1. The Artist
Let’s start with a song review. “Ye vs. the People.” What’s good about it?
If you’re into Kanye West‘s production skills, his ear for hooks, his sonic juxtapositions and layers, the answer is, “Not much.” The isolated sample from the Four Tops’ “7-Rooms of Gloom” at the beginning of the song turns out to back the entire thing; aside from a few pauses, it’s like a record skipping. Slowed down, the sample’s still heavy on the one, and over this awkward and never really distinct beat, West and his collaborator T.I. sacrifice flow for the content, which I’ll get to in a minute. No matter how barbed the lines, they never lift off rhythmically. So the song is a rambling drone, which might describe how some of you feel about West right now, but it might also express how West feels about the public controversy-discourse he’s kicked up.
If you’re into that public dialogue, though, if you’re into West’s latest and most severe transgressions—and there’s good to reason to be—then this is a song for you. “Ye vs. the People” reproduces what West has been saying and what the public has been saying back. It’s like an Entertainment Weekly recap of the latest episode of a prestige drama many of us wish had never aired in the first place.
As the song’s subtitle tells us, T.I. voices the objections of the People (and presumably himself) in the wake of West’s recent support for Donald Trump—the red MAGA hat, signed no less, tweeted for everyone to see, like a slap in the face. Give West some credit for allowing T.I. to at least equal him, if not one-up him, on his own song. For every point made by Kanye, T.I. has a damn good comeback. West: “Bruh, I never ever stopped fightin’ for the people / Actually, wearin’ the hat’ll show people that we equal”. T.I.: “You gotta see the vantage point of the people / What makes you feel equal makes them feel evil”. Near the end of the song, T.I. even warns West that he’ll have to “deal with God for the lack of respect”.
Who are the people? T.I. covers a lot of angles, but the premise of the song is that “we” are the progressive and diverse coalition of West’s fans who think Donald Trump and Co. are authoritarian capitalist scumbags whose motto “Make America Great Again” is code for white supremacy. The more I think about it, though, the song destabilizes, or at least questions, the very notion of “the people”. Every listener must place themselves in this “we”. What is it that binds us together? Who will help us answer that question?
Kanye will. West knows himself, knows his message: Left and Right, Blue and Red, Black and White should get along. He’s stepped forward “on some unified shit” to make peace, to broker a “gang truce” and be “the first Blood to shake the Crip’s hand”. To be, in other words, a community organizer. Except while “Obama was heaven-sent”, it wasn’t Obama who showed West that he could become leader of the free world, it was Trump, because if a wealthy entrepreneur who doesn’t read and has never held political office can become president, why not Kanye West?
It’s hard to stomach this, but along the way, West says something very revealing. T.I. accuses him of representing politicians who “seem crude and cold-hearted” and turning his back on “the people who put you in position”. “Don’t you feel an obligation to them?” asks T.I., and West responds:
I feel a obligation to show people new ideas
And if you wanna hear ’em, there go two right here:
“Make America Great Again” had a negative perception
I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction
Added empathy, care and love and affection
And y’all simply questionin’ my methods
It’s a reminder that West is, first and foremost, an artist. Given the avalanche of his public outbursts and the fact that he’s recently been talking about pretty much everything but art, I understand this might be a hard idea to accept. But it’s true. His artistry isn’t just about his musical talents or his albums (or his clothing line). Like plenty of artists, West has always been driven by a devotion to the powers of art, and that includes a devotion to and a vision built around the earth-shaking, culture-transforming power of the new.
Here’s where I tell you that I’ve recently published a book, Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music (Bloomsbury, 2017) and that this book has a chapter about Kanye West, specifically about his 2013 album Yeezus, and that in this chapter I argue West has operated as art’s “profane avatar” within the spectacle of pop entertainment of the American Wow, wagering that he can create “a new art that will corrupt pop”, something that can only happen from within the spectacle, by balancing the hype and the image with an almost avant-garde belief in art’s absolute power to change the world and make it new—and here’s where I admit that now I wonder if I overestimated West’s allegiance to art, and underestimated his devotion to newness.
The first line of those lyrics above, the obligation to “show people new ideas”, might as well be an artist’s vague motto, but the rest is marketing and rebranding. West all but says he’s helping Trump polish his messaging, which is really repackaging a racist ideal to read like a Hallmark card, as if wearing a hat and saying we should all love one another is sufficient to the problems at hand.
That isn’t art, it’s PR.
The tragic flaw in West’s recent heel turn is that the allure of newness presented by Trump is, of course, nothing new at all. On the outside it’s just a glamorous shell of wealth and pomposity and cruelty and nostalgia. Substantively, in terms of policy and impact, the Trump administration means a few people will have more and most people will have less. But the Right has succeeded enough in selling this as newness, as an uprising… precisely the white co-optation of the rhetoric of the new at the expense of actual change for black Americans that Gil Scott-Heron warns about in the passage from his spoken-word piece “Comment #1” that West inserted into “Who Will Survive in America?”, the closing track of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:
Us living as we do, upside-down
And the new word to have is “revolution”
West isn’t providing an alternative; he’s reproducing the status quo, traditionalism disguised as futurism, “white” disguised as “America”. None of this is new in substance. It’s only new because West is repping it. Or at least, that’s what makes new in his mind.
2. The Iconoclast
In his pursuit of the new, West’s primary strategy has always been iconoclasm. Its potency has varied. His interruption of Taylor Swift at the VMAs and his infamous declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” after Hurricane Katrina, on-point though they might have been, were fleeting events, eruptions easily digested by the public hi-def media spectacle of the American Wow. On record, West seemed to take iconoclasm for granted. The College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005) and Graduation (2007) revel in West’s celebratory fusion of rap, soul, and pop, but their iconoclasm never extends past the rapper’s persona, described by music critic Greg Tate in a moment-defining 2007 essay about West and 50 Cent titled “In Praise of Assholes” as “loud, bratty, obnoxious, but seemingly harmless.” There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you want to change the world.
To say an iconoclast wants to change the world is an understatement. The newness of iconoclasm is absolute. The desecration or removal of images and the belief systems they represent is not a negotiation or a mere transgression, but rather the total destruction of the old gods in order to clear space for new gods. In his essay “Iconoclasm as Artistic Device: Iconoclastic Strategies in Film” from his book, Art Power, (MIT Press, 2008) the art historian and philosopher Boris Groys argues that we tend to think of iconoclasm as socially and artistically progressive. “Iconoclasm… function[s] as a mechanism of historical innovation,” writes Groys, “as a means of revaluing values through a process of constantly destroying old values and introducing new ones in their place.” The introduction of new values constitutes the introduction of a new reality, a new source of meaning and lived relations, and for the iconoclast, this is total.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 was the first time West really understood his iconoclasm in a substantial way—as an artist, as a public figure, and especially as a black iconoclast. You can hear this in the difference between the album’s third track, “Power” and West’s breakout hit from Graduation, “Stronger”. Ostensibly they’re the same song: each boasts about the artist’s self-confidence and authority, and each is dense with cultural references, melodic and rhythmic hooks, and West’s keen attention to filling out the environment of the song. But by comparison, “Stronger” is lyrically generic; its targets are soft, nameless, its markers of wealth centered on fashion icons like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. On “Power”, West’s lyrics revolve around a tighter core, cubist in their multiple angles on the social, personal, and crucially, artistic aspects of power. The scope is wider, the music more complex, the attitude fierce but ambiguous.
Partly as a result of the Taylor Swift incident the year before, West began to embrace his persona as a black iconoclast in a “white man world” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It was the moment, artistically, when West seemed most outspokenly progressive in a political sense, when his transgressions were aimed at critiquing white power structures and the social fantasies (“Monster”) on which they’re built. His main target became the sphere in which he operated: the cultural, economic, and political spectacle of the American Wow, a crossover world that’s never quite real but has real consequences. To reach the most people, West had to work within this institution and its temples—and pop music is institutional, even though we tend to think of it as wild and free. As I write in Nothing Has Been Done Before, West had to work from the inside-out “so that, one day, the only temple that matters is art. Not the art of the old that pop corrupted, but a new art that will corrupt pop.”
But, you know, gaze into the abyss… The problem with being an embedded iconoclast who becomes successful in the American Wow, driven as it is by capitalism and endless cycles of reappropriation, is that any transgression can be redeemed, any subversion can become the norm. These are just some of the reasons why, today, newness is hard. Very hard. It’s a lot easier for art to seek newness just by chasing what’s up-to-date, trending, contemporary, relevant. By this strategy, however, art defines its newness according to preexisting cultural standards, a socio-empirical aesthetics in which the imagined real of art is constantly patrolled, regulated, and judged by reality.
Race, of course, is another imagined construct with real, deadly consequences, and the collision of racialized identity, body, and the pop spectacle is what Ta-Nehisi Coates explores in his recent critique of Kanye West by way of Michael Jackson for The Atlantic (“I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” 7 May 2018). In it, he makes an understated but important argument: Michael Jackson was an iconoclast.
It had less to do with Jackson’s intentions—nothing to do with them, really—than with his achievements. In 1982, Jackson seized the temples of the pop spectacle defined so often according to white (and hetero) culture, and he began replacing the old icons and the old gods they represented with the new god of a radical but popular new art. “Michael Jackson was God,” Coates writes from his youthful perspective, “but not just God in scope and power, though there was certainly that, but God in his great mystery….” It mattered that Jackson’s music was stirringly, innovatively black and American, available to everyone and anyone without sacrificing the valuable historical narrative of the black Civil Rights generation and its children. That didn’t prevent him from being perceived as an iconoclast, though—and more specifically, as a black iconoclast. Why? Jackson, with his Motown lineage, was really reaffirming the importance of that historical narrative, affirming that it mattered and couldn’t be erased, especially because Jackson, in 1982, was modern and peerless. What old god could stand up to him?
But Jackson, writes Coates, was “dying to be white”. He abandoned his power and that historical narrative for an old story and an old god with a white face. The music and the money aren’t enough to explain why, as Coates says, Jackson began “disappearing into something white, desiccating into something white, erasing himself, so that we would forget that he had once been Africa beautiful and Africa brown…” The fame and the allure of being a global icon aren’t enough to explain it, either. Jackson’s psychology and sexuality aren’t enough to explain it. All of those things are “sealed”, as Franz Fanon once said, by the construct of race. (Black Skin, White Masks, revised ed., Grove Press, 2008).
To be black in America is to be an iconoclast. Not in deed, but in social expectation and potentiality: to be placed through no fault of your own but simply because of the complexion of your skin into a position of perceived oppositionality, difference, antinomy, hostility. Historically, economically, culturally, politically, and artistically, black Americans have routinely faced the suspicion of being iconoclastic, of being disruptors in the quiet temple of cultural whiteness, of being against no matter how much they have striven to be for. No amount of adoration, talent, clout, money, and success has so far abolished that routine suspicion and the cultural surveillance that comes with it.
Over the years I’ve come to understand that as a white person in America I have more freedom to choose to be an iconoclast. (This, in part, is what Coates means in his essay by “white freedom”.) I can try it and retreat or profit from it with fewer risks than a person of color in my position. The architecture of the culture has been designed to house both my dissidence and my belonging; it was built with room for my youthful revolt and pop culture-approved revolutionary gestures with which everything can be resisted, like Mildred asking Johnny in The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953) “What are you rebelling against?” and Johnny replying, “What’ve you got?” and at the end of the day, for whatever economic resources I lacked as a working-class kid being raised by my divorced mother in a small town, I could walk back home knowing that I had left my iconoclasm behind.
If iconoclasm is indeed a “mechanism of historical innovation” as Groys puts it, and if to be black in America is to be an iconoclast, then by the twisted logic of race a black artist no different from any other person of color faces without their consent the potential of being one such “mechanism”—and how horrifically apt that word is for the ways in which black culture, black art, black music have been continually used to create a perception of newness at the expense of black artists.
3. Yeezus and The Life of Pablo
The challenge Jackson almost immediately set aside and that West seemed to pick up eagerly was the challenge of being the mechanic, not the mechanism—the designer and not the designed.
This is what I hear on Yeezus, released in 2013, on which West fully embraced and defined his own version of black iconoclasm. I mean, the title, right? Bear in mind West’s frequent use of gospel styles to say nothing of his beautiful and faithful version of “I’ll Fly Away” on The College Dropout (Monty Miranda, 2012). The title signals that West’s iconoclasm is not simply for the benefit of a white audience, which he makes obvious on “Black Skinhead”, but instead it speaks to the influence of Christianity, masculinity, and power in black communities and households. Then again, that dimension can be seen as an iconoclastic refusal of the white center of meaning. Located at the knot of race where imagination, imagined realities, and the real interlock, a single iconoclastic gesture—the title of an album—asserts the power of art.
Crucially, for the first time, the sounds on a West album are as iconoclastic as its lyrics. Veering far away from the sensual complexities of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is a minimalist, raw album, a cold and flat and metallic environment where parts of songs are fused together, percussion isn’t always made by drums, and electronic noise takes on a voice of its own. West combines drill, EDM, and synthwave with the absolutism of the modernist avant-garde. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the possibility that radical art could get along with the ultra-commercialized capitalist landscape of the American Wow, Yeezus is a computer virus taking control of a Wall Street computer on behalf of art.
In the stories it tells, Yeezus is filled with the avant-garde’s desire that art should demonstrate the impotence of traditional icons—including recent black icons. “Blood on the Leaves” degrades Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” into the underscoring of a TMZ-worthy romantic drama and another complaint about gold-digging women. Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration of “free at last” is used to describe a woman revealing her breasts. In my book I argue that the point of this is to get the listener to rethink icons that are taken for granted, and to realize that their power today is not what it once was. That is an iconoclastic strategy with profoundly disturbing consequences, most of all for Americans of color, if the artist offers nothing in return. Yeezus offers nothing but the severity of its transgressions in the name of art’s power to negate what’s come before it, aesthetically and politically. At least West included himself in these icons; he negates himself on the album, his old self, which is what an artist chasing newness does. Thanks to that line about the croissants, it’s impossible to know how seriously to take “I’m a God”, and that’s the point. Rather than clarify or resolve meaning, art through its ambiguity suspends meaning.
Something changed with The Life of Pablo, which I’ve written about for PopMatters before (see “Time of Absence: Documenting Kanye West’s ‘Life of Pablo'”, 3 April 2016). In some ways it’s an even more artworld kind of album, but that’s entirely because of West’s intensely self-conscious artistic production and distribution. Since West constantly tinkered with the album after its release, those two stages were joined at the hip. In this I saw and heard something close to what Boris Groys in a different essay (“The Truth of Art” e-flux, March 2016) describes as the contemporary trend of art consisting of the documentation of its own process. Instead of being made by the artist in a “time of absence”, as Groys puts it, the artist and their process is always present, joining rather than resisting the flow of culture. All art becomes an event. This stands out with a work of visual art in a museum—the contrast is harsher—but it’s not as defiant or peculiar in pop music, which is already immersed in the cultural whirlwind.
I didn’t think about it this way at the time, but now The Life of Pablo strikes me as a concession to what I described above: the socio-empirical aesthetic, which you could simply call a more non-fictional culture. In our contemporary historical situation, post-“Death of the Author”, post-modernism, post-punk, post-internet, after the rise of sociology, after the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, in medias memoirs, public profiles, celebrity worship, and fake news, art more and more struggles to compete with what we perceive to be reality despite how heavily it’s mediated through television, image, and the internet. Groys argues that art on the internet (and again, he’s talking about visual art but I think it applies to music) “becomes ‘real’ and profane… because it becomes integrated into the information about its author as a real, profane person.” As this distance closes, we have to wonder if so too does the gap between art’s meaning and preexisting social meaning.
The kind of profanity meant by Groys is simply in opposition to the normally “sacred” status of art. No wonder, then, that Pablo feels, sounds, acts less iconoclastic. There’s no friction. There are no graven images to worry about because there are only graven images. Tellingly, The Life of Pablo reverts to the cheaper strategy of transgression in its content, in “Famous” calling back to the Taylor Swift controversy with a stupid line about having sex with her and the claim that he “made that bitch famous”. Two of the best songs on the album, “No More Parties in LA” and “Saint Pablo”, are nonetheless interesting mainly because of the cultural information they provide about West.
With this in mind, “Ye vs. the People” is even less surprising, and less new.
4. Iconoclasts and Martyrs
If there is no distance between art and social discourse, and if that social discourse includes politics, then for certain artists and politicians it becomes possible to think politics can be manipulated the same way as art, that political effects are understood based on perception as opposed to the real effects on real people and real bodies, and that certain values can and should work the same way in politics as they do in art. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin called this “the aestheticization of political life,” and he argued that it was the “logical outcome of fascism…” (The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Belknap Press, May 2008.)
I’m not saying West is a fascist. In fact, the aestheticization of political life seems to have blossomed quite well under democracy. But it’s useful to remember that some of the earliest proponents of fascism were artists, particularly the Italian Futurist painters like F.T. Marinetti, and as the name of their movement suggests, they were enthralled by the future, specifically a technological, industrial future defined by violence and war. This was their new.
If you watch West’s interview with radio host Charlamagne Tha God (18 April 2018), you’ll hear a more nuanced West than the one who appeared in the TMZ studios and said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Interviewed in his house, West is scattered but searching, thoughtful but uninformed about history or Trump’s policies, aware of some of his own contradictions but oblivious to others. He talks a lot about the future. And at one point, he says, “We definitely are dealing with racism, but I wanna push future concepts,” as if we can leap ahead of this bitter, seemingly intractable and now White House-approved racist reality in the same way a writer pens a science-fiction novel, a filmmaker visualizes utopia, or a musician composes tomorrow today.
None of that takes away from art’s power. In fact, it demonstrates just how powerful art can be. Art has the potential to answer socio-empirical aesthetics with potential itself, more possibilities where none seem to exist.
That’s not what West is doing, because it’s not what Trump and his administration are offering. Nothing is more conformist than going #MAGA. So if West is devoted to newness, how has he been convinced that this particular brand of conservatism is the way to go?
The answer begins with the Far Right selling Trump as a revolution, that most brazen promise of political newness, when the substance of the ideology is really just white conservative reformism. But the old by itself doesn’t win elections. The inarguable appeals to tradition and history (oppressive and inaccurate as they are) made by Trump and Co. since the campaign have been joined with subtle and blatant appeals to newness. The “Again” in “Make America Great Again” is tantamount to the allure of a new day, a victory over the figuratively dark—in every sense of that word—recent past.
To sell that newness, it helps to have an iconoclast like Trump who is obsessed with tearing down and erasing his predecessor, Barack Obama. As Groys is swift to point out in his essay on the subject in Art Power, iconoclasm historically has not been reserved for the promotion of newness. Most revolutionary movements, from the early Christians to pro-democracy dissidents in China and Russia, have witnessed the destruction of their art. Iconoclastic desecration and obliteration was a favorite tactic of ISIL, which destroyed art throughout Iraq. Conservatives have used iconoclastic gestures to deny the new and prop up the power of the old. Just take a look at the numerous reappropriations by Trump supporters of Shepard Fairey’s 2008 election poster for Barack Obama.
Probably the most complex element of the Right’s rhetoric, imagery, and narrative, is this combination of newness and iconoclasm with tradition and conservatism. What cinches it together is martyrdom, which in this context is tied to white grievance politics and reverse victimization. As Groys argues, an iconoclastic action today may produce an icon of martyrdom in the future. Religions and political movements are built on such events and their symbols, which, writes Groys, “are generally seen as the martyrization of what is new.”
In this case, however, the nominated icons of martyrdom are the so-called white working class. (Never mind that without enough support from white suburban middle-class voters, Trump wouldn’t have won the Electoral College.) In what way, though, is the white-working class new? Through the particular logic of the contemporary Right, deeply informed by evangelical Christianity, this class represents what once was new: that “original promise” of American democracy, that original newness defined by the unassailable gods known as the Founding Fathers but recently abandoned, along with its faithful but “forgotten” adherents, by former President Obama. From this perspective, he’s the one who desecrated and obliterated the promise of newness. In other words—surprise, surprise—an iconoclast.
But of course Trump has never had or wanted to have anything to do with the white working class, or any working class. That’s the weak point in the Far Right’s scheme, but it’s compensated for by Trump’s blustery pop iconoclasm—which isn’t really iconoclastic in substance since it’s not the rejection of the truly dominant ideology but instead that ideology’s reification. Trump succeeds politically in so much as enough people see themselves as descendants of the “original” iconoclasts who rebelled against tyranny in the name of freedom (while keeping African and Caribbean people enslaved). It’s a purely stylistic iconoclasm used to support an old order, to tell the story of a flawed hero come to liberate rural martyrs and restore the order that was, once upon a time, new.
All of this demonstrates what Coates describes in his Atlantic essay as “liberation from the dictates of… we“, which he calls “white freedom”: “freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next…”, the freedom Michael Jackson pursued to his death and now, according to Coates, Kanye West is pursuing.
For what it’s worth, I agree with Coates, but to understand West at this point, to acknowledge his perception of himself and the work he’s undeniably put in as an artist, and to see more clearly the juncture where art meets social responsibility, I wonder if it helps, above, to put “newness” in place of “freedom”—a “white newness”. Newness without consequence, newness without criticism, the newness that comes from being proudly ignorant, the feeling of newness that comes from denying or breaking ties with the people who lifted you, a newness that Coates already acknowledges when he writes, “West, in his own way, will likely pay also for his thin definition of freedom, as opposed to one that experiences history, traditions, and struggle not as a burden, but as an anchor in a chaotic world.”
But even for the iconoclast, who rejects history and tradition in the name of the new, history and tradition remain if not an anchor then at least a sticky web. In Art Power, Groys writes that in his desire to demonstrate the impotency of the old gods, the iconoclast “shows how earnestly he takes the gods’ claims to power by contesting the authority of the old gods and asserting the power of his own.” In doing so, the iconoclast admits to the struggle, reveals the burden of it. There is no escaping this, because the new is a value, but never on its own; it’s always a comparison, a relationship between one thing and another, one time and another, one person and other people.
Today, Kanye West is toying with the abandonment of iconoclasm in favor of newness without the burden. If he continues in that direction, I don’t think I’ll have overestimated his allegiance to art’s power. I’ll have underestimated his devotion to the new in whatever corrupted and illusory form it might take. I’ll have miscalculated, probably not for the last time, the overwhelming allure of newness, its flexibility, its adaptability, its proficiency for dressing up the past, even a horrible past, in a suit of the latest fashion.