Understanding the Millennial Obsession with Kanye West
Ye’s popularity has less to do with the quality of his product and more to do with social media value
I miss the old Kanye. The Kanye whose music helped me “Touch the Sky.” The Kanye who inspired me to read aloud his verses during class in elementary school. I miss loving Kanye West for his music, not his brand. This nostalgia preserves my interest in West today like it does for any artist I used to love, but it doesn’t explain West’s ability to remain atop popular culture for so long.
Despite my dislike for his recent releases, I am still anxious to consume the newest Yeezy product. Has the West brand grown so strong that it has blinded my ability to evaluate and appreciate his products for what they are, not what they represent? Shit, I bought and held onto a floor ticket to the Saint Pablo Tour even after hearing it would only result in morning neck pain.
Yes I did have some neck soreness, but when I rolled out of bed the morning after Kanye West’s stop in Austin, my mind awakened to some new thoughts on ‘Ye. The tour’s arrangement created an experience that explained my generation’s current obsession with West. Amongst a sea of dad hats and Snapchats it became clear that Kanye has carefully calculated his celebrity prowess to reflect what we value in culture in 2016. He married Kim Kardashian for heaven’s sake.
Our immersion into social media has resulted in us appreciating certain things more for their place in the digital world than their effect on our actual lives. Accordingly, the Saint Pablo Tour served as a reminder that the foundation for our love for Kanye West remains his music, but his popularity in 2016 has less to do with the genuine quality of his recent products and more to do with their digital social worth.
The tour’s placement of Kanye on a floating and moving stage above the floor conveyed his ability to design in a way that is conducive to what we value in culture today. Millennials love sharing the exciting things that happen to them over social media. Thus, we are attracted to things that have the highest shock value because these things will give the most attention to our online brand. With this in mind, the Saint Pablo Tour set makes perfect sense. Kanye knew that this would provide the best opportunity for everyone in the stadium to get the best look at him, but more importantly, to get the best photo of him.
Once the show began, the crowd’s reaction to his songs demonstrated the dynamics of our Kanye West love today. The songs we appreciated more for their social worth than their quality either triggered us to pull out our phones or dance along to it even if it wasn’t one of our favorites, just to fit in. The first example of this came just seconds into the show with Kanye emerging from the darkness to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1.” When it was West’s turn to begin the verse, he quickly realized his mic wasn’t working. Did anyone else? Probably not, because everyone was so consumed by getting their first Snapchat of West to even realize what was actually going on in front of them.
It reminded me of when we go out to lunch with friends and the first thing we do when the food gets there — no matter how hungry we are — is snap a pic of the meal so we can share it with our friends. Why do we do this? It all comes back to our attraction to things for their digital value rather than their inherent worth to us. The energy and excitement in the building stemmed more from getting a close snap of West than it did from the actual music.
From there, Kanye transitioned into “Famous,” a song that really only became popular after its outlandish music video and the beef it reignited with Taylor Swift. The reaction it evoked was similar to the song before with people quick to photograph the event before immersing into the experience. The energy, however, as depicted in the image below, felt like it stemmed more from the excitement of hearing and seeing a cultural phenomena take place rather than hearing a musical masterpiece.
As West started to play his older, more popular songs — ones that became hits for no other reason than their authentic musical quality — genuine passion finally arrived to the audience. During “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” I lost everyone I was with, but didn’t care because I had my arm around a complete stranger and we recited the lyrics to each other. At the cue of “Runaway,” a song about Kanye recognizing his adverse qualities, something powerful came over the crowd. Pure impulse took me over and I ran underneath the stage into a circle of complete strangers. I wanted to escape the herd of Snapchat-happy West fans on the outskirts of the stage, just as West yearned to escape his own reality through the track.
The show concluded with “Ultralight Beam“, and I kid you not, a group of more than forty West fans, including me, naturally circled together to kneel to the ground and embrace those around us. The experience was intoxicating and reinforced what I loved — and miss — about being a Kanye West fan: being moved and elevated by his music, not his brand.
Kanye West’s recent career development reflects his grasp on this culture shift. From interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs to his many buzzed about rants and videos, West has made every move possible to turn and keep his brand viral and palatable to the millennial generation. With this, he’s exceeded the realm of cultural influencers to become a representation of culture itself. With its arrangement and energy, the Saint Pablo Tour communicated this reality and reminded those in attendance why we love West today. What’s greater, though, was how specific Kanye tracks reminded us what we used to love about him and pop culture overall: the thrill of enjoying things for their quality, instead of their share-ability.
I don’t know about you, but I truly do miss the old Kanye.