Here is my working theory of Kanye West: Many years ago, he won the love of some ancient god that no one believes in anymore. When he rejected the affections of this god, he was cursed. Though he would continue to find fame and fortune, he would also be unable to resist a very specific situation. Whenever people gathered together and there was some elephant in the room composed of bullshit that everyone was dutifully ignoring, West would be compelled to open his mouth and say something, and in a style that implies he was the only one who didn’t realize that it wasn’t socially acceptable to speak truth right at this moment. And despite his truth-saying abilities, he would be shunned. Whatever he said would be blown way out of proportion, as if t was the most hurtful thing ever. He would be forced to retreat to Twitter and wonder aloud why he’s cursed in just this way.
In other words, it’s like Cassandra’s curse, except instead of being gifted/cursed with prophecy, he would be gifted/cursed with cutting through the crap.
I have a serious soft spot for Kanye West, not just because he’s a great artist, though that doesn’t hurt. I have a serious soft spot for people who, because they have little regard for social niceties or who have a compulsion to cut through the crap, end up being misunderstood. (Obviously, none of this excuses Kanye’s tendency to say misogynist things on his records, but is really more about the sort of social narratives that reframe times when he’s speaking sense as “crazy” or “stupid”.) It drives me batty, in fact, how people are so obsessed with tone policing that their outrage that West broke some unspoken social rules about projecting false modesty gets mistaken for believing what he said was wrong or crazy or whatever. It very rarely is! The attacks on Kanye West distill our culture’s worst tendencies to put form over content. The tendency ends up reinforcing sexism and racism, as well, because the expectations are higher on women and people of color to do things like perform false modesty, and employ euphemism and rhetorical restraint, and therefore they have to spend a lot more time just defending their right to speak up at all, and what they have to say often gets buried. West is a clear-cut example of this.
Obviously, I’m bringing this up because of the bury-the-hatchet interview that West did with Jimmy Kimmel after their big feud.
All in all, I think Jimmy Kimmel did okay. He seems to have really thought long and hard about why, even though West was intemperate in his responses to the skit where they tried to make West look ridiculous, West had a point. That said, I still found myself mildly annoyed at a couple of points. The whole “we do it to Lady Gaga, too” thing doesn’t fly with me. The original problem was that Kimmel’s team was trying to make West look ridiculous by taking his quotes out of context and putting them in the mouths of children. Whether you do it to a black man or to a woman, it still feels kind of wrong to me—I’m all for humor, but the “joke” in both cases seems to be about reinforcing an overall view that these people are ridiculous because they don’t adhere to the very strict and often deeply unfair standards for social conformity placed upon them, and here’s a white guy ready to spank them for it. To his credit, Kimmel seems to see why that’s a problem, even if he’s still defensive about it. He particularly gets that they were being kind of lazy by making fun of the unfair perceptions that West is an idiot instead of making fun of things that are true about Kanye West, who may be manic at times (shocking that an obsessive genius would be manic!), but is most definitely not an idiot.
Still, I didn’t appreciate that Kimmel still tried to police him, trying to make West feel bad because he doesn’t strike a pose of false modesty. However, I think West defended himself just fine on that point and basically got Kimmel to concede the point. I hope that that audience was actually compelled to ask deeper questions, particularly about why it’s considered so wrong to recognize your own gifts publicly, and if there’s certain kind of people—people of color, women, gays—that are spanked harder for being proud in public than others.
I was talking to Jesse Taylor about this, and he said it also makes him uneasy the way so many people sit around waiting for West to “fuck up”, and are so eager to believe that he’s a fuck-up that they take situations where he didn’t fuck up and claim that he did. And sure enough, even though West was calm and definitely had the upper hand throughout this interview, Gawker accused him of “ranting” and made a big deal over the fact that he had a tiny amount of grit on his lip. I get that Rich finds Kanye to be an entertainingly overwrought person, which he really is, but again, it ends up feeding this overall narrative that there’s something terribly wrong about West and his popularity. (Sure enough, the comments were full of people crawling over each other to call West overrated and insinuate he’s stupid, neither of which is true.)
Obviously, Kanye West is a wealthy celebrity who will be remembered for his contributions to music long after his bad temper is forgotten, so it seems weird to defend him at length. But this isn’t, at the end of the day, really about him. It’s a plea for people to be more original than trying to fit a non-idiot into the idiot box, because you know the rubes will buy it. (I think Kimmel will think long and hard before doing that for an easy gag in the future, so there’s that.) I think it’s also because I see this kind of stuff and I do think it subtly reinforces certain toxic narratives in our culture regarding who is allowed to be proud of themselves and who isn’t, who gets called “crazy” and who gets to decide if you’re “crazy”, etc. In the interview, West said, “People don’t stand up and protect their dreams, people are too scared of getting spoofed in a way,” and I definitely know what he’s getting at. People, particularly if they’re not white men, who stand up and demand to be noticed get a ton of pushback. Other talented people see that and may squelch their dreams rather than put up with that shit. That is a problem. I am glad to see Kanye West call bullshit on it.