I’m Very Happy for You, and I’ma Let You “Runaway,” but…

reflections on Kanye West, fame, marketing, and modern racism

This world is full of niche markets, of areas both physical and social that exist alongside each other, with little to no overlap. People go their whole lives in their own trajectory (or trajectories), never knowing, much less reflecting on, that a very different experience is being had by someone even just next door. There are a few things, like school or work, that can cross at least some of those barriers and there is fame. Fame of the rampant type that is lived by a Lady Gaga or a Kanye West can remind outsiders that there is something going on over there.

Some people will not need an introduction to West. For those who have not being paying that kind of attention, West is famous for a number of things: initially as a producer for a hip-hop record label and various big name hip-hop, soul, and pop artists, then for his own multi-award-winning albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808 & Heartbreak). In those circles he is known to be outspoken (some would say tantrum-throwing) about not being given his proper due. But even for people who have never heard any of his music, unless one pays no attention to the media at all, West will be familiar as the charity television commentator during the Katrina hurricane (2005), who ended his commentary (since the cameras cut away from him immediately) by stating baldly, “[then president] George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”* And again in 2009, for interrupting an acceptance speech at a music video award ceremony, when he went onstage to say that someone else should have won (creating the internet meme “i’m very happy for you and i’ma let you finish, but…”).

West’s fame is leavened by wide-spread acceptance that while he can rap and produce, he cannot sing, and this film is an indication that he cannot act. But perhaps those lacks give him more of an every-man feel, which adds to his popularity rather than detracts from it. Especially when we consider the livin’-large schtick that many different people seem to be compelled by. His anecdotes of his Good Life (chillin’ with big names in big places) remind me of nothing so much as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” television show of the 80s and 90s, that seemed to get its popularity from its audience’s lack of imagination of what to do with a lot of money.

West’s newest album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—an album notorious before it even came out (for having its original cover banned for obscenity). “Runaway” is one song on that album (one that has been touted as his response to his actions at the award ceremony, since it speaks to being a douche and an asshole; only some of the many names he was called afterwards). “Runaway” is also a 35 minute film that includes multiple songs from the album. West says that clips from Runaway will be used as music videos for the songs in question, and that he’d love to see the entire film on the big screen in movie theaters. Not surprising for West, who is infamous for linking his own significance with cultural icons of all genres, the filmmakers claim an impressive pedigree for this film—which West describes as being based on his professional life and on his dreams—including inspiration by Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, painters Picasso and Matisse, directors Fellini and Kubrick, and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

The multiplicity of “Runaway” (that is, the fact that it is many music videos in one) fits both its stated purpose, which was to address West’s internal processes—recovering still from his mother’s death and from a traumatic car crash, and the drama of the video award grandstandingand a utilitarian one, since creating a multi-purpose video for almost all of the songs on the album is both unusual (useful for marketing), and probably cheaper than doing something remarkable for all of the songs separately. This combination of internal process and marketing savvy seems like a tagline for West, whose protestations of child-like honesty and up-front sincerity do not negate the attention-grabbing aspect of his actions. That is, he can both say “I took that stand that way because I really felt it in my heart” and reap the rewards of getting his name in front of his audience again. As we all know, marketing doesn’t recognize a difference between negative and positive attention.

The different segments of the video don’t hang together particularly well, despite the main story line (which comes and goes) about a woman-shaped phoenix who crashes into West’s car. He rescues her, teaches her to dance, falls in love with her, takes her to dinner with a bunch of strangers, and loses her to her destiny. This is hugely reminiscent of the plotline of The Fifth Element, or any other film with an innocent beautiful woman/alien who doesn’t or can’t talk much and (therefore?) is completely compelling to the male lead who falls in love with her forthwith. (This has been known to happen occasionally with genders reversed too, as in the 1970s television series Man from Atlantis.*)

The viewer knows that West falls in love with her because that is what has to happen, and plus he says so in the interview later, but his incredibly stone-faced non-acting makes one wonder what exactly is going on, as West looks on while his alien gambols with deer and lambs or drinks from an upside down teacup. The sense of emotional engagement (or lack thereof) is not helped by the fact that West’s lack of expression frequently doesn’t just look non-committal, but sad or, frequently, disapproving.

Luckily, calling something “dreamlike” covers a multitude of issues.

Other components of the video that make multiple and/or significant appearances are people in red hoods (he says the hoods represent social control over imagination); a child with a torch (the torch is supposed to represent individuality and inspiration); a huge puppet-head of Michael Jackson carried by a parade amid fireworks; deer and sheep; a dance sequence by light-skinned ballet dancers dressed in black, performing for an estranged party of dark-skinned diners dressed in white…

When asked about the dining/dance scene, which is the clip for the song “Runaway”, West laughes and says that it has nothing to do with race, that is about color as a design element, and that it was the idea of the art director for the film (a white woman). While racial iconography is present (the hoods reference the KKK, the all black diners are served, and entertained, by white women), it is only enough to allude to something bigger, not enough to be a stand for anything, or to make any kind of coherent statement. The film therefore approaches the topic of race or racism tangentially at most, which is perhaps the most useful way (for a pop star anyway) in a world in which racial conversations are so loaded.

While obviously Michael Jackson is a household name in a way that West has not attained, there are some evocative similarities. Both are/were moneyed, creative, very popular, and multi-talented. Both focused on visuals (although in different ways), and both had/have some thing going on with childhood. West talks about his own “child-like creativity, purity and honesty”*, and wears kid’s jewelry; Jackson’s attraction to, and preoccupation with, children being infamous. (As a perhaps only curious aside, Tracy Jordan, the character from 30 Rock, a popular comedian, is also child-like in his non sequitors and random comments, even perhaps in his benign selfishness.) Is there something about being a popular Black man in the u.s. that is made easier if seen through the lens of childhood? Or is it that the u.s. is more likely to find more acceptable popular Black men who speak through childhood metaphors? (Black male extremely popular cultural figures tend to be either dangerous—Tupac in music, O.J. Simpson in sports, just two examples off the top of my head—or clowny, like will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, Prince in his own way, etc.)

How do West’s protestations of child-like sincerity relate (for white people, anyway) to the civil war-era stereotype of black people as child-like and incompetent, refuting the modern stereotypes of black people as aggressive and dangerous? Is West’s persona negotiating a line between take-no-bullshit (for some audiences) and simplicity (for other audiences), and if so, how much is walking that line what allows him to be so popular?

To some, West’s notorious linking of himself with cultural megastars is merely him being explicit about what is normally a tacit practice of big achievers. To others it is the latest example of a hiphop practice, where stars talk themselves up (vs white people, who are supposed to speak of themselves in a protestant, under-stated, arguably hypocritical way). To still others it is him demonstrating narcissism, or megalomania. And of course there is nothing to keep it from being all of the above.

West is not a sophisticated thinker, but that doesn’t mean that his works, including his own persona, are simple or shallow. He is both a visual and a sonic artist, and his pieces encourage other people to find meanings that he wouldn’t.

*from the lyrics of Power, by West.

Negation + Electro = Negatetro

Un-ideological Insurrection in Romain Gavras’ and Justice’s “Stress.”

A few months ago, amidst all the hype and talk about politico-hipster M.I.A.’s new music video “Born Free” directed by Romain Gavras making news, I stumbled upon some of the French director’s earlier work. While I’ve been a fan (whatever) of the French electro duo, Justice, for some time now, I hadn’t come across their video for their song “Stress” and was pleasantly surprised to see the depth that Romain Gavras brought to the project. His video for M.I.A., aside from being an example of remarkable cinematography, is extremely vapid in that its projected “political” polemics are explicit and operate entirely along the surface. The ginger-haired “othering” lends itself to a certain passive recognition of how such ethno-cultural differentiation is/can be supported by state-sanctioned violence. It requires nothing of the viewer except a passive acceptance that this IS (emphatic and totalizing agreement) how difference is codified and supported. Such inherently simplistic visual conventions and politicized contrivance makes the viewer tune out after the first twenty seconds or so, when shock is merely replaced with redundancy. Everything after the initial recognition that conventional ethno-cultural “othering” has been flipped upside down simply becomes superfluous and eventually beats the viewer over the head with brutal repetition of clichéd images. This pedanticism is strange, because what Gavras gets wrong with M.I.A.’s “Born Free” (2010) he had already mastered brilliantly with Justice’s “Stress” (2008).

Un-ideological Insurrection in Romain Gavras’ and Justice’s “Stress.”

A few months ago, amidst all the hype and talk about politico-hipster M.I.A.’s new music video “Born Free” directed by Romain Gavras making news, I stumbled upon some of the French director’s earlier work. While I’ve been a fan (whatever) of the French electro duo, Justice, for some time now, I hadn’t come across their video for their song “Stress” and was pleasantly surprised to see the depth that Romain Gavras brought to the project. His video for M.I.A., aside from being an example of remarkable cinematography, is extremely vapid in that its projected “political” polemics are explicit and operate entirely along the surface. The ginger-haired “othering” lends itself to a certain passive recognition of how such ethno-cultural differentiation is/can be supported by state-sanctioned violence. It requires nothing of the viewer except a passive acceptance that this IS (emphatic and totalizing agreement) how difference is codified and supported. Such inherently simplistic visual conventions and politicized contrivance makes the viewer tune out after the first twenty seconds or so, when shock is merely replaced with redundancy. Everything after the initial recognition that conventional ethno-cultural “othering” has been flipped upside down simply becomes superfluous and eventually beats the viewer over the head with brutal repetition of clichéd images. This pedanticism is strange, because what Gavras gets wrong with M.I.A.’s “Born Free” (2010) he had already mastered brilliantly with Justice’s “Stress” (2008).



Justice’s song “Stress” is itself frenetic in pace and has a distinctive synthed-out warble, heavily filtered and gated, that undulates throughout the entire track creating the impression of increasing tension through dissonance – the threat of violence being evoked through the possibility and inevitability that this tension cannot sustain itself, and as such whatever connection is being approximated through its existence is, and will, be broken. It’s a fucking banger of a track! What Romain Gavras has been able to do is fully synthesize the tension (“stress” shall we say?!) that the song evokes, and translate it into a visual medium which is at once both beautiful and frightening – political and apolitical. One cannot watch Gavras’ video without contextualizing it against the still recent (the video was made in 2008) civil unrest in France both in 2005 (Clichy-sous-Bois) and 2007 (Villiers-le-Bel). In addition, one cannot help but acknowledge the parallels, both in content and style, to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film “La Haine” (Hatred). Both works deal in explicit ways, with the construction and representation of “new” French identities – specifically Maghreb, North African, and Beur identities.

What I find most impressive about the music video, is the implicit critiques of both representation and ideology (through the apparent lack of qualification in regards to violence) – and subsequently the rest of this essay will focus on these two notions.

The (active) violence within Gavras’ music video exists as unideological bouts of insurrectionary rupture, in the sense that inferring only from the totality of the music video as text, there seems to be a complete lack (thankfully!) of moralizing or ethical impetus of what boring-ass orthodox Marxists would identify as class-consciousness. The youth portrayed as the collective protagonist (antagonist may be more appropriate in this context) engage in subversion which is inherently illicit and criminal (or illegalism for all the IA nerds) within the context of both capitalist mores and, more importantly, “revolutionary” mores as well. The overt sexism seen in the physical harassment of the woman in the train station (0:58) and the senseless beating of the man who comes to her aid (1:10), are indicative of the ways that, already within the first minute of the piece, the localized becoming of social rupture presented here is without “revolutionary” consciousness; which in and of itself lays claim to the ways (i.e. representation) in which insurrection is “appropriate” and justifiable. This is not to condone the totality of the actions depicted in Gavras’ piece, rather this analysis is attempting to point to the ways in which what is depicted is a violence which is at once indicative of the Freudian “return of the repressed” and outside of the attempts to qualify violence according to either capitalist or “revolutionary” signifiers.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes: “Although the struggles between different powers for control of the same socio-economic system are officially presented as irreconcilable antagonism, they actually reflect that system’s fundamental unity, both internationally and within each nation.” Thus categorically condemning the systemic violence of capitalism is the expected inverse of its very existence. Conversely, the violence argued for by proponents of alternatives to capitalist relations, possesses within its very articulation its own negation – and thus, paradoxically, reflects the “fundamental unity” of the totalizing system of capitalism. This is all a long winded way of arguing that the violence depicted in Gavras’ piece, is indicative of unideological insurrectionary social rupture – one which exists in an approximation of purity (Bloomness…kids…bloomness), simultaneously a product of capitalist relations while at once existing outside of the capitalist/anti-capitalist dual schema. It is a violence without predication upon ideology. It is a violence which is merely a manifestation of the adolescent group’s own collectivized desire; how nefarious and fucked up said desire is, is irrelevant to this argument. Again a boring-ass orthodox Marxist would argue that such violence is merely reactionary; sins committed against some glorious revolutionary movement by the ignorant lumpenproletariat. Such a reductive reading would most likely find its basis in the fact that much of the violence depicted is not directed (superficially at least) at legitimate targets. For example the youth attack several people who do not appear to be ethnically of European descent, and whom ostensibly are at the train station which the youth board as well (signifying shared socio-cultural parallels) upon leaving their squalid housing projects in the outskirts of Paris towards the interior of the city (a movement itself fraught with meaning in that the return of the repressed ontologically moves into the space which it finds itself most alienated from, at once destroying and supplanting spatial ordering).

At approximately 1:46 Gavras layers the act of representation as ontology by having the youth pause for a brief respite from their rampage to gaze upon a gray Paris from steps of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Their gaze from the cathedral overlooking Paris from its position of Foucauldian panopticon-ness, is indicative of the reappropriation of “space-being” as the return of the repressed charts a course which starts from the outskirts of the city, through the arteries of “le Metro,” quite literally to the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur) of Paris. Representation at the heart of the city exists as a commodified relationship to space for everyone except the youth, as the viewer can infer from Gavras’ images that the Sacré-Cœur Basilica exists primarily to be consumed by tourists. This fact plays on the othering of the youth in that they occupy a position in the duality of otherness, which is anathema to the tourists around them. The tourists are explicit representations of an “other” which is tolerated and even welcomed to the heart of the city – in so much as they 1. consume 2. do not try to stay (literally inhabit France, and by extension have the audacity to redefine what being French actually constitutes) 3. do not subvert the social order of the space (political and ontological) they are guests in. The inverse to this duality of “the other” is the youth. 1. They do not passively consume, they antagonize. 2. They are indeed the nouveau francais. 3. They supersede social order in its absolute irrelevance. At approximately 1:53 the youth literally destroy both the means to consume the experience at the metaphorical heart of Paris (by smashing a tourist’s camera) and the means to construct the inauthenticity of such spectacle (the hippies with the bongo and guitar – on a side note, smashing guitars is trite, but bongos? That’s some raw shit!). Thus, violence turns onto the act of representation and the commodification of experience itself.

More wanton destruction and assaults occur, and the youth then arrive at the bar (3:01). With Justice’s music playing over their voices, and this Anglophone’s admittedly limited command of the French language it is difficult to hear what one of the youth says before masking up, extending the billy-club, and entering the café. It sounds like something along the lines of “film vérité” (or truthful film, real film, etc). If my ears do indeed deceive me, this line of argumentation is not diminished as the point I want to emphasize here is that the youth looks directly into the camera as if to make positively sure that the destruction that ensues will in fact by seen. Thus it is a violence which not only cedes to, but explicitly demands an audience, and in so doing establishes the parameters of its own consumption. It also may be worth reiterating that the space that the return of the repressed manifests itself in this scene is a bar, and one cannot help but contextualize this destruction and spatial appropriation within the perspective of Islamic Sharia prohibitions on alcohol and the youth being of (most likely) North African, Maghreb, or Beur descent – all while wearing the emblazoned jackets of the holy cross. While indeed the “Cross” is Justice’s symbolic go-to and the name of their first album (in a weird Prince-like symbol-only name), and as such on the surface it is an explicit nod to the creators of the music – the irony of a group of North African Mahgrebi youth marauding through Paris wearing the symbol of Christendom is not lost.

The confrontation with the police which begins at 3:17 can be read as the progressive relationship of conflict and insurrection in that all of the youth’s encounters before this are situated within the realm of the social, and only upon unchecked escalation and an inability to stem said action does the inherent tension between social rupture and social order directly move into the realm of the political. Thus, metaphorically, the police become manifestations of the last attempt to authoritatively establish psychosocial normalcy upon the return of the repressed – from this point, only two theoretical options exist as logical outcomes: either the repressed recedes back into its role as the unconscious cause of implicit social paranoia, or social rupture occurs and the schizophrenic nature of capitalism rises to the surface. The youth are able to evade the police, and in so doing, social rupture occurs at the localized level of the youth’s own collective ontology – and thus, appropriating words from Italian anarchist Alfredo M. Bonanno’s essay “From the Centre to the Periphery,” the youth in Gavras’ piece come closer to an existential-becoming, within “a reality where rebellion no longer necessarily starts off from situations of necessity.” Thus at 4:26 when the youth emerge from the depths of the city center, into the bright light on the surface streets it is an existence-becoming, a moment of social rupture in which the repressed has finally returned, no longer dwelling in the schizophrenic bowels of the collective unconscious, unspectaclized and laid bare before society to come face to face with their “other” in a synthesis of the totality of the dialectics of capitalist relations. The appropriation of the car at 4:40 is also indicative of this new existence-becoming, in that to move from the “periphery” to the “centre” both in the social and geospatial contexts, the youth have up until this point depended on modes of “public” transportation – predetermined means (both literally and metaphorically) to move or be within the heart of the city. Now commandeering their own vehicle, they are essentially appropriating their own subjectivity and authorship of self. While admittedly this is a stretch, to literally become the driver can translate here as the youth now possessing the authority to self-define.

Why I’ve chosen to qualify this music video as indicative of insurrectionary violence, and not violence within a larger schema or context of a more explicitly “revolutionary” nature has precisely to do with how Gavras constructs the conclusion to his piece – and in so doing does not allow for the existence-becoming to be appropriated by a meaningless “revolutionary” program. The destruction of the stolen car at 5:17, within this argument’s larger metaphorical frame of reference, becomes the destruction of the main conduit to authorship and self-definition. To simply end the piece with the triumphant appropriation of the vehicle points toward recuperation of systemic structuring within a capitalist framework, in that capitalism allows for such minor appropriations and transgressions within its totalizing stability. The act of reclaiming one’s authorship from the grips of capital, is merely ameliorative and still within the constructs of capitalist relations. No this is not merely enough. To exist outside of this totality, the author must destroy their very role – it is only through the regaining of the power to self-define, and once repossessing it, subsequently destroying it that a purity of negation can exist. Destroying and burning the car at the end of Gavras’ piece is this dissolution of the authorial role, yet Gavras’ is not content to stop at the destruction of the author but expands his scope to include the destruction of the audience as well in that the final attack on the “camera-person” is ostensibly the complete destruction of representation. The viewer no longer has a means, or entrance, into the spectacle and is subsequently confronted with a black screen of nothingness. Thus whatever is happening (because becoming is always happening), while the camera no longer records, exists in a space where representation no longer occurs as a totalizing ontology and as such the simultaneous destruction/construction of the self in its pure veracity is born where we cannot see it.

View the music video for “Stress” here: http://vimeo.com/9518258