Kanye West vs. white mediocrity: The real story behind Beck, Beyonce and "SNL" 40

Kanye takes more heat than anyone. Post-Grammys and "SNL" 40, we're finally seeing his critics for what they are

Published February 17, 2015 3:29PM (EST)

Beyonce, Kanye West, Beck, Jerry Seinfeld           (AP/Robin Harper/Kevin Wolf/Paul A. Hebert/Reuters)
Beyonce, Kanye West, Beck, Jerry Seinfeld (AP/Robin Harper/Kevin Wolf/Paul A. Hebert/Reuters)

There was a lot to criticize about the "Saturday Night Live" 40th anniversary celebration--Jerry Seinfeld’s #SorryNotSorry joshing around about "SNL’s" 40-year history of whiteness, cringeworthy reminders of the show’s tendency to run dubiously funny gags into the ground, and the mystifying continued relevance of Sarah Palin.

So it was strange--though not surprising, for Internet junkies--that Kanye West came in for an avalanche of criticism for doing what was basically a competent, if flawed, music video that was as good or better than any other musical act that night.

But this is par for the course with the ever-rolling tide of Kanye West hot takes. It’s never really about the last thing he did, it’s about the thing he did before--the (sigh) 2015 Grammygate incident--and whether that thing reminds you of something else he did before (the 2009 VMAgate incident), and so on, and so on, ad infinitum.

And yes, it’s hard to hold back commentary about someone who yanks the mic away at an awards show to contest the results, who makes pronouncements like “I will go down as the voice of this generation,” who titles an album punning his name and “Jesus,” who compares making social change to fixing his wife’s pants.

But the tone has changed since 2009, when West grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. Back then, Pink bluntly called West “the biggest piece of shit in the world” and got a lot of virtual high-fives; Garbage’s Shirley Manson tried to repeat this act in Beck's defense and got more of a mixed response. Only a handful of critics tried to halfheartedly defend Kanye in 2009; in 2015 I’ve seen multiple nuanced thinkpieces about how he has a point. These stories have defended him as an important black American voice, and told white people to shut up about it already.

Why the suddenly swelling ranks of volunteers to fight in defense of the West? (Sorry, I had to.)

Social media has changed the game a lot in the past six years. There’s a lot of voices--lumped under names like “Black Twitter”--who have begun to consistently speak out to fill in the missing pieces from stories like the Kanye West Saga, to poke holes in pat narratives like “Kanye West is an egotist” or “Kanye West is a maniac.”

The single biggest piece that’s been brought up, over and over again, in the past few years? Black Excellence vs. White Mediocrity.

It’s far from an original observation that primarily black venues are more demanding of technical excellence than primarily white ones. The Apollo Theatre still has an executioner who will shoo you offstage in the middle of your act if it’s found wanting. There’s no other record label that ever matched the exacting standards and relentless discipline of Berry Gordy’s Motown machine. For all the bragging about technical virtuosity among, say, metal guitarists, metal lacks a tradition of direct public challenge equivalent to MCs in a rap battle. Joe Jackson saw the Osmonds’ show, created a similar show with his own sons only with much more grueling standards of performance and choreography, and the rest is history.

I can attest that the biggest “culture shock” when my Asian-American church did a combined talent show with an African-American church at a retreat was having judges at a talent show--with nothing at stake, among people who all knew each other--nonetheless give cutting, brutally honest critiques of each person’s act.

It’s the same reason Cleveland has many “open mics” but only one “monologue battle” for aspiring actors--and the open mics tend to be mostly white, mostly chill affairs where everyone gets their polite applause at the end of their set. Meanwhile the monologue battle is black-organized, black-attended and has given me the most devastatingly detailed feedback since I was actually enrolled in a conservatory.

I’m not saying that white artists don’t work hard. I am saying that part of white privilege is, even for hard-working, talented artists who deserve success, getting graded on a curve.

The “Kanye Incident of 2015” happens in the wake of Grammys being lavished on a novelty hip-pop track by a white guy from Seattle who, as a popular meme reminds us, has won more Grammys than all of hip-hop’s Golden Age combined. It happens in the wake of the massive media backlash against Iggy Azalea for racking up money, awards and praise for doing a bad imitation of a black girl from Atlanta, i.e. verbal blackface.

It came in the wake of Sam Smith winning Record of the Year as a white Brit soul singer-- after Adele, another white Brit, “revived” the soul genre for mass audiences in 2011—and despite the fact that “Stay With Me” is just him singing different lyrics to a Tom Petty song.

It bears remembering that in 2009, Kanye West’s outburst came on the heels of Michael Jackson’s death, and how the media that had been mocking Jackson as a glorified circus freak on June 24, 2009 hypocritically and abruptly switched to mourning his legacy on June 25, decrying the pressure to constantly outdo himself that literally stole his ability to sleep--a pressure that the media, constantly mocking Jackson for his eccentricity and only forgiving him once he presented another masterpiece album, relentlessly fed.

The comparison between West and Jackson as the eccentric tortured artist is hard to avoid--he’s made it himself. But West seems to be more willing to wade directly into the heat than Jackson before him. He doesn’t withdraw from media attacks, he anticipates them, leans into them, plays into his inescapable “arrogant eccentric” rep. He’s the guy who knows that if he goes on a rant about Hurricane Katrina it’ll be used as evidence for years that he’s unhinged, while Jon Stewart can go on the same rant in far more profane terms and keep the reputation of the Sanest Man in America.

But Kanye goes ahead and rants anyway. He demands other people give up awards to more deserving candidates--and goes ahead and does so himself when he feels he’s the unworthy one. He bats away criticism from the “legitimate” press daily, but when a criticism actually hits home--even if it’s from a deliberately offensive cartoon on Comedy Central--he openly tells everyone about it rather than laughing it off.

If Kanye symbolizes anything it’s not mindless, self-serving “ego”; it’s relentless, unyielding perfectionism, a perfectionism he applies as harshly to himself as to others.

And that’s why award shows get him mad. What gets him mad is what Twitter has dubbed “white mediocrity.”

Disclaimer: I love Macklemore. But Macklemore is, technically speaking, not all that great a rapper, and I think his fans know this. People love “Thrift Shop” because it’s so “quirky” and “unique” and they love “Same Love” because of its “groundbreaking message,” and even though, say, Kanye West’s tracks do not lack for “quirkiness” nor “message” they are seemingly never judged on the same scale.

Disclaimer: I love Taylor Swift. But Taylor Swift is, technically speaking, not all that great a singer. Her voice doesn’t have the power and control of even Katy Perry, much less an Adele or a Beyonce. And she can’t dance. She did an entire video that’s about how she can’t dance, that uses her lack of dance training to sell her as the relatable girl next door compared to those intimidatingly sexy twerkers.

Disclaimer: I love the fuck out of Nirvana, and I agree that Nirvana and grunge acts in general deserve more credit for technical sophistication than haters give them, but let’s be real, Kurt said in his own words he built a brand around being “musically and rhythmically retarded.”

And sure, he was making a self-deprecating, ironic comment. Ever noticed that’s a thing white people can do? Why should Beck get publicly mad over Kanye dissing his skills? His brand was built by a track centered on intentionally “bad” lo-fi monotone white-guy “rapping” with a chorus where he calls himself a “loser.” The “Who Is Beck?” outsider vibe is fundamental to who Beck is--his fans would abandon him if he tried to resist it.

It’s a recurring trope. Beyoncé stuns everyone with a flawless video of her and her backup dancers doing an incredibly demanding routine in a single take (or close to it). Meanwhile Taylor Swift melts everyone’s heart with a fairly standard and predictable story video that soars on the strength of its “emotional core,” of Taylor Swift being naturally lovable.

I remember scoffing at this famous case of a Kanye stage-storming in 2007 at the MTV Europe Music Awards--a story seemingly made to go viral, with his aside about having had a “sippy-sippy” before his rant and his astonishingly shallow claim that his video should’ve won for costing $1 million and having him “jumping over canyons and shit.”

But poke a little deeper--notice that he graciously accepted in the same rant that Justin Timberlake “of course” should’ve beaten him for Best Male. Notice that it “isn’t about the money, but the response it got.”

Kanye’s in the same place a lot of us have been. He’s poured all the effort and expense he can spare into this project. He’s confident that based on the only semblance of an objective measure there is--audience response--he’s won. But six artsy white European guys win instead anyway, based on artistic “intangibles.”

It’s not that different from the feeling you get when you have an impeccable résumé but you get  a callback after the interview saying you weren’t a “culture fit,” and the “culture fit” turns out to be the dude who went to college with the company’s founders. Or when you bust your ass to get perfect SAT scores and a 4.0 GPA and find yourself attending college next to a legacy student with a C average but a very moving application essay.

It’s a different context, but the same lesson my dad taught me years ago--as a minority, you have to accept that you can only get ahead by working incredibly hard at technical, objective achievements that can be scored on quantitative metrics. Getting by on “intangibles,” on “being yourself,” on being vulnerable and revealing your failures--that’s for people who aren’t cultural outsiders.

Which is a shame. Because white people don’t actually have a monopoly on intangibles. Beyoncé put out two videos in 2009, and the other video, “If I Were A Boy,” is the same kind of narrative short film as Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” And it’s better than “You Belong With Me”: better acting, a deeper and more thoughtful concept, more artistically shot, an ending twist that actually matters.

I liked “You Belong With Me” better than “Single Ladies” because I, personally, am more into storytelling-style music videos than displays of dance prowess. I wish “If I Were A Boy” had won the VMA, but maybe it’s for the best that “Single Ladies” got the nomination--Beyoncé’s dance prowess is undeniable but it’s not wise to get into a heartstring-tugging match against a young white girl at an awards show.

Look, the demand for black excellence is an amazing thing. Whole genres of art, music and performance were created under conditions of the worst hardship imaginable.

But it’s also a burden, and the white artists I mentioned--whom I genuinely like and genuinely respect--are able to do what they do because whiteness is a roomier identity, an identity where you can screw up and fall on your face and be a fool without letting your people down.

We should all strive for excellence, no question. But we should also all have the privilege of being afforded leeway to be mediocre once in a while, to fail, to be given the benefit of the doubt.

We aren’t there yet. Black celebrities find the benefit of the doubt to be a precious resource. People are ready and willing to tear down black celebrities at the slightest misstep, whether it be outrageous rudeness or just being slightly hoarse on an SNL live performance. It applies to rappers, singers, football players, and presidents of the United States.

I’m not defending rushing the stage or grabbing a mic from a colleague. I’m not saying Kanye’s dismissive attitude toward those he deems unworthy is justified. Black celebrity after black celebrity, from rappers to basketball players to, again, the president of the United States, have rushed to distance themselves from West’s opinions and denounce his actions.

But you can’t deny a double standard exists, and even if we wish everyone could handle that double standard with the business-like stoicism of Kanye’s best friend Jay-Z, it’s not reasonable to expect that everyone will. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger--and sometimes it stunts you, embitters you, leaves you with lasting scars.

We have to believe black artists deserve better than to be told they must sink or soar. We have to believe white artists deserve better than to coast on privilege. We have to believe that we can make it better.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

By Arthur Chu

MORE FROM Arthur Chu