Everyone seems to agree: Kanye West is an egotistical jerk. But is that accurate? And how much does it really matter?
I’m living in the 21st century doin’ something mean to it
Do it better then anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
-Kanye West, “Power”
[Note: I don’t think you can read this article without noticing the one possibility that I don’t really address: Is our distaste for Kanye West motivated by racism? Honestly, I think it’s a valid question, especially since most of my counter-examples for equally detestable behavior are white. But I don’t think I’m the right messenger for that conversation, so you won’t find it here even though I think you can sense it lingering around the edges. This article is about behavior and artistic merit.]
This all starts with a story: A few months ago I was pissed at Seth Avett.
I’m a diehard Avett Brothers fan. One day I was leafing through an old copy of Rolling Stone in a doctor’s office and came across an article profiling the band and their most recent album. If you’re not acquainted, the Avett Brothers are folk/bluegrass/rock band from North Carolina fronted by brothers Seth and Scott who built a large homegrown fanbase through a decade of constant touring. They work in the same territory as Conor Oberst and Mumford and Sons, fastening folk/country music with pop sensibilities. Much of the article focused on the band’s difficulties dealing with bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter’s leukemia, but it was another part of the article that really caught my attention.
It turned out that frontman Seth Avett was divorcing his wife after a rumored affair with Dexter star Jennifer Carpenter. Whether the affair was real or just gossip, the facts remained that Avett was ending a decade long marriage to his wife, a North Carolina nurse, and now dating a famous actress. Many fans took this as a get-back slap from Avett whose songs present himself as a wholesome man from North Carolina in a band centered, both literally and thematically, around family. I felt misled by a musician I adored, and I was pissed.
But the more I thought about it, the stupider I felt. Why was I mad at Seth Avett? Was the music suddenly less awesome? No. Had he personally lied to me? Or was he just not conforming to the picture of him I’d created in my mind? Obviously, it was the latter. Furthermore, why was I treating Avett differently from other musicians, authors, and film makers who had done the exact same thing? I should have been smarter. I studied literature in college, and one of the first rules of textual analysis you learn is to never mistake the subject of a poem/story for the author. They are two distinct entities.
Lesson learned, but so what? Why tell this story? That story opens the door for me to focus on a question about popular culture that constantly confounds me:
Why does everybody hate Kanye West?
Sometimes indie rock fans like myself are guilty of ignoring music from the mainstream. They dismiss it as generic music for the masses, designed to sell a million downloads and then be forgotten. It has no staying power and no critical acclaim. While this certainly can be true (see: Soulja Boy, Ke$ha, The Black Eyed Peas), that doesn’t mean that it always is, and it’s a crime to look at music this way. Think of Michael Jackson and Prince. Both sold millions of albums, and both are phenomenal talents. There’s The Beatles and Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder and Madonna. Artistic achievement and financial success do not have to be mutually exclusive, and, unless you’re a complete cynic about music today, you have to believe that such a possibility still exists.
So who’s carrying on this tradition today? For starters, we’ve got Adele. She and her golden set of pipes won everything in 2011 and 2012. Grammys. Oscars. You name it. 21 was also the best-selling album in each of those years. Then there’s Lady Gaga, the David Bowie of the 21st century, constantly reinventing herself while producing pop mega-hits. Behind all the glitz and eccentric costumes there’s a smart songwriter who knows her way around a dance beat. Finally there’s Justin Timberlake who, under Timbaland’s guidance, has transformed from a boy-band goofball into the reigning prince of pop. If there’s an understanding I have with the music industry today it’s this: You can’t ignore greatness. You don’t have to always enjoy the music these artists are making, but it would be wrong to flatly ignore it. And for that reason you can’t turn a blind eye to Kanye West.
Admittedly, I’m probably not the guy that you would expect to own six Kanye West albums. I get that. For a guy whose favorite bands are The Avett Brothers, Wilco, Arcade Fire, and Ryan Adams, Kanye probably seems like some strange outlier. Admittedly, I don’t listen to much hip-hop. I’m more of an indie rock and alt. country kind of guy. Furthermore, most of the rap that I do like is by groups from the 80s and 90s (think NWA, Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan). And as a rapper, Kanye isn’t even that good. He’s not as lyrically inventive as Nas or Eminem, nor is he as socially conscious as Mos Def or Common – two things you would think really matter to me based on my preferences for other musicians. But here’s the thing: I do love Kanye West. Immensely. As I said, you can’t ignore greatness.
I know, I know. It’s easy to hate Kanye. I understand that. The problem is that he makes it so damn easy. First and foremost there’s his incredibly outsized ego. He’s quick to laud himself as a musical genius at the least, and a revolutionary cultural figure at best as he demonstrates in this quote from a June 2013 New York Times interview:
“I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump. I honestly feel that because Steve has passed, you know, it’s like when Biggie passed [away] and Jay-Z was allowed to become Jay-Z. I’ve been connected to the most culturally important albums of the past four years, the most influential artists of the past ten years.”
And if cultural savior isn’t enough, why not just accept Kanye as a literal one? It seems like he would be fine with that as well. In a 2006 Rolling Stone interview he claimed that if a modern bible were written today that he would probably be a central figure. He named his most recent studio album Yeezus, a blatant combination of Jesus and his own nickname, Yeezy, and included a song titled “I Am A God” on it. West did almost no press for the album, neglecting to even give it a cover, saying he preferred for his music for speak for him as an artist, all while maintaining a tabloid relationship with Kim Kardashian at the same time.
The man seemingly can’t help but court controversy. In the wake of hurricane Katrina, an obviously emotionally distressed West called President Bush a racist during a nationally televised support telethon, famously telling viewers that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Amid the resulting furor, West was widely disparaged and heckled.
Perhaps more notable was the Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. During Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, West rushed the stage, snatched away her microphone, and derided her video as inferior to that of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” West was loudly booed by the audience, and he was later removed from the ceremony by security. The move was again widely condemned in the media and by West’s peers who felt he ruined Taylor Swift’s moment, and West was widely mocked by comedians in the following weeks. Barack Obama, the successor to the previously offended George W. Bush, stated the move made West a jackass.
By almost any measure, West is not a particularly sympathetic human being or commendable citizen. But my question remains this: does it matter? Is humility something we value in our pop stars and celebrities? And, most importantly, why do we let our perception of someone as a person impact our feelings about them as an artist?
My position is that it simply doesn’t matter. Kanye West being of poor character and citizenship has nothing to do with my perception of him as an artist. Does he sound both incredibly arrogant and stupid? Sure, but I’m not asking him (or any celebrity for that matter) to watch my children or run a charitable organization, and I don’t look up to him as a role-model. In the basest terms, I want Kanye West to be an entertainer, and he more than entertains me. That’s what matters here.
Furthermore, none of these things are worse that the behaviors of a hundred other celebrities. Why are we outraged by the “Yeezus” moniker but not Jay-Z’s “Jay-hova?” In 2012 Johnny Depp made statements comparing being photographed by the paparazzi to rape. Ashton Kutcher claimed that firing Joe Paterno for his actions (or lack thereof) in the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal was classless. Do you remember the uproar over those statements?
John Lennon is remembered as a transcendent musical figure today, but he also famously made a controversial statement claiming that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. By his own admission he was abusive to his first wife, Cynthia Lennon, and an absentee father to his first son, Julian. Last week I watched as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association presented a lifetime achievement award to Woody Allen. In response, Allen’s estranged son Ronan Farrow tweeted “Missed the Woody Allen tribute — did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?” referring to long standing allegations that Allen abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. An investigation was inconclusive. These things are considerably worse than anything Kanye West has ever been accused of, but Allen and Lennon’s legacies remain mostly positive.
So why do we treat Kanye West like a pariah when other celebrities have made careers doing the same things? In recent years Lady Gaga has become famous as much for her attention-grabbing outfits as she has for her music. She’s famously shown up to award shows in a dress made out of meat, a collection of bubbles, and a human-sized egg, and it’s kept the media talking about her. It’s a strategy that Madonna used to become the highest-selling female recording artist of all time and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: There is no such thing as bad press. You know who else is making great albums today? Earl Sweatshirt. But you probably don’t even know who that is. Publicity is a tool. Half of the secret to staying relevant is to remain in the public consciousness. With Lady Gaga the media seems to recognize that the strange antics and outfits are as much a marketing campaign as they are a stylistic choice, but much of Kanye West’s misbehavior is denigrated as the actions of an arrogant idiot. Where’s the real difference? Aren’t they both using their media personas to stay in the headlines?
So why is there such a disconnect between the way we view John Lennon, Madonna, and Lady Gaga versus how we view Kanye West? Is it because of hip-hop’s notoriety as a “harder” and “lawless” form of music, and, thus, it makes us uncomfortable? If so, I should point out that despite several run-ins with the paparazzi, West has not had any prominent legal trouble. Is it a racial issue? I would hate to think so, but that’s not a problem with an easy answer.
I would go as far as to say that it’s Kanye’s exuberant lifestyle and ego that make him one of my favorite and most admired musicians. I admire Kanye’s ego because I think it pushes him towards greatness. He wants to be the greatest, and he has an incredible eye and ear for artistry. He offers an alternative to the gangster image of rappers in favor of a more posh, fashionable, and technically savvy musician. In fact, having sold over 30 million digital singles, West is one of the most successful artists of the digital age. He gets an amount of focus and critical acclaim in rock music publications that’s unheard of for most rappers, and this wide range of acknowledgement has helped to make him one of the best selling artists of modern times.
I think his vision is most perfectly captured in his Saturday Night Live performances. I’ve long said that the SNL stage is a terrible place to see musical performances. All of the show’s musical guests play on the same urban NYC-inspired stage, and almost all of them end up being completely devoid of personality and originality.
As an example, here’s Vampire Weekend’s 2013 performance of “Unbelievers.”
Now, I love Vampire Weekend. Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, PopMatters, and a slew of other publication (plus Fellowship of the Screen editor David McGinnis and me) all named Modern Vampires of the City the top album of 2013, but there’s not much to that performance. It’s awfully bland.
In contrast, here’s what Kanye West did for his performance of “Black Skinhead” the same year:
Sure, it’s grandiose and somewhat arrogant, but it’s also thrilling, different, and one of the best SNL musical performances in the last decade. That’s Kanye embracing his ego and striving to be the best.
Just like my experience with Seth Avett, we have to remember to separate Kanye the person from the narrative voice in his songs. Despite his reputation as an egoist, many of his songs reveal West to be an in-touch and introspective man. This is perhaps most noticeable in his fourth and fifth albums, 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, respectively. Both albums are reactions to major events in his life and career. While on 808s and Heartbreak West attempts to come to terms with the death of his mother and the role of his fame and lifestyle in it (Donda West died in 2007 from surgical complications following plastic surgery that at least one other doctor had advised her against having due to health issues), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye’s reaction to the media scrutiny over the Taylor Swift incident and the sometimes disorienting effects of a lifestyle of celebrity and wealth. Do those sound like the works of an out of touch man?
Maybe the problem is that his extreme behavior makes him impossible for us to empathize with? But I would doubt that, too. Honestly, Kanye West isn’t a man I’m trying to identify with. Whereas I’ll watch my favorite baseball team play while wearing their jersey and feeling a sense of togetherness with the team and other fans, I’ve never put on Gucci and Versace to listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and drink Cristal. I listen to Kanye because he offers an articulate view into a world that is completely foreign from my own.
In the current musical landscape it’s rare for a rock song to top the charts, but West is a big rock fan himself. He has said that rock is what he often listens to when he isn’t recording music, and he has expressed admiration for alternative and indie rock bands Radiohead, The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, and Modest Mouse. His songs have sampled artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, Daft Punk, and Bon Iver. He has cited Portishead, U2, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones as influences. You see? If you’re an indie rock fan, Kanye West understands your music and is speaking your language. At a time when hip-hop and electro-pop top the charts, Kanye’s exuberant lifestyle, ego, and rock influences are most analogous to a 1970s-80s rock star. In the age of indie rock intimacy, he is our unrepentant musical id.
That’s why I love Kanye West. He blurs the lines of what you’re expecting. In an often throwaway culture, he’s working his ass off to be an artist who lasts. Despite being a wealthy, arrogant rapper, he somehow also manages to be maybe the only indie rock “Rock God.” It’s a position he’s using to explore uncharted musical territory, and his sales, critical acclaim, and industry influence seem to back up the endeavor.
I honestly think that, in time, none of this controversy will matter. Just as with John Lennon, Madonna, Britney Spears, and a hundred other musicians, I think that years down the line we’ll have forgotten the controversy and just focus on his music. And, when that’s all you’re left with, is there really any debate at all? While the media is telling us that polls show Kim and Kanye are the two celebs we’d most hate to live across the street from, West remains an artist of nearly unequalled parallel. I’ve mentioned his 30 million songs sold, but what about his six straight number one albums? His seven platinum albums? His 21 Grammys? Maybe that’s the biggest secret of all. As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, maybe we can’t get enough of Kanye West.
So if you really want to hate Kanye West, it should only be out of jealousy for his incredible cultural genius and musical talent. You can claim you hate him all you want, but the numbers don’t lie. We’re buying into Kanye in droves. See, it’s those contradictions that will get you every time.
Rock on, Yeezy. You’re carrying the torch.