Kanye West, Chris Brown, deadmau5:
Kanye West is such a dick. And he knows it.
Back in 2010, on his hit single “Runaway,” the Chicago-bred rapper famously toasted to the douchebags, scumbags and assholes► — to himself, basically — in confronting a very uncomfortable public truth. People didn’t like him very much. A year prior, in a story we’re all very familiar with, he stumbled on stage drunk at the MTV Video Music Awards, interrupted Taylor Swift during an acceptance speech, and turned himself into public enemy number one.
Dejected, poor unlikeable Kanye disappeared from public life, decamped to Hawaii to hit the studio and returned a year later. “Runaway” wasn’t about the Swift incident specifically, but he debuted it at the VMAS nonetheless, a year to the date of the interruption. Then he performed it on Saturday Night Live. Then it went to radio. Eventually, it was inescapable. Months later, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was selling like Facebook stock and the album was being hailed a triumph.
That Kanye had come roaring back in top form wasn’t that surprising. He’s one of the most progressive artists in music. But it was how he did it — by acknowledging his critics head-on — that made it all the more eyebrow-raising. What balls on this guy. What chutzpah. The giant asshole using his profundity for assholeness to send him right back where he’d just fallen from. In a perfect world, the story wouldn’t end like this. But the world is not perfect, and the greatest artists sure as hell aren’t either.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that some of the best music is made by some of the worst people. In fact, in the canon of artists who are generally perceived to be despicable, Kanye West is on the lower end of the spectrum. Consider Chris Brown, who, among his numerous transgressions, we remember for beating the crap out of Rihanna. Or the unforgettable antics of R. Kelly, perhaps the last truly great black soul man, also an alleged sexual predator. Then there’s deadmau5, a DJ/producer with an inferiority complex so severe that he literally cannot find himself agreeing with anyone on anything. And Justin Bieber, the formerly-cute tween with a nifty pompadour, now a tattooed adult, as eager to throw his fists — like he recently did with Orlando Bloom— as he is to throw money in a strip club.
To buy albums from these artists, to go to their shows, to favorite their tweets and like their Instagram photos, is to root for the wrong kind of people. Like watching a movie and secretly pining for the bad guy to win. And yet, fresh out of jail, Chris Brown’s “Loyal” has been one of the most enjoyable songs of the summer. R. Kelly has never really missed a beat; in fact, recent years have proffered him a revival of sorts, now that white hipsters are ironically enjoying his extensive catalogue. deadmau5's new LP, while(1<2), topped the U.S. Dance charts this past June, and according to Forbes, he’s earning upwards of $20 million a year. Justin Bieber’s star power is noticeably on the decline — his 2013 biopic Believe tanked at the box office, while his recent music has been met with shrugs — but he’s still more popular than most musicians today. Meanwhile, positive reactions to a leaked version of Kanye West’s new single, “All Day,” indicate that it will likely be one of the biggest hits of his career.
Man, how can a group of such assholes be so damn successful?
One of the reasons why it’s easy for bad people to make good music— and for listeners to be okay with that— is due to changes in technology and the way we engage with the artists we like. As recently as a decade ago, in order to purchase music you needed to physically walk into a store and buy it. Consider the social ramifications of walking up to a register with an R. Kelly CD a week after he was brought up on charges of child molestation. Then, what might your friends think about you if they saw it sitting in your CD rack? You’re a monster for supporting that monster! When music was physical, it was fashionable. What you listened to was a part of your identity. To own something, to physically have it in your possession, was to align yourself with it completely. Like carrying a Celine bag or driving Tesla, your music collection said you were this kind of person. When your tastes changed, you changed.
Now, there is far less commitment involved with the listening experience, so enjoying the music of someone whose politics and actions you may not agree with carries less weight. In fact, with the rise of music streaming, you don’t even own anything, so there isn’t this sense of emotional attachment to the artist or the song itself. You don’t go anywhere to get it. You don’t pay anything for it. There’s no real investment of your time involved with even engaging with it. It’s disposable. It’s in the cloud. It’s always there. There’s no changing taste. It’s every taste, all the time. And unless you’re broadcasting your activity on social media, it’s largely anonymous. In the quiet of your bedroom, with nobody watching you, you go to YouTube and watch a Chris Brown video. You may think he’s a womanizer, but if you find yourself liking the song, who is going to judge you for that? Nobody, because nobody knows. Maybe you won’t tweet about it, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t listening. And when it’s in a social setting, nobody really cares whether music is made by good or bad people. They just care that it’s enjoyable. A DJ isn’t stopping a party because you think an artist’s actions are ‘problematic.’ Is the record hot? If so, party on Wayne.
There’s also been a meteoric rise of enjoying things in ironic ways. We are at least ten years into a counter-cultural movement that is post-music, post-quality, post-seriousness. We’ve become so spoiled with the cleanliness of what digital technology affords us, that it’s become boring. Consequently, we’re looking for imperfection, finding things to engage with simply because they are awful. We used to think, perhaps naively, that you needed to be fairly skilled to make it in music. But now, unskilled is the new skilled. Virtuosity implies mastery, and to master something means that there is no journey left. There’s no story developing there. It has already developed. There’s nothing to rally behind; rather, we can just stand there and cheer. That doesn’t lend itself to how we engage with content today. So, we don’t talk about things because they are good. We talk about things because they are terrible. In terrible things, we see struggle, and in struggle, we see ourselves. Amateurs, playing around, hoping someone notices. Rarely do we share professionally-produced videos and comment on how expertly-directed they are. The ones that invite comment are the ones that look like shit.
To wit, Miley Cyrus made far better music — great songwriting, professionally-polished production — when she was a teen Disney star. But nobody would call Miley Cyrus interesting back then. There was nothing to talk about. No story there. She made good music, case closed! It wasn’t until she added a few wrinkles to the equation — a little cultural appropriation here, some drug use there — that we decided she was worth discussing in some type of larger context. For her part, Rihanna has had numerous hit records, but its her usage of social media, where she’s both curt and outspoken, that keeps us attracted to her these days. Similarly, Bobby Shmurda is rap’s new ‘it’ boy, but he didn’t sign a record deal with Epic Records worth more than $1 million because he can rap well. He signed because he did a dance on Vine that people thought was funny and decided was worth sharing. Riff Raff, one of the more polarizing figures in music today, attained fame based on the simple fact that people were sending his videos to friends like, “Is this guy serious?”
When you add irony to the collapse of the media business built around physically owning shiny plastic discs, plus a dash of music becoming this highly-solitary experience—think about the person on the train, a pair of Beats by Dre nestled comfortably around their ears—anything bad can be good. You can douse off criticism of your listening habits under the guise of being unique or authentic or whatever the hell marketers are using to sell to young people these days. To that effect, you might listen to Chris Brown or Kanye or deadmau5 just for the simple fact that other people aren’t. Contrarianism has never been more popular. And with the conversation around these acts being so negative, it’s easy to align yourself with them as a veritable ‘fuck you’ to the establishment. Liking shit nobody else likes is as rock n’ roll as it gets. That’s youth culture in a nutshell.
Things also move impossibly faster now. Music has always had its fair share of bad boys/girls, but if someone is a piece of shit, we are far more likely to know the ins and outs of what happened, way quicker. When Justin Bieber got into a fight with Orlando Bloom in late July, it was a mere hours before video of it made its way online, and Bieber himself uploaded a photo of Bloom to Instagram, taunting him. It was like seeing a person be a dickhead in real time. But what makes it even more impactful is how that information gets amplified. The news gets posted almost instantaneously on websites, reblogged on Tumblr, shared with additional comment on Twitter and opined endlessly about on Facebook. By the time the story shakes out, it’s like a game of telephone — it rarely resembles the truth. That asshole is now an even bigger asshole, whether it’s true or not.
deadmau5 is another great example of this. Although he’s a renowned figure in dance music circles, the average person—Joe Schmoe in middle America—really has no idea who he is. That is, of course, until he starts posting crazy Facebook messages about Madonna, like he did back in 2012, after she invoked the word “molly” at Ultra Music Festival. In a fit, he quickly took to his social media accounts and started ripping her to shreds. Why? Because Madonna, who seemingly represents everything awful about the commercial music industry and celebrity industrial complex, was encroaching on dance music’s territory, and doing it in a way that he thought sent the wrong message. deadmau5, like he tends to do, anointed himself the ipso facto defender of all things ethical, all things right and wrong, in dance music. Somehow it escaped him that Madonna was making music before he was even born. But whether he had a point to make or not, all anyone who isn’t tapped into the world of deadmau5 really sees is him going at Madonna. It makes him look a certain way, even if his intentions were good.
But whether he’s engaging in a tête-à-tête with Disney, a flame war with Madonna (whom he just couldn’t stop taking shots at), tweeting crazy shit at Paris Hilton or Trey Songz— two recent victims—or broadcasting his own ego-soaked opinions during his Jerry Seinfeld-inspired YouTube chat show Coffee Run (which, all things considered, is often rather illuminating), one could argue that it’s precisely his lack of filter that allows us to practically tap right into the mind of deadmau5 and see him for what he is. Sure, social media is just a snapshot, but when there are thousands of snapshots—Instagram photos, Tweets, Facebook status updates, not to mention actual real-life interviews and first-person interactions— it becomes easier to piece together who someone really is. Those snapshots help formulate opinion. If you’re an asshole online, people will eventually just figure you’re an asshole for real.
Years ago, that would never be the case. If Berry Gordy summarily fucked over every artist on Motown Records or Phil Spector was abusive of his ex-wife Ronnie, we wouldn’t hear about it until someone wrote a tell-all memoir. Think about all the musicians and music industry luminaries with skeletons in their closet. It’s an endless list. Lead Belly is the father of the blues; he also killed one of his own family members. Ray Charles was once a womanizing drug addict. James Brown led the police on a high speed car chase, complete with guns drawn. Bob Dylan, for all his great work, has never been considered a very likeable guy. People pay hundreds of dollars to see Guns N’ Roses, and Axl Rose never shows up on time. Gene Simmons can’t open his mouth without putting his foot in it. Snoop Dogg was on trial for murder—ruled as self-defense—yet was not convicted. Jay-Z allegedly stabbed a fellow record executive. Diddy broke a champagne bottle over Steve Stoute’s head.
You see, musicians are just shitty people. But does knowing about this stuff make their music any less enjoyable? If Gene Simmons is a chauvinist prick, does that make him any less of a bass player? Probably not.
Which brings us back to Mr. West. Five years after Ye’s VMA interruption, his outsized ego still remains largely intact. And yet he’s also grown a lot. He’s released another pair of LPs — the G.O.O.D. Music compilation Cruel Summer, plus the musically-adventurous Yeezus—and launched a creative agency, DONDA. When he talked to GQ in July, he seemed so relaxed, so calm, so settled. Normal. Mature. Much more composed than the “I’ma let you finish” Kanye.
Still, last year he got into a tiff with Jimmy Kimmel over a disparaging comedy skit, which lead to series of angry tweets and an awkward apology from the late night television host on air. In his defense, ‘Ye thought the pair were buddies, but even he should know that in comedy, like music, everyone is fair game. Getting mad about that seemed rather callous and childish. He also got into a scuffle with a paparazzi photographer, which resulted in two years of probation. And while his marriage to Kim Kardashian is commendable, his 45-minute wedding speech is said to have found him angrily shaking his fist at the mistreatment of celebrities and fussing over making sure his photo from the ceremony set a record for ‘likes’ on Instagram. It took four days to shoot the picture. How can you not roll your eyes at things like that?
So even though the perception of Kanye is slowly changing, most people still think he’s an asshole. Kanye West himself probably still thinks he’s an asshole. Kanye West is an asshole (never forget—“Why you think me and Dame cool? We assholes!”►). But part of what makes Kanye so great as both a musician and a person of public interest is the fact that he’s an asshole. He’s a celebrity who values what he does beyond the point of fame. He legitimately believes that what he has to offer the world— music, fashion, art, whatever — is worth considering on merit alone, and not the fact that he’s just some black guy who raps well. If you take away that part of his character, that arrogance, that oft-misplaced and misguided chip on his shoulder, he’s not exactly Kanye West anymore. He’s like a superhero stripped of his powers.
And maybe that’s the reason why we sometimes give certain musicians a pass, whether they’re good people or not. Because we understand that just like everyone else, character flaws are what make musicians who they are. They’re not perfect, because nobody is. On some level, maybe those imperfections are even inspiring. Consider the energy drink that is listening to Kanye rant against his detractors, or watching deadmau5 go head-to-head with big bad Disney, or just acknowledging the simple fact that Chris Brown can make so many stupid unforgivable mistakes and still be quietly forging ahead. There is certainly something to take from all that. Maybe it’s delusion, and maybe to do great things— the great things many of us aspire to do— we need to be a tad delusional. It’s impolitic to say it, but sometimes to get things done we have to be a bit mean, we have to have a little chip on our shoulder. Maybe, we even have to be a tad unlikeable. Just not that unlikeable.
Perhaps most importantly though, Kanye West, deadmau5, Chris Brown and R. Kelly all still make music that millions of people around the world enjoy. When they are less capable of doing that, then it may be time to consider how just pathetically awful they are as people. But instead, what their success in the face of outright despicablity shows is that people often don’t care that much one way or the other. It’s purely Machiavellian in nature. Being well-liked is one thing, but making great music is another. Keep making hits, and an artist is liable to get away with anything — even being a big giant asshole. And it doesn’t matter how much we know about it. The scary part is, it might make us like them even more.