I don't like Kanye West. As an artist, at least. I don't know him personally. (Though I'm sure there's at least one person in the world who does.) I think he's a great producer, but a terrible standalone act. Through my examination of why Kanye sucks so much, (thanks to friends who keep insisting he's worth listening to,) I've discovered something quite tragic: Kanye West serves as a wonderful allegory for why America sucks right now, too.
Presently in American culture we are obsessed with loving things that are inherently awful. Most people know this, but few do anything about it. Things like obscene reality television, dime-a-dozen CSI-wannabe shows, the autobiographies of our corrupt politicians, Katy Perry, mindless shows about home improvement and/or food, and the art of becoming super rich. We're boisterous, without merit, shameless and bored. Our cultural expression reflects this, and it damns us. We're dredging the bowels of our culture, seeing just how low we can go before something snaps. Unfortunately, I don't believe anything will "snap". During the Bush years people often thought just how far our reach had to extend before people would start really protesting. That flavor of American individuality is gone from our rhetoric, I suppose, never to return, or at least not until food prices go too high.
Our American government and civil culture is equally distorted. We're protecting the rich while punishing 99.7% of the population. We keep giving money to people who have proven they're only going to continue raping us with it. We keep voting for people who are clearly idiots. Our economy, as it stands right now, is inherently awful. Bored, greedy people running corporations that just want more profit at whatever cost. They know they're awful, we know they're awful, but we keep buying into their lies. I mean, even Ron Paul is looking like a better option every day. Anything radically different must be better than this!
Kanye symbolizes these problems quite eloquently. His lyrics are the worst kind of pedestrian trash. All he sings about is how awesome he is, how rich he is, how much sex he has, and how he's the greatest rapper ever. His voice is painful to listen to, pure and simple. At the same time, he is intentionally self-deprecating, and there is nothing worse than an asshole with public self-confidence issues. Yes, he seems like he gets kind of personal sometimes, but that's only a bland egoist's attempt at public superficial redemption. When you really want to be forgiven, you don't put your name on it. We should shun such overtly toxic people, but instead we feel bad, so we listen to them anyway and convince ourselves that they're really okay deep down inside. (Mostly because we want ourselves to be okay.) But these are people we cannot possibly know, no matter how closely we follow their Twitter feeds. The rise of totalitarian celebrity-centric culture is a self-destructive step for all of us. We can now see clearly how stupid these people are... why do we keep paying attention to them?
Doesn't this sound like how we are treating our two party "democracy"? Each party is more interested in catering to extremes than any kind of rationality or tolerance, yet they attempt to appeal to our sympathies en masse, broadcasted ceaselessly by our news media. They can't even agree with themselves, let alone try to "reach across the aisle" and have any kind of bipartisan concession, and yet we feel like they represent us? Journalists themselves haven't the integrity to keep their perspectives straight. Some people think it would be great if we had a TMZ-type institution for our government: so that we could track and publish and publicly scrutinize every person in civil authority, as if that would force some kind of accountability. It's a shame we have a centrist president at the worst possible time. You can't make compromise when no one is willing to compromise -- you only end up defeating yourself. If Obama loses in 2012, we'll see the clearest evidence of this. We will see the death of reason because of our obsession with the awful. It'd be like Kanye winning the Nobel prize.
We enjoy these things, Kanye West and our American culture, mostly because we are either tricked into it or it's shoved down our throats. Power is only afforded by a will to allow it: our collective will, as citizens of our government and our culture. We're tricked into liking it, and listening to it, because either we think there's nothing else on, or they've bought so much advertising space that we can't avoid it. We can really stop listening at any time, but we don't because everyone else is listening to it. The majority are made to feel powerless by this, as we have all been successfully sedated over the last forty years. I watch the riots in other countries, and how our governments turn about-face whenever they feel like it.
Our culture becomes less and less our own. Right now, we're caught in a chinese finger trap between the paid-for American uberculture and the always-free Internet subculture. Over the past thirty years, our culture and our government have been pulling themselves toward such extremes. On the one hand, we have piracy and sharing that's so easy, a child can do it (and it's funded by our willingness to destroy ourselves); on the other hand, we have the rich throwing as much money and political power as they can against it in the form of sure-fire high-exposure media bets. Why make a new, original show when we can make another awful Law & Order clone that'll hit an already-oversaturated market? (And in some ways, corporations are now throwing too much money at original programming, desperately trying to find some way to gain viewership. This will not work for them anymore.)
Kanye West best represents this public culture-struggle. The biggest reason is because Kanye fancies himself a part of the struggle, as a tool within it, and yet we're made to think that he's somehow above it by the acknowledgement of his own limitations and shortcomings. This is a lot like how the government thinks they're somehow above the problems they create. When Kanye samples Otis Redding, or Aphex Twin, nobody should be surprised or happy about it. He's plumbing for material the same way Hollywood is, raping and pillaging as they go. Why not remake Green Hornet? We are not nearly outraged enough when Sarah Palin holds up the Constitution as if it's somehow relevant to her speeches. Likewise, we are not nearly outraged enough when an artist takes our culture and abuses it. We have allowed our ideas of success to become fully obsolete and replaced by limitless excess. Furthermore, as Dick put it, "deficits don't matter", whether they're cultural or financial. Do whatever it takes to go above and beyond, leaving behind whatever dignity or integrity remained.
Honestly though, what do you see when you watch this video:
I see two grown men who have no idea what they're really doing, but their actions are telling. Purely visually, you're seeing them rip apart a goddamn expensive car, probably because:
- They can and why not?
- It's way cooler to rip it apart and make some car from Death Race than keep it as-is? It's so awesome to rip apart status symbols that most people could never dream of owning.
- Why not put some women in the back, who of course will just enjoy the shit out of these two guys, because they're both fucking rich.
Seriously though, Jay-Z needed some kind of cred back, right? He's just getting too rich, he forgot how to rhyme, how to do much of anything in today's world besides make money. There aren't any beefs left in the rap game, everybody is too busy cutting up their cars! Listen, Jay, we know you like New York City. We know, and we shouldn't care.
On an even more needlessly metaphorical level, these two guys tearing apart this car is reminiscent of the way they're taking apart a goddamn amazing Otis Redding song. They took a blowtorch to a timeless classic, ripped it to bare pieces, made something gaudy and commercial out of it, and then drove it around on a closed course to show off to their friends and the cameras. At the end of the day, the cultural product of this effort is not for you or me, it is solely for them. Right now, you're not listening to a song that was made for a Culture or a Time or a Place, it was made for the gods of Materialism and Self-Aggrandizing Masturbation. There is nothing redeeming here, culturally or artistically, it is entirely a self-absorbed mess that we should feel "privileged" to watch.
"Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive."
This is what we've purchased. Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader? Are you smarter than Kanye West, or Michelle Bachmann? Probably not, but we'll be buying/voting both of them in spades, and it doesn't matter. (Can you spot how many wardrobe changes go on in that video? How much product placement?) And the ending of the video is the very best part: the vehicle will be up for auction, and proceeds will be going to some world problem somewhere. Oh, well that just makes everything beforehand totally justified. If you have to sell the car to give to some auction, you're basically admitting that what you did was totally without merit, and you're so ashamed of it that you'll do anything to make amends. (At least I hope that's how Kanye feels.) We are meant to believe that it's somehow redeeming, but really we're just acknowledging and then promptly ignoring our own shame in watching the needless bleeding of money. Money is worthless now anyway.
I'd want to give Kanye a little bit of leeway, because he does push a few boundaries creatively, like the screaming at the end of this song, but every other action he takes negates it. Does anybody really need him to fuck up more? We're really all still watching because we want to see how low he'll go, right? Why doesn't anybody realize that by watching, we're only encouraging it? Why don't we realize that we're only seeing how low we will go with him? Why are we encouraging it? We think it's pretty awesome that the people "in charge" are finding it more acceptable to collaborate and mash together, but only in the most controlled, commercially-viable ways. Imagine if, twenty years ago, Death Row Records was swallowed up by the same controlling corporation as Bad Boy Records. They both became subsidiaries, and the marketing heads told Tupac and Biggie to do a record together. You know, throw out that whole rivalry and just cash in. In today's world that wouldn't seem so strange, would it? We're watching it happen all the time because artists don't seem to have that kind of inspiration anymore. We are experiencing the creative death of heavily context-driven forms of cultural expression, like hip hop. The draining of substance, the renewed emphasis on style. (If you listen to late 80s and 90s hip hop, you can tell how cheap a lot of the production was, but it doesn't matter because their words are, at many times, so strongly crafted.)
I'm not condoning the gang violence that informed a lot of early 90s rap, I'm just saying it gave a subculture the need and the context for a creative outlet. Jay-Z should know this better than everyone and recognize the creative void that has been created by our culture's wholesale commodification, which has only been sped up by the entrepreneurship of people like him, but instead he teams up with Kanye to further the goals of his own accidental creation. In Watch the Throne, Jay-Z refers to "the Holocaust of millions", but I don't think he realized just what genocide he was referring to. What we're experiencing, all of us, is the infinity of context available to us, which might as well be an obliteration of context to most people.
But really -- why have we let it all go? Where's the struggle, the insight, the source of some kind of expression? Oh, that's right: we're bored here in America, I said that before. We may still have some oil left, this must be just us reaching peak attention. There's nothing else left for us to mine: we can't use nostalgia since every day is nostalgic, we can't use obscure music because that's all been done (and you've never heard it), we can't use actual fine art because it's just so hard to understand and we're cutting funding for it so quickly, and we certainly can't make any original content because nobody will pay for it. The best we seem to be able to do in the face of the Kanyes and the Bachmanns is to make videos of our cats and throw them on YouTube.
Or, worse, write blog posts about it.
Watch the Throne, tl;dr review: boring at best, offensive at worst. Three fucks out of ten.
This article is in response to this, which I think is wholly wrong in its conclusions, and this, which I like, but I view it much more negatively than she does (and I usually agree with Molly Lambert's writing), and this, which is a great review.