Kanye West vs. The Media
Note: Those who are approaching this piece with an already formulated dislike or contempt for Kanye West would benefit from watching this two-part speech, either before or after they read this, which will undoubtedly show him in a different light to the one you are used to.
part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uq3W-E782kc
part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQa5MoRGoGk
This article will attempt to detail the ways in which the mass media works extremely hard to consistently report on Kanye West in the most controversial and (more often) trivial manner. It will also seek to illustrate that this is done in order to actively discourage anyone other than dedicated music critics and fans from taking him, his ideas, and even his celebrated musical output seriously and, more importantly, of conducting a serious critique and dissection of the political, social, and economic messages of both West and the media industry.
Kanye West rose to prominence as a music producer and subsequently as a rapper - his fame stems from being a musician. Take a glance at reviews of his albums and you will see that his music is not just commercially marketed but critically worshipped. Selling out stadium tours across continents and 5 star reviews are basic in his world. Therefore, what’s the problem?
The problem this article is concerned with is that of West’s cultural identity and the media’s role in its creation. Kanye West has for a number of years been known less and less as a music star and more as a Kardashian-lover, a creator of controversy, and a man driven by arrogance and ego, this latter element of his identity fuelled partly by his artistic pursuits in non-sonic realms i.e. fashion and architecture. A hugely problematic justification for West’s image being trivialised is that he “brings it on himself” due to his own behaviour. While this can be true on occasion, it is an unfair and overly simplistic conclusion at which to arrive. By exploring the aforementioned fragments of West’s media persona we can re-evaluate what they reveal about his coherent image, and why his own decisions are not the only factors governing how society reacts to him and his ideas.
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West: Reality Television and “Passive” Audiences
A factor often cited from the position of blaming West for his own image is his relationship with Kim Kardashian and the connotations it has due to her reputation as a reality star. Let us take a moment to question this viewpoint by reflecting on the common cultural understanding of reality television.
If reality TV is looked upon as a low-form of entertainment, it must also be acknowledged as a flourishing financial landscape to be exploited by companies and individuals who desire profit. The Kardashians are, it must be said, taking full advantage of this (however problematic that might be).
There is a habit that many of us possess of looking back at cultural products and advertisements from decades gone by and being in awe at societies that could believe such things when they seem so clearly problematic. One prevalent example is that of the ‘50s American housewife and its sexist glorification of female domesticity. What our disbelief at encountering these advertisements says about us is that we so often read these as examples of mass naivety within the people of that era. A society’s opinion of advertisements in the present day is so often polarised and yet we very rarely realise that this would also have been the case in the mid 20th century – not everyone absorbed these messages, many questioned them. This misstep exposes our own naivety towards the people of the past, their capacity for critical thinking and our belief that ‘progress’ is linear.
Returning to Kardashian and her TV shows such as Keeping Up With The Kardashians: those who are dismissive or even angered by the show and its cast are lightning-quick to shun fans and highlight the low-brow nature of the entertainment. Again, this fails to grant those fans the agency of critique and critical thinking – just because someone enjoys Kim Kardashian’s television shows does not mean they endorse everything on screen. A show like Game Of Thrones has rarely suffered an accusation of being low-brow or unintelligent, yet many believe it to portray racist and misogynist messages rather than actually critiquing those things. We should not all necessarily condemn or avoid these shows; rather, we must critique them as we enjoy them; be an active and not a passive viewership.
Because of these problematic readings of Kardashian as ‘stupid’ or as part of low-culture, Kanye’s association with Kim is often utilised as a weapon with which to dispossess him of intellectual agency – i.e. the position that Kim Kardashian’s boyfriend must be brainless. In his 2013 interview with Zane Lowe for BBC Radio 1, Kanye said that Kim was in a position to ‘love me without asking me for money,’ highlighting the fact that she was the first woman he has been involved with whose financial assets are similar to his own. While being equally wealthy doesn’t attest to Kim’s intelligence, it does indicate that they both possess enough cultural and economic capital individually that the association of West with Kardashian should not detract from his image or the worth of his opinions.
Two of the most controversial moments in West’s career, for various reasons, are his altercations with President George W. Bush and singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. Both are often considered moments of arrogance or ignorance, and West has acknowledged wrongdoings in both cases. However, it is important to note that both incidents occurred on live television and his supposed ignorance is the result of breaking the conventions of this medium. The media continue to mention these incidents when speaking of Kanye West, and they correctly frame them as controversial, but fail to explore exactly why they are controversial.
“Controversy” #1 – George Bush
During a benefit concert for those affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, West decided not to read from a teleprompter and instead spoke his own mind. The controversial line he uttered that was broadcast was ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people,’ Bush being the president in charge of helping those affected at the time. This rather disturbing video documents the incident and the views of West and Bush in hindsight and shows West pressurised again by the structures of television, seemingly forced to apologise for his words. But West is not only being asked to apologise for his sentiment: the apology is also for deviating from the formulaic banality of live news broadcasting. West later addressed the incident in the song ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothin’’ from his album Graduation.
'The drama, people suing me
I’m on TV talkin’ like it’s just you and me
I’m just saying how I feel man
I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I ain’t go to Hillman
I guess the money should’ve changed him
I guess I should’ve forgot where I came from’
The issue here is not just that Kanye has made a statement lacking in evidence, or even that he called the president a racist. As he is ‘talkin’ like it’s just you and me’ he is disregarding the self-discipline of live television to which celebrities supposedly must adhere. His wealth hasn’t changed him (he hasn’t accepted the demands of reading from a script) and he hasn’t ‘forgot where I came from’ like his celebrity peers who play by the rules of fame. It is interesting to note that Kanye has had product endorsement deals, like his peers Jay-Z, Rihanna, and Beyonce, who have recently appeared in adverts for Budweiser, MAC and Pepsi. However, West is in a somewhat unique position for a celebrity of his stature in that he doesn’t censor himself, even if his statements are laced with potential for financial turmoil in the form of angry sponsors should they cause a polarised reaction.
Therefore, by making a statement that would never be intentionally broadcast by a TV network and by remaining the same person or “keeping it real” i.e. simply not avoiding his pre-fame opinions, this incident is deemed controversial. The bigger problem is that “controversy” in popular usage is directly associated with negativity, rather than sparking a productive and logical debate over how and why certain things are classified as such.
“Controversy” 2) – Taylor Swift
At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Music Video, stating Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ should have won the award. Again, like the Bush saga, West has reflected on the incident in hindsight, but in this case he justifies his actions in the context of the music industry’s distorted distribution of awards. In the following video, West critiques the Grammy Awards, the nature of celebrity performativity and the media, and explains that his actions are not done for egotistical reasons but rather as an effort to contest the integrity of awards. If awards are to have any meaning at all, why shouldn’t he and others be angered by the winners being undeserved? In saying that, he completely acknowledges that his decision to interrupt Swift was unfair to her (she isn’t to blame). But he does make a statement by actually critiquing a major award show during the broadcast rather than being an unquestioning participant in the red carpet fantasies. Regarding the Swift moment, he states:
‘I get written off as an asshole or as arrogant. What’s so arrogant about that moment? If anything, it’s selfless. I’m walking around now with half an arm trying to sell albums and walking into rooms afraid my food is gonna get spit in.’
He also makes potent statements regarding the Grammys and the injustice of Justin Timberlake and CeeLo Green losing out to The Dixie Chicks:
‘If you could see the emotion in Justin’s face when he lost to The Dixie Chicks. CeeLo, sitting right next to him, wrote ‘Crazy’! I don’t, I can’t even tell you a song that they won for! And I have nothing against The Dixie Chicks, it was just wrong though.’
These are just a selection of his views, but rather than continuing to quote West, it would be more productive and beneficial for those interested to watch the entirety of the interview, which also has comments about how society sneers at those interested in ‘high’ culture, perhaps another example of the media discouraging critical thinking and intellectual pursuits in favour of materialism and consumption.
If the masses believe that Kanye West does controversial things in order to ‘cause a stir’ or because he is ‘arrogant’ or for any other selfish reason, they are overlooking why his actions have been controversial, and are implicity agreeing that those with economic wealth should not utilise their cultural agency to question the systems they exist within. By consistently reminding us of his controversial reputation in articles and videos about him, media sources are implying that the content should be read with this in mind, thus there is an attempt to redirect readers’ attention towards ridiculing West and away from listening to him.
“Who does he think he is?”
Another criticism of Kanye that often surfaces in the media is of his frustrated pursuit of a design career, particularly that of fashion but also architectural and cinematic. Reports on his efforts in these fields often use his supposed arrogance and controversy as a basis for belittling his artistic drive. “Can he not just be happy with his number one albums and his money?” is a position some take as a result. However, Kanye explained to Zane Lowe how he feels when he hears such comments:
‘I have dedicated the past ten years of my life to this (fashion). I’ve spent 80% of my time working on this and 20% of my time working on music.’
West references the men’s footwear he designed for Nike in the past as a limited edition run (that ended up costing thousands on eBay) and compares not being able to make more affordable replicas available to hypothetically releasing his debut single ‘Jesus Walks’ and being told he could not release an album or any more music. This idea brilliantly highlights the faults with the “doesn’t he have enough to be happy” point of view: it applies to material possessions and abstract achievements like awards and album sales, but it is redundant when it comes to the desire to create something; to create art. If that is not enough to convince some, West also attended art college and was recently invited to speak at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, attesting further to the justification of his frustration with these pursuits.
West’s latest album, Yeezus, contains a track entitled ‘I am a God’. There is an impulse, a societal instinct, for many to ask “who does he think he is, calling himself a god?” Again quoting from the Zane Lowe interview, West has a worthy response to leave us questioning ourselves and what we think we know about him:
‘I just told you who I thought I was, a God! I just told you, that’s who I think I am. Would it have been better if I had a song that said ‘I am a Nigger’? or if I had a song that said ‘I am a Gangster’? or if I had a song that said ‘I am a Pimp’? All those colours and patinas fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a God, especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in, and your last name is a slave owner’s. How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?’
“Who does he think he is?”
Who do you think he is?
The incidents explored in this piece have been shown to be framed in destructive and negative ways by media bodies. It can be seen how the argument that West ‘brings it all on himself’ falls short of being an accurate justification of the mockery that is made of his persona. The mass media decide to emphasise, repeat and circulate information about Kanye that is not related to his musical output, which works towards formulating a persona that does not warrant respect. This article does not aim to encourage people to ignore the problematic elements of West’s music and media appearances, such as his misogynist messages and the fact that at times he endorses that which he critiques: fame and wealth. There is no doubt that his world-view is somewhat flawed, but as a good friend put it: whose isn’t? At the very least, Kanye West is one of the few artists/celebrities/cultural icons that is trying to be self-reflexive and not merely self-affirming.