In the centuries before automatic weapons, when armies clashed along the Anatolian coast or at the base of medieval castles, foot soldiers fought in square formations. The compact shape repelled enemy forces on horseback, a desperate armor wrought from geometry. The Latin word for square gave us squadron—a military unit—and then, in the 1640s, squad.
Squads, unlike divisions or battalions, contained a relatively small number of infantrymen, lending the term an underdog tinge. (It retains that echo; consider the upcoming Suicide Squad, a hyped-at-Comic-Con movie about supervillains conscripted to carry out hopeless assignments for the government.) And since they often formed for specialized tasks (rifle squad, first aid squad) or a one-time mission (rescue squad) the word acquired a glimmer of rakish expertise. (The Mission: Impossible crew, meshing spectacular skill with the breezy assurance that this will never work, could well be the Platonic form of the squad, if not the most mod.)
But squad has always meant solidarity most of all. When the rise of nationalism whipped Europe into a martial fever, army deserters, mutineers, and traitors were condemned, for symbolic reasons, to die by firing squad. The optics of those deaths—evil loners facing trusty comrades, us triumphing over them—wouldn’t be out of place in a grim remake of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video.
Everyone on the squad, take a drink! No article about the current vogue for squad can go more than a few sentences without mentioning Swift. With Troy sacked and drones at the ready to bomb any fiefdoms that revolt, Taylor is the Squad Queen by default. She has assembled an army of girlfriends—including Mariska Hargitay, Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevingne, Lorde, and Selena Gomez—and literally weaponized them against her enemies. As Megan Garber writes in her own essay on squad, “Swift is a performer not just of music, but of friendship. She takes the clichés of female camaraderie … and commercializes them.” Lena Dunham has praised her squaddie Swift for summoning a “witches’ coven” of benignly magical besties. The Verge has credited her with unfurling a banner of “girl squad feminism.” When Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen politely asked to join the coterie after both actors recited lyrics from 1989 on the radio, Swift welcomed them with regal grace. Then Cosmo curated 18 Taylor Swift photos that “define Squad Goals.”
(What are Squad Goals? People you want in your squad, or an idea your squad might come to embody, or simply a triumphal tag you affix to a picture of you and your pals looking glamorous. In that last case, the “Goal” part of “Squad Goals” refers to the viewer. You, the poster, are just living your Squad Reality.)
But it’s not just Swift. Behind and around and before her throne, it feels like the whole world is squadding up. According to the Huffington Post, Sasha Obama and her friends constitute “the ultimate #squad.” (“Move over, Taylor Swift.”) Bustle ranked Veronica Mars characters by “Squad Goals, the Most Important Metric There Is.” BuzzFeed, seconds from launching a Squad vertical (a squirtical?), recently presented “21 Animal Pictures That Perfectly Capture Your Squad Goals,” “29 Times Dogs Perfectly Summed Up Your Squad Goals,” “29 Matching Tattoos That Will Give You Serious Squad Goals,” “29 Times the ‘Once Upon A Time’ Cast Redefined Squad Goals” and, wonderfully, “16 Ultimate Squad Goals Through History,” which features not only Jesus and his disciples but “Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea … exploration squad!”
But like Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, let’s set out into the wild, returning to squad’s journey pre-Swift. Because all things military must eventually become sports metaphors, squad turned into a synonym for team in the early 1900s—football squad, cheer squad, lacrosse squad. From there, it migrated to law enforcement, where, for instance, the vice squad battled prostitution and gambling, and officers cruised the streets in squad cars.
But there was something defiant and hardscrabble about squad—it couldn’t remain in police blues forever. In the ‘90s, squad fled to trap life—a mostly black world of drugs, hip-hop, and close, high-stakes friendships. (If you somehow managed to miss Fetty Wap, the artist whose hypnotic, modal drone turned trap mainstream this summer: A trap house is where you cook product; the trap queen holds down business while you’re away; the trap squad keeps things simmering and moving and manages the competition, by force if necessary.) Rapper Gucci Mane was the first to pin squad on the music charts. In 2007, he founded a record company called 1017 Brick Squad and signed his brilliant friend Waka Flocka Flame. The pair rolled out song after song with “squad” in the lyrics, snarling their fealty to their brothers in crime and hardship. Chief Keef picked up the thread with “Squad I Trust” and rapper Fredo Santana, updating dicks before chicks for a new generation, growled: “Don’t care about my broad/ I only love my squad.”
Helped along by The Diplomats and Drake, squad gathered enough momentum to vault into broader (and whiter) conversations. It kept its aura of fierce loyalty but eased a little out of its defensive crouch. Notable #squads, according to Tumblr, now include the Fast and Furious team; Harry, Ron, and Hermione; the Teletubbies; and the Ninja Turtles.
But what distinguishes a squad from other objects of social fascination—cliques, crews, friend groups, entourages, and the like? No true unpacking of squad can occur without reference to “Going Way Too Deep Down the Rabbit Hole With Nicki Minaj’s Recent Bar Mitzvah Appearance,” a magnificent sociological document published on Grantland by Rembert Browne earlier this year. In it, Browne lays out the rudiments of squad theory: how kids around the age of 12 or 13 “begin the ever-important process of being seen—and, with that, deciding with whom [they] want to be seen.” How they roll deep to events in coordinated but subtly distinctive style (same shoes, different color shirts). How the introduction of A HUMAN WOMAN to a hormone-drenched clump of male pubescence induces panic, wonder, joy, unidentifiable hands all over the place—and conflict.
For if you come away with one point from Browne’s analysis to help you understand squads, let it be this: There is no #SQUAD without struggle. Browne turns his spotlight on “Nate,” a blank-faced kid sandwiched between Minaj and “Bradley.” Poor Nate, he observes, is “caught between two competing forces: childhood affection from his old friend Bradley and grown-up attention from his new girlfriend Nicki.” In Nate’s panicked eyes we see that “the next few years will be a trying time for the #SQUAD.”
Like an underground oil reservoir, the squad exists under conditions of intense pressure—pressure that could at any moment cause an explosion. Its homosocial bonds are always under siege, whether from the erotic ministrations of a visiting goddess (squads before broads), or the terror of puberty, or the prospect of dying in a fiery car wreck (Fast and Furious), or the threat of incarceration and gang violence. A squad, true to its military history, is a defensive structure. It’s life or death, us versus them. If your “buds” have your back and it kind of matters, your “squad” has your back and it really, really matters. When a clique of slim white women borrow the word to measure their own glittering success, the appropriation feels at best cheeky and at worst tone-deaf.
Of course, Swift fans might argue that their idol’s focus on female friendship isn’t so complex. It is pure, inclusive, and genuine. But the canniness of her Instagram shots—not to mention the attractive, hip besties with whom she surrounds herself—tells a different story. Here, the snaps say, are the worthy, the women who get me. The rest—I’ll just shake them off. If you’ve ever been a preteen, you know to suspect the golden girls who make much of their undying love for each other; it tends to be an exclusionary move. Such line-drawing and shoring up could make sense if you need tribal support to overcome bigger disadvantages—but what, exactly, is Swift so afraid of?
The Swiftification of squad makes me think of an analysis of #flawless that Parul Sehgal wrote recently for the New York Times. Rather than effortless perfection, she argued, flawless suggests the type of beauty that must be achieved. With its hints of performance and insecurity, the word radiates something more complicated than pure affirmation—a kind of defensive bravado. Nearby lurks the constant threat of exposure and humiliation. Sehgal continued: “Beyoncé’s version of flawlessness “means to be well fortified—by family, by marriage, by money.” In the remix to “***Flawless,” the star even favored a “centurion helmet,” as “the word is an attempt at armor … and its metaphors are martial.”
Beyoncé’s relationship to flawless, another surprise term of war, echoes Swift’s relationship to squad. Ms. Carter by most measures has realized (or lucked into) a stratospheric level of physical loveliness. Taylor Swift does live in a world that will likely support and encourage her in whatever she seeks to do. And yet they both, consciously or not, reach for language that casts them as underdogs fighting to pull through against all odds. Why?
Well, drama, for one. Relatability. But also, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter—the three ground zeroes for #squad and #flawless—nourish everyone’s belligerent self-consciousness. That terrifying enemy, the equivalent of a rival drug gang, or adulthood, or Achilles? It is the judgment of strangers, a faceless and encroaching sea of haters who will never understand you and think all your photos are garbage. No wonder supporting members of the squad can occasionally seem both instrumental and indistinct. In a world of radical visibility, one needs one’s armor more than ever. The #SQUAD squad has simply figured out—as war tacticians have known for ages—that sometimes the best armor is other people.