Ever the polarizing figure, Kanye West seems to have an insatiable appetite for whipping folks into a frenzy. In the last month, there have been so many pop culture battles fought about or around him, that every time we sat to finish this article, something new had to be added. Let’s hop right in with what started the recent backlash: Kanye’s latest tirade! At the 2015 Grammy awards in February, Kanye interrupted Beck’s speech – the second time he has interrupted someone publicly at an award show under the guise of gaining accolades for the underappreciated – and the Internet blew up over it. Even worse, he seemed to even cow-tail in the middle of the interruption, say never mind, only to gripe later in a post-show interview about what he meant to say, if he only finished. At least the first time he did it he had the stones to follow through, I suppose.
The short version is this: Kanye said that Beck “needs to respect artistry” He went on to say that he is “diminishing art and not respecting the craft” and that Beck winning the award over Beyoncé was, “disrespectful to inspiration.” First, considering Beck was legitimately inspired to write his songs, whereas Beyoncé had “cowriters” (which for artists of that scale usually means they are basically written for them) should be enough to quell the inspiration comment. Let’s consider his artistic lineage.
It is one thing to interrupt Taylor Swift; this makes sense on one level. Though she is one of the biggest stars on the planet, it is easy to place her as the face of white musical oppression: she is young, she is rich, she doesn’t seem to have suffered much for her success like we who dabble in schadenfreude would prefer to see her do. Beck, by contrast, is a different story. While perhaps there was a time when he too seemed an overnight ingénue – or whatever the male version of same is – he was anything but. An independent artist that used to partake in Dadaist inspired improvisational art shows in unexpected places and was part of the New York anti-folk movement, he has a long legacy of being off beat and whacky far more than he does courting mainstream success. Despite such Indy leanings however, he has been successful: a bidding war ensued in ’93 on the basis of his “Loser” single alone.
And when it comes to respecting art, Beck’s cred is well secure: his mother was Bibbe Hansen, a visual artist and former Warhol superstar. Her dad (Beck’s grandpa) was American artist Al Hansen, a member of Fluxus art group and friends/study partners to art superstars in their own right Yoko Ono and John Cage, ultimately starting his own art school in Germany. His work has shown in places as notable as MOMA in New York and the Museum Moderner in Vienna, Austria.
In short, this guy has an “artist legacy” – using Kanye’s basis for measurement here – unrivaled by most, if not all, modern musical acts. Kanye by contrast, seems to think he’s an artist because he once wore a teddy bear suit (Dropout Bear is his literal trademark).
Part of the problem with Kanye’s opinion on artistry is that it seems to all be self-referential. He seems to have no want to consider art that is not him and runs with every idea like a child where the idea is legitimized solely by virtue of the fact that he thought of it (about interrupting Beck, Kanye said, “the voices in my head told me to go, so I went”). He thinks it’s good, or unique, or different, or – God forbid, Art because he looks around a homogenous pop landscape and says, it’s better than that! And he may be right, but the problem is whether it should be compared to that at all, in order to be called art. This is akin to a fast-food burger thinking he’s steak because he’s at a greasy burger truck – with such a low bar, better than that is the literal least he could do (Crap, now I’m craving a burger…).
Case in point, Kanye’s most recent performance on the 40th anniversary special for Saturday Night Live showed him giving, arguably the most different hip hop performance I’ve seen in years. It was a study in minimalism. It was a conversation piece meant to dispel the notions of what a hip hop performance could be, meant to blend art esthetic and force perspective on the music itself – it was an understated response to his own recent tirade perhaps. It also wasn’t any good, and calling it boring as heck might be an insult to boring.
It came off as different for different’s sake where the audience is supposed to be impressed because he started the show laying down and eventually managed to make it up passed one knee to a pseudo-stand beneath a self-imposed ceiling (you here that, Kanye? Self-imposed ceiling!). I wouldn’t suggest that the performance had no arc, but the climax was when he switched mic’s and was joined onstage by two back-up crawlers – er, I mean singers. Not to mention, Kanye-defender’s – of which there are many – go to great lengths to discuss Kanye’s overall artistic scope being exemplified through both his move from rapping to singing and his ability to openly discuss his feelings on the loss of his mother. While the latter of those certainly points to a potential for artistic depth – if obvious territory – and the kind of raw emotion one might hope for, the former sounded like it should have been drowning in reverb with an extra side of auto-tune before making its way out of the shower.
Another interesting Kany-e-vent thing that has happened lately has been the message that the hacker group Anonymous supposedly directed at Kanye and co. It basically calls him a child and calls out many of these things people hate him for. There is some debate as to whether it was truly released by the infamous hacking group or not. There seem to be some signs that it is not: it’s relatively poor video quality, the fact that it goes on a bit long, it seems to be moralizing without any real payback taken. A recent Billboard article suggests that an Anon Twitter handle said essentially that it is not them. Still, either way, the sentiment remains the same. For someone made the video, and many people on both sides of the Anonymous group have taken to supporting them.
And the most recent Kanyevent which is still unfolding at press time, backs up the feeling of animosity by many of the public. At the time of this writing there is a petition made to have Kanye cancelled as a performer at Glastonbury. In a matter of 5 days the petition had received more than 90,000 signatures. Now here is where things get weird I suppose. The thing is, these people, or at least the premise of the petition – say they are mad because Kanye is not a rock act, which is normally booked to headline the festival. I suspect something a little more subversive is going on, and it appears the festival organizers agree. Emily Eavis, festival organizer said in a recent op-ed in The Guardian, “we book our acts by choosing the best and most challenging musicians on the planet – not by applying some kind of arbitrary morality test.”
At best, Kanye is currently running an art game somewhere between Andy Kauffman and Duchamp’s urinal. Kauffman’s most famous character, Tony Clifton, was purposefully polarizing and got the public angry, just to do it. And Duchamp’s urinal was meant as commentary that the artist really doesn’t matter and is of less importance than our society currently gives them – yeah, I’d buy that one. Now if only Kanye knew that.
See Kanye West in Space next month when he broadcasts his face on the moon for a whole year!