was negative; other fans took the opportunity to say they preferred the changes, or to make fun of people for caring so much about a minor difference.

Given the nature of TikTok as an engagement-driven app, the platform may have allowed people to be more exposed to the unreleased version. When a TikTok goes viral, its sound is heard by millions of people. Additionally, if a user shows interest in a sound on the app, the algorithm will likely show them more videos using that sound. By the time "Vampire Empire" was officially released, months after its debut, a lot of fans had heard the unreleased version dozens and dozens of times, solidifying it as the definitive version.

This phenomenon is becoming more common on TikTok, as teasing a track on the platform for months before a release is a good way to drum up excitement. While it leaves the door open for fans involvement, they may feel attached to songs before they're finished.

From the fans' perspective, the attachment makes sense. If you listen to a song over and over again and suddenly a key component is no longer there, something just feels wrong. Imagine if the cowbell were removed from "Don't Fear the Reaper" — not the same song.

Room for both versions
Both versions of "Vampire Empire" feature stunning composition and commendable performances, and overall they aren't too different. In the opinion of this writer, the flute is sorely missed, but the lyric omissions make the vocals flow more smoothly. That being said, if you're not listening for the slight changes, you could stream both versions back to back and not notice a single difference.

The next Big Thief output would likely benefit from being fully completed before release, just to avoid another debacle. All the band needs for that is a little certainty (pun unfortunately intended). Big Thief is currently touring in the United States, with a show in Redmond, Washington, on August 5. You can find the single "Vampire Empire / Born For Loving You" on all music platforms, with the latter of the two songs set to release in September.