Response: “5 things we learned from Kanye’s epic Twitter meltdown”
Earlier this week, one of my roommates commented on the cultural tendency of Americans to fixate on celebrity figures, sometimes to extreme degrees. Having grown up in Colombia, she explained, “People here literally worship Beyoncé…that doesn’t happen at home.” She supported her claim with an anecdote from a Comm. class she took in which the professor prefaced a critical viewing of Beyoncé’s “Flawless” music video with something in the vein of, “I know this is hard for you guys to do.” In American pop culture, we see this mania surrounding a handful of celebrities: the unanimously revered Beyoncés and Adeles; the largely ridiculed Kim Kardashians and Donald Trumps; the highly polarizing Kanye Wests. Sentiment doesn’t seem to matter so long as we have a provocative personality to buy into, and to discuss with trending hashtags (evidenced by Trump’s position in Republican Primary polls).
BBC Trending’s Buzzfeed-ish blog post on Kanye West’s recent Twitter rampage demonstrates how our preoccupations with celebrities shape our discussions of the industries and cultural spheres in which they exist. For Kanye, this rant (a response to Wiz Khalifa’s suggestion that he ripped off the title of his upcoming album, Waves, from another artist) is just one of many buzz-generating instances of acting out, and a lesser-memorable one at that.
During the past few years, Kanye’s prominence in popular culture has garnered continuous reinforcement — more so from his egotistical assertions, public feuds, and eyeroll-inducing marriage than from his artistic endeavours. Yet his celebrity status is reflected in every $70 sneaker that sells for $2,000 on a secondary market. Since the 2010 release of his uncontested masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s notorious ego has overshadowed his unwavering artistry. 2013’s Yeezus, while largely praised amongst critics, followed a cartoonishly narcissistic New York Times interview in which Kanye likened himself to the late Steve Jobs and referred to himself as the “nucleus” of culture — unsurprising when considering the album’s title. A review in The Atlantic lamented that Kanye tied his “dazzling work of aesthetic newness to a persona that seems so profoundly uncomfortable with itself, so insistent that we be uncomfortable alongside it.” Reflecting personally on Kanye’s relevance in 2013, I can’t remember any social conversations about his potent, career-defining rejection of commercial success algorithms; I remember wondering with my friends how his daughter, North, was going to feel during her first geography lesson.
Today’s fragmented music industry is dominated by (and lucrative for) only the small fraction of artists whose formulaic singles make Top 40 charts. Those artists who rise to superstardom do so with carefully crafted personas — whether that involves dropping a commonplace surname, recruiting an enviable posse of Victoria’s Secret Angels, or declaring oneself the messiah of popular culture. Even without the help of antagonistic interviewers, SNL skits, and live-streamed award shows, those same artists run the risk (or reward) of caricaturing themselves in 140 characters or fewer. Marketing teams nationwide feel some sort of branding obligation to cleverly participate in whatever absurd conversations ensue, figuring millennials would rejoice in knowing that a sandwich and a hip hop icon have something in common.
With Billboard charts populated by glamorous bobbleheads who give the everyman so much to talk about, do media channels have words remaining to cover important musical happenings? If so, how large of an audience does that discussion reach in comparison to the tabloid-worthy noise? It’s likely that more media consumers could tell you what misogynistic sentiments Kanye holds toward former partner Amber Rose than how his sixth studio album earned comparisons to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper in terms of cultural significance. And if the former piece of news is covered by outlets like BBC, one has to wonder what noteworthy, non-celebrity talents are boxed out of media budgets each week by the latest Twitter episode. Sure, a high-profile release like Waves will see hundreds of mandatory reviews, from top critics and amateur bloggers alike. But it’s unfortunate that the trending conversation surrounding Kanye’s seventh studio effort centers on a nonsensical, social-media-enabled vanity battle. “5 things we learned from Kanye’s epic Twitter meltdown” does not teach us much about its featured artist, his influence on the music industry, or his role in the lives of pop music consumers. It instead highlights our society’s eagerness to engage with the celebrity circus, a cultural propensity that crowds the space for talking about music.