Over the years, Kanye West has made himself both hard to defend and hard to write off. Musically, he’s challenged himself with new influences in a way that leaves just about every other rapper in the dust. He’s also boasted repeatedly about how brilliant he is. He admirably confronted President George W. Bush on his handing of Hurricane Katrina; he’s also attacked so many other musicians, and often apologized for it later in ways that make you wonder how much he really believes what he says.
But in the whirl of really expensive State Farm ads and Miley Cyrus narcissism that made up last night’s Video Music Awards, West’s speech in acceptance of his Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award -- rambling and confusing at it was, at times – not only ranks as the most memorable part of 2015 VMAs, it seems destined to become a kind of Gen X manifesto. Observers are still making sense of the 12-minute address – the New York Daily News calls it “bizarre,” Rolling Stone deems it “evocative, heartfelt and brutally candid.” We’ll call it the most X thing MYV’s awards show has seen since Fiona Apple collected her 1997 trophy with "This world is bullshit," telling viewers, "You shouldn't model your life on what we think is cool, and what we're wearing and what we're saying and everything.”
Kanye’s speech was all over the place (apparently altered by smoking a joint), and explored contradiction in ways that mostly came across as contradictory. (He doesn’t like being booed at baseball games, and he’s rethought some things now that he has a daughter, but does he regret dissing Taylor Swift or not?) Speaking of contradictions, West’s Gen X speech is also the one in which he identifies himself as a millennial. (Born in 1977, he is firmly in X territory.) And this speech that ended with him declaring his run for the 2020 presidency also included a line where he announces, “I’m not a politician, bro.”
But his very indecision, and his attempt to wrestle with the world of commerce in a very un-Millennial way, makes him a classic Xer. “We’re not gonna control our kids with brands,” he said. It’s hard to know exactly what West means by that, given his standard-issue celebrity history with brands (Nike, Adidas, Luis Vuitton.) But last night, he was critical of the workings of capitalism in a much sharper way than we’re used to seeing at the VMAs. Referencing the pairing of him and his famous antagonist, Ms. Swift, he says:
You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? Because it got them more ratings. You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award — because it got them more ratings.
And when’s the last time we’ve heard a righteous bite-the-hand-that-feeds rant from an artist at an awards show?
I still don't understand award shows. I don't understand how they get five people who work their entire life, won, sell records, sell concert tickets, to come, stand on a carpet and for the first time in their life, be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser. I don't understand it, bro!
All the neurotic intelligence and backing-and-forthing attempt to make sense of things stood out chiefly because Kanye allowed himself to be vulnerable in on a stage that usually rewards and encourages spectacle over substance. Compare his thoughts above to this classic Gen X speech:
"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."
That’s Lloyd Dobler, John Cusack’s teenage hero (anti-hero? with Xers it can be hard to tell) from Cameron Crowe's film “Say Anything.”) These two would likely have a lot to say to each other.
As grandiose as many of his statements about art can be (“sometimes I feel like that I died for artists to be able to have an opinion”) West has always been very Gen X in insisting that artistic quality trump the celebrity popularity contest. He's willing to be disliked — although from his speech, we can gather that he doesn't necessarily enjoy it — in a culture built on "likes."
If West is really running for president, he’ll have to polish his delivery a little bit: The speech was most interesting for the things West almost said. But given the absence of major political contenders born in the ‘60s and ‘70s from the liberal/progressive side of the aisle, it’s encouraging to think that he’s serious. And if 2020 comes down to Kanye West vs. Ted Cruz, I know where I’ll put my money.