Kanye, the VMAs and the Spectacle of Controversy
Over the years, MTV's notion of "controversy" has become about as enticing as a trip to the corner store to pick up toilet paper. That the media can't stop talking about Kanye West's "outburst" is proof that they're really grasping at straws. The formula has become quite predictable at this point. Always, at both the VMAs and the MTV Movie Awards, there is going to be some outrageous act that everyone will be talking about. At the MMAs it was Sasha Baron Cohen dressed as Bruno landing on Eminem's lap.
Now we have commentators fulminating over Kanye's "ego" and "inappropriate behavior" after he rushed the stage during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech and proclaimed that Beyonce should have won. Many commentators have denounced that the hip-hop star for just trying to keep himself in the spotlight. Even President Obama is rumored to have called Ye a "jackass."
First of all, as I've more or less said before, nobody should be allowed to speak of any musician's "ego" until Bono's mouth has been sewn shut. Second, today's culture commentators aren't exactly shocked and dismayed at Kanye's behavior. On the contrary, it gives them an opportunity to keep playing the role of the public's moral guardian, spinning the whole thing around to set up their rising starlet Swift as the frail, helpless damsel in distress being overtaken by a "misbehaving Negro."
Kanye's outbursts tend to get lumped into the same oblique category of "Kanye being Kanye." But there is a notable difference between this kind of stunt and when he goes in front of a camera during a live broadcast event on NBC and tells the world "George Bush doesn't care about Black people" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There's no doubt a portion of the industry that would love it if he kept his mouth shut, still another that loves the attention he grabs for them as long as he does it within their parameters. The only problem is that Kanye, as a living breathing person with free will of his own, isn't ultimately under their control.
It can never be forgotten that Kanye is indeed a Black man living in a white man's world. He is a performer in an industry that is greatly dominated by exploitation and oppression. As LBoogie over at The Democracy and Hip-Hop Project explains: "Kanye's arrogance, his braggadocio, his loud-mouth interventions are scattered pieces of an anti-racist sentiment that historically has been a rallying cry for people of color to reclaim what is rightfully ours."
Furthermore, a large portion of the anti-Kanye backlash seems to forget that the kinds of truly unpredictable outbursts he has become known for used to be a much bigger part of MTV's makeup. Maybe it's just me (and I'm about to sound old here), but I remember a time when the VMAs were worth watching to a greater degree. When it was more about the music and whatever controversy sprung up was rooted in that. Of course, these were the days when "Straight Outta Compton" was on the airwaves. When Pearl Jam would play Unplugged and Eddie Vedder would scrawl "pro-choice" on his arm in magic marker. The days of Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes, shows that displayed a propensity for edgier and at times groundbreaking videos.
There has surely always been a large element of spectacle to MTV (they are, after all owned by Viacom), but now such shows have been replaced by TRL and Cribs. Hero worship reigns supreme, whereas there used to be at least a little room for folks to "kill your idols."
Now, with so many exciting things taking place in music, MTV has become truly stagnant. Artists are experimenting with form and content in so many ways that it boggles the mind. In eras past, this would be called the "underground," but thanks largely to the internet and the ascendancy of the mp3, the underground isn't so underground anymore. Both hip-hop and rock are experiencing a massive shift in their style and dynamic (some of which Ye helped usher in). And because so many of the artists behind it are opting to go around rather than through the industry (which wasn't as much of an option fifteen years ago), the suits have no idea how to relate to them.
MTV, as an important component of that industry, is more or less getting left in the dust. While there have been moments that include a healthy dose of real substance in the past, their position and imperative as a profit-making media outlet means that it is their role to appropriate it, sanitize it, and shape it into spectacle. It's precisely this that has much of today's generation reaching for the remote.
And yet, they still hold immense power and influence over the way we perceive and consume musical icons. In the absence of a real, bottom-up discussion on race in this country, MTV's sway affects all artists who remain part of it. This extends to Kanye himself. Five years ago, he was considered a renegade, a poet struggling with demons inside his heart and the world at large. But starting with his third album, 2007's Graduation, the hunger and strife seemed to be lacking. By the time he wore out his auto-tune feature on 808's and Heartbreak, a lot of folks were wondering what the hell happened.
What this bodes for the future of Kanye's music and persona is hard to tell. There's no doubt that he won't be shutting his mouth anytime soon. Whether the next controversy he stirs is the kind that imbues our side with real confidence or just gets added to the litany of empty sound and fury pouring out the idiot box is ultimately a question of what the world looks like between now and then.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His writings have also appeared at ZNet, Socialist Worker, CounterPunch, MR Zine and PopMatters.com.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article first appeared at SleptOn Magazine.