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The Internet loves to hate Kanye West. But not as much as he loves to make you hate him.
In this latest case, Kanye has received ire stemming from an incident in which he told several disabled fans to “stand up” during a show. One reportedly waved a plastic leg, while security verified another was in a wheelchair. In the wake of this fresh batch of condemnation, West has, unsurprisingly, not remained silent, talking about the event and the fallout from it in concert. Even less surprising is the media’s coverage of the whole thing, which has largely focused on his response as an “epic rant.” This makes sense, since the only thing Kanye West gets called out more for than being “at it again” is his endless supply of “epic rants,” which apparently constitute everything that comes out of his mouth.
This pattern, of “Kanye says something, and everybody freaks out about it,” has come to define West’s public life. It was on display in the responses to a New York Times profile on him from last summer. And it reared its head several months later, when he got into a spat with late night’s Jimmy Kimmel over the content of a sketch which made fun of a BBC interview he did.
By this point, Kanye West’s battle against the media’s perception of him is starting to feel like an endless cycle. With WheelchairGate now etched onto his permanent record, it’s time to take a look at why this keeps happening, and why both West and his detractors keep coming back to the same well.
Without question, Kanye has engaged in plenty of legitimately bad behavior in his day. Some of his lyrical content alone warrants hefty criticism. A statement he made about how much money Jews have demonstrates his capability for pigheadedness, though he came as close to issuing an apology as he ever has in that instance, likening his word choice to an “ignorant compliment.” Other times, it’s hard not to get annoyed at the sheer ludicrousness of his statements, as was the knee-jerk reaction when he began advocating for “celebrity rights.”
His treatment of the disabled in this latest debacle isn’t unworthy of disapproval either. As David M. Perry at Time pointed out, “Every day, in every context, people with disabilities get challenged to prove how disabled they are. This constant questioning isolates people with disabilities, increases stress and shame, and can lead directly to verbal or even physical abuse.”
It’s doubtful that West thought about any of this when he was telling the involved parties to stand up, and that’s definitely part of the problem. But more than anything else, this most recent transgression comes down to a misunderstanding, perpetrated by an artist with an uncanny knack for showmanship and exacerbated by a media with which he has had an historically tumultuous relationship. He should certainly not be excused for his fault in the matter, but it isn’t going to be the nail in the coffin for his reputation more than anything before it was.
The other side of this is that sometimes West actually has good cause to last out at the systems he’s railing against. Though Kimmel probably wasn’t aiming to do anything more than create a funny sketch and do his job with that interpretation of the BBC interview, Slate’s Forrest Wickman proposed, “If you’re a 45-year-old white dude who apparently doesn’t understand a thing about pop music, you shouldn’t try to tell one of the biggest hip-hop artists in the world about hip-hop.”
And when West actually went on Kimmel to discuss the beef the sketch prompted, he made made some fairly accurate inferences about black fashion designers being barred from the industry. Indeed, there were 30 years where no American black men were allowed onto the Paris runway.
Discussing his response to the wheelchair uproar, Flavorwire’s Alison Herman characterized West as a “savvy social critic”:
Kanye’s absolutely right to call out the suspiciously high ratio of outrage over a minor screw-up compared with the outrage over, say, Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown. Pointing out that disparity is certainly a smarter critique of public discourse than said discourse’s own critique of Kanye.
During his onstage “rant,” West particularly pointed to American media’s “soundbite culture,” as Herman calls it: “What I’m saying is, you’ve got like 12 years that we put in positive music… You know, an artist’s career doesn’t happen in one cycle of news—an artist’s career happens in a lifetime.” According to Herman, such is the entire problem with the ubiquitous critiques of Kanye.
That’s an on-point call-out of substituting relatively minor flubs and decontextualized moments for rigorous, substantive criticism, and if we wanted to get really overanalyze-y here, we could apply West’s reasoning to what the dual needs to stand out in an overcrowded media landscape and churn out stories 24/7 have done to the coverage of all news, not just high-profile musicians… Kanye’s forest-for-the-trees accusation works as an accurate diagnosis of what’s wrong with removing a few incriminating moments of iPhone footage and using them to judge an artist’s entire persona. Better yet, it’s a case study in how those judgments are increasingly powerless in defining a public figure’s image.
West’s directness in engaging with the media has never been his problem. But Herman’s assertion that he is a “savvy” social critic is not entirely accurate, insomuch as savvy applies a certain amount of tact and grace. If anything, he is a savage social critic. West addresses his critics like a hurricane, never stopping for a second to consider those in his path. However, his lack of control is also what has made him such a unique celebrity, in the Ellis-ian “post-empire” sense.
Herman balks at the media’s interpretation of WheelchairGate, relaying a version of the incident where, “After a few minutes, West got the message and the show went on, but not before Kanye’“yells’-at-innocent-wheelchair-bound-fan became the latest piece of micro-evidence in the ‘crazed/egomaniacal/[insert loaded descriptor here]’ narrative that’s been a part of West’s image from Hurricane Katrina through Yeezus.”
It’s important to recognize though, that West is complicit in this narrative. Asking “Why are so many people fond of being mad at Kanye West?”, the New Yorker’s Sasha-Frere Jones arrives at the conclusion, “We have no shortage of well-trained pop stars who never depart from the promo script, plugging sponsors without being prodded. It’s a tonic to hear a celebrity talk so freely… In an age when public-relations firms are trying to annex journalism as yet another branding tool, it’s a form of rebellion to give one weird interview after another, failing once again to project the proper bland professionalism.”
This lack of polite discourse where the media is concerned hasn’t arisen out of simple apathy on West’s part. It’s exactly what he wants. For Kanye West, to enter into anything other than an all-out brawl with the individuals who would censure him is impossible. And more than that, it’s smart business. West hasn’t stayed on the forefront of the American consciousness for so long simply because of his critically acclaimed music. He’s stayed there because he’s unwilling to compromise, in music or in anything else. Unlike Jimmy Kimmel, he has no desire to just “do his job,” as it were. So when Kimmel tries to stick to his job, and just be funny, West then feels he has no choice but to let him know that he’s different. He’s trying to be more than just his profession.
“The way Kanye West is portrayed in the media is an ongoing study in the conflict between perception and reality,” writes Tom Hawking, also of Flavorwire, who observes, He’s frequently depicted as a cartoonish figure, a caricature of the egocentric modern celebrity. In fairness, he hasn’t always helped himself defy that stereotype, but then, perhaps he hasn’t wanted to do so, because the persona West projects is all about making the media work for him, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Kanye West’s best career move was his decision to become the monstrous id we said he was, and he has been all the more successful for it. What’s ironic about this, especially as he tells the media to, “find a new target,” is that West’s egomaniacal image is also built on self-contradiction. But the hypocrisies of his life and times don’t detract from his legend, they embolden it. Look at his once prolific relationship with Twitter. West is a man constantly on the precipice of a new revelation, even if, as Hawking claims, “Those who know him best describe him as somewhat shy, which makes sense when you think about it—it’s often those who are least secure who tend to overcompensate by being aggressively extroverted.”
Again, this makes West the opposite of the modern celebrity. Consider the recent “diva” accusations swirling around Ariana Grande, who came under fire this week amidst gossip that she said she hopes her fans “all fucking die”—in private, that is. Whether Grande actually said this or not doesn’t matter, what matters is that she would never say it in public, and she has a whole team of people around her to curb this kind of rumor. West, on the other hand, would probably only say something like this in public, because by all accounts, that’s where he truly feels the need to let loose.
And within that compulsion, the cycle goes round and round. West, particularly when coupled with Kim Kardashian, is such a routinely hated celebrity that the constant outrage being directed at him has turned into its own pastime. Which is why the most phony thing any of Kanye’s critics can do is to admonish him to change his behavior; they don’t want that, moreover, they’re as much a part of the cycle as he is. So when a story emerges that West has declared himself the next Nelson Mandela, no one even bothers to verify that it’s true. Never mind that West has expressed as much desire to emulate white icons as he has black ones. That doesn’t matter when you’re playing the Kanye West game, where everyone wins, as long as everyone’s yelling.
That said, the Mandela hubub was fascinating in that it reflects on West’s relationship to race, which surely cannot be left out of this conversation. At BuzzFeed, Heben Nigatu proposes, “Kanye is a part of a long tradition of black artists for whom self-love is a political act.” This perspective in and of itself doesn’t necessarily exempt him from judgement, but it does serve to frame the most extreme vitriol he’s faced in a new light. In a way, he’s on par with the likes of LeBron James and Dave Chappelle, in that James’ blackness has made his ego a greater target, and Chappelle’s actions have prompted many to write him off as “crazy.”
Except that James’ solution therein has been to tone down his cockier instincts, and Chappelle’s has been to drop out of public life as much as possible. But not Kanye West. Today, and throughout his whole career, West has refused to go quietly. His ultimate victory lies in his ability to maintain the most contentious alliance with the media of any celebrity in recent memory, and to profit heavily from it.
Nigatu’s final thought on the way in which Kanye West chooses to be Kanye West is: “You don’t have to love it, but you will respect it.” Yet maybe, Kanye doesn’t need your respect. Maybe, he just needs you to recognize that he is. Because for Kanye West to let us ignore him would be the most shocking thing of all.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.