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 grandstanding—and 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.