Kanye West’s epic rant upon receiving the Video Vanguard Award isn’t new, in terms of celebrities making waves by denouncing awards shows in an acceptance speech for an award. Fiona Apple did it in 1997. But West’s speech was much longer than Apple’s and comes from someone with a lot more baggage within this industry, a much deeper history of being as accomplished in the realm of industry drama as he is making music and making music videos.
In terms of technical speechwriting skill, it wasn’t a very good speech, or much of a speech at all, just disjointed sentences that seemed to have little to do with each other. Kanye freely admitted that he’d “rolled up a little something” to “knock the edge off” before heading onstage.
And that’s for the best. Because Kanye’s unfiltered, unmanaged thoughts are far more interesting than any well-rehearsed speech would’ve been. Kanye has always been fascinating precisely because he is that prized rarity, someone who’s attained a national platform without learning to filter his thoughts, the guy who will willingly blurt out his opinion on President Bush, other people’s awards or his own into a live mic.
It’s no surprise that Taylor Swift, who, by contrast, manages her P.R. as meticulously as she does her video production and her social media accounts, distanced herself as soon as Kanye went off script. It’s no surprise that MTV played up Taylor Swift handing Kanye his Video Vanguard Award as a heartwarming moment of reconciliation, as they did with Swift and Nicki Minaj earlier in the show, only to have that staged moment explode into a 13-minute-long mess.
Because, to belabor an overused phrase, Kanye is nothing if not real. And there’d be nothing real about an apology where Kanye just said he used to be an arrogant asshole but now he’s found Jesus and seen the light and will be nice to all his fellow artists from now on.
It’s more complicated than that. I and others have repeatedly argued that it’s more complicated than that, that condemning Kanye for grabbing the mic away from Taylor as inappropriate and rude (which it of course was) is only the beginning of the conversation and skips over everything that that night in 2009 was really about.
Kanye West responded with exactly the kind of non-apology I’ve often given, in the kind of situation where I think a non-apology is appropriate--the kind when you really do regret your actions and regret hurting someone else’s feelings, but you’ve already been so disproportionately punished for your misdeeds that the apology isn’t about you and your victim anymore. It would be one thing to apologize to Taylor Swift for disrespecting her, and Kanye has done that multiple times--but it’d be another entirely to give the unconditional apology that would tell the media vultures everything they’ve done and said to him is justified.
But that’s less important than West’s bigger truth bombs about the political motivation behind his grabbing the mic in 2009 and the political motivation behind attacking him for it. That the whole thing is a political exercise, a political war, and that “I don’t understand award shows” because “I’m not a politician.”
“The contradiction is, I do fight for artists. But in that fight I somehow was disrespectful to artists. I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing.” He visibly struggles for words in this moment, overcome with emotion. For all that West has been dismissed for being narcissistic and tone-deaf, I’ve always found the most appealing thing about him to be his raw, unfiltered emotion. He says the things that we all know are obviously true, that would be true of us if we became famous, but that celebrities have to pretend aren’t true of them.
That to become a pop star you have to care about music, a lot, and work really hard at it. That you have to be the kind of person who therefore has strong opinions about music and a strong emotional investment in it. That you have to be the kind of person who really does care a lot about winning and losing, about success and failure, and that being snubbed for an award hurts. That the boilerplate celebrities feed to reporters about how they respect everyone as colleagues and it’s an honor just to be nominated and awards don’t really matter is bullshit.
Kanye talks about being unable to hold his tongue about how Cee-Lo Green and Justin Timberlake were robbed at the 2007 Grammys, because--revealing something that most artists would prefer to keep as down-low as possible--he saw the raw disappointment, the tears in Timberlake’s eyes. (Something that Timberlake immediately downplayed on Twitter when he heard it referenced.)
Kanye talks about celebrity drama and industry politics in a way that’s far more authentic and convincing than people like Fiona Apple, who merely denounce it as bullshit and ask us to rise above it. He talks about it as someone who knows that it’s bullshit but nonetheless, just like all of us who sit here writing think pieces about it, can’t let it go.
He tosses aside the detached, above-it-all ironic hipster mien of celebrities who pretend they don’t give a shit about the money and the fame and the adulation. He does what’s far more difficult--he openly and honestly admits that he hungers for money and fame and adulation, just like we all do. He points out that anyone who works as hard as everyone in the room at the VMAs did to get rich and famous and adored must really, really want it and that pretending that attention-seeking is somehow a vice in an industry based on attention-seeking is paper-thin hypocrisy.
Kanye West knows that the VMAs are bullshit. We all know it. The very concept of a music video--where we give musicians the chance to gain notoriety for stuff like their fashion sense, their physical hotness and their “brand,” all of which have absolutely nothing to do with music (as Susan Boyle reminded us), is bullshit.
Even if you don’t think music videos are bullshit, a music video awards show is still bullshit--an awards show that deliberately makes it unclear whether we’re giving awards based on the quality of the music video as a short film, based on the quality of the song itself as a piece of music, or based on the power of the singer’s cult of personality, all of which are quite separate things. (As West again observed in his frustrated rant about not knowing what the hell people wanted from him at the 2007 EMAs.)
And even if music video awards shows themselves are not necessarily bullshit, the MTV VMAs are definitely bullshit--hosted by a network that’s been about reality TV drama rather than music videos for well over a decade, where everyone who tunes in is looking for reality TV drama rather than awards. (Does anyone even remember or care who wins VMAs? Is it ever advertised the way Grammys or Oscars are?)
Kanye knows this. He knows that we know this. He knows that we know that he knows this, and yet we’re still unsurprised that he shows up year after year to partake in the annual train wreck, just as we the audience do.
Because let’s be real. Music fans aren’t really into music for its own sake. We all say we try to be, we all say we’re above the drama and the gossip and the politics, but the drama and the gossip and the politics is what keeps us coming back.
The politics is unavoidable in music. It’s unavoidable in any human endeavor, but especially in any artistic or creative endeavor. There’s “drama” everywhere from the highest echelons of Hollywood to the Cleveland indie theater scene. The moment you put out something in public and ask people their opinion about it, things will start getting “political.”
People who care a lot about music for its own sake, like people who hire violinists for orchestras, do “blind auditions,” where you listen to the music from behind a screen so all you’re judging is the quality of the music itself, not what the performer looks like or how she’s dressed or who she is.
Pop music is the exact opposite of that. There is no success in pop music based purely on musical talent without “branding” involved. It is absolutely critical who the artist is, how they look, how they dress and how they act. We openly talk about how we develop crushes and hate-crushes on celebrity strangers. The singer’s “image,” whether the audience can imagine sharing a beer with them, going out clubbing with them, dating them--that’s what drives concert tickets and record sales.
Kanye West knows this, too. He has consciously fed the cult of personality around himself at the same time that he’s developed his talent as a musician and a producer--just like Lady Gaga, he sees all of it as one giant art project, one lifelong quest to get the prize of being a millionaire icon.
And like Lady Gaga--or like John Lennon in 1966--he gets pissed off at us for getting pissed off at him for doing exactly what we ask of him. We act like he’s inherently more virtuous than someone like Taylor Swift, that Taylor Swift just happened to luck into fame and fortune like the innocent ingenue she looks like in her videos, when Swift has been working just as hard to craft a manufactured public image as West has. Kanye knows that anyone who would even start to try to be a pop star, or a movie star, or any kind of star has to start off with a tremendous ego and a tremendous hunger for success, and he’s frustrated at a world that tries to pretend otherwise.
“I just wanted people to like me more,” Kanye says, in his most emotionally naked moment of the evening, channeling Sally Field. He admits that awards shows are bullshit--that even if you believe that album sales are no objective measure of musical talent or quality, the arbitrary decision of some self-appointed awards jury is even less so.
But that doesn’t matter. Whether or not you want them to, awards shows exist--indeed, they proliferate, with new awards for new categories of achievement being invented every year. And they mean something because we act like they mean something--winners get a boost in self-esteem and sales, and everyone else gets “the opportunity to feel like a loser.”
Because awards shows are just another kind of election, another way to do politics, and art is politics. As much as we seek to avoid it and ameliorate it, the reason to do a show in the first place is ultimately because you want people to see it and like it and, by extension, like you. The reason to go to shows is to have the power to cheer the stuff you like and boo the stuff you hate. The reason we develop fandoms around performers and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on their merch and write them gushing letters is the same reason we do it for political leaders--because we develop an emotional attachment to them and what we feel they represent. Because we want to be on Team Katy or Team Taylor, Team Nicki or Team Miley.
I’m coming into this fresh off of attending an awards show for my tiny, geeky corner of the arts world, the Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy literature. The Hugo Awards are so “political” that people will subvert the awards process with underhanded tactics in order to get themselves on the ballot just to make a point, and then become furious when the award is therefore denied to them.
Because just like with music, the art and the politics are inseparable. If science fiction is literature about the future, then the literature you like, the literature that speaks to you, the literature that makes you feel excited to read it depends on the kind of future the author believes in. It doesn’t matter how well a hypothetical “objective” robot reader would rate the technical skill of the writing, if the author’s values add up to a vision of the future that leaves you out, the writing’s going to leave you cold.
The awards, more than things like sales figures, are a political act. They’re about standing up and saying that this is what we, as a community, collectively support or reject--they’re not just about saying what science fiction is (that’s what sales figures do) but they’re a way for us to say what science fiction should be.
Same with music--even more so, since music fans, unlike science fiction fans, have no history of aspiring to be “objective” calculating hyperrational robots. When music fans--or, worse, some unelected jury of MTV employees trying to pander to music fans--decide they like Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” more than Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” they’re saying something about who they identify with, who speaks to them. They’re saying there’s something about a sweet, sad young white girl-next-door that speaks to them more than a confident black woman unapologetically dismissing her ex.
Beyoncé’s fan base rides for her not solely because of the “objective” technical excellence of the music but because she means something to them--and as much as they might deny it, the same is true of Beck’s fans and Taylor Swift’s fans. Any judgment of who gets which award is going to be based on that emotional reaction to the work, no matter how “objective” you try to be--art is by its very nature subjective. Kanye’s emotional reaction of “Bullshit!” to Beck or Taylor Swift beating Beyoncé might be arbitrary and personal, but it’s no more so than the decision to give the award to Beck or Taylor Swift in the first place. When Kanye grabs the mic during an awards show all he’s doing is asserting what we all know is true--his opinion isn’t any better or any worse than those of the shadowy suits who sit behind the scenes and give out these awards (probably with generating TV ratings in mind when they do so).
Art can’t help but be political, because both the act of making art and of consuming it are personal--and the personal is political. You don’t have to accuse anyone of being an intentional racist or claim anyone lacks musical talent to point out that along with musical talent, race and class and the “kind of person” people think you are plays a huge role in popularity--as Nicki Minaj tried to point out, only for Taylor Swift to react with the usual white fragility when these things get dragged into the open.
In his speech Kanye played to his audience, talking up “the millennials,” saying that we’re the generation who won’t be “brainwashed by brands” but instead will make a new culture that’s all about “ideas.”
I’m not so optimistic, although I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic either. I’d say that our generation isn’t that different from the ones before us--that we’re going to be equally driven by “brands” and “ideas” going forward, because it’s really the same thing. That “brands” is just the word we use for “ideas” that we think are being used crassly or cynically or shallowly, but that either way, whether you call it “brands” or “ideas,” music will continue to be about more than who has the best technical chops or the prettiest voice--that it will continue to be about what kind of values and culture performers define themselves as standing for, what kind of people we identify with, what tribe we belong to and what kind of world we want to make.
And that it’s “non-politicians” like Kanye who are open and honest about playing the game this way that will continue to draw our attention. That we’re seeing a wave of people--often women, often people of color--who deride the lie of aesthetic objectivity or professional collegiality in the arts, and those are the people who will be the compelling ones in the future--that Nicki Minaj openly airing her beef with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs is far more convincing than Cyrus’ weak excuses that everything she does onstage and says in interviews is all an act and doesn’t mean anything.
We live in an era, after all, where the most compelling politician on the national stage is a man with no filter, a man who owes his meteoric rise to a fan base that cares little about objective competence or professional collegiality, a fan base of men who identify with him and want to bring back the kind of world he represents to them.
Kanye said he’s “not a politician,” but what he actually proved with his speech is that he’s exactly the kind of politician we need in the Age of Trump. Miley Cyrus may have meant her endorsement of West 2020 ironically, but I’m not so sure. In any case, even if West isn’t the kind of artist we need in politics, he’s absolutely the kind of politician we need in art.