I'm in no position to judge the merits of Kanye West's music. I stopped listening to rap when you could still find Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on the radio. These days I think it's mostly just noise.
When people tell me, "Oh, but it's technically very complicated," or "You don't understand how much work goes into it," I'm reminded of a scene from "Don Quixote": A man walks to the center of town and gathers a crowd for the show he's about to put on. The man picks up a dog and inserts a tube into its rump. He begins to inflate the canine. The crowd watches, fascinated. The dog grows larger and rounder. Eventually, the man pulls the tube out and the air escapes loudly from the poor pooch's rear as it runs away. The man turns to the crowd and asks: "You think it's easy to inflate a dog with a tube?" Moral: Just because someone works hard at something doesn't mean it's great art.
That's my disclosure for those who'd charge me with not "getting" rap music: guilty as charged.
But I do think I understand marketing and public relations, and I am astounded by the naivete of young people — black and white — who actually buy the canned rebelliousness not just of rap music but of most pop music.
West is simply the latest example of decades of hucksterism. Under the headline "The Passion of Kanye West," the rap star graces the cover of Rolling Stone posing as a bloodied Jesus with a crown of thorns. I particularly enjoy the publicity around the piece. Clearly borrowing from the same press release, publications across the country proclaim that the "outspoken rapper defends his brash attitude inside the magazine."
Ah, yes. It's about time. After all, it's so rare to find a rapper with a brash attitude. Normally they're shy, retiring types overflowing with modesty and humility. I was particularly enamored with the "aw, shucks" Andy Griffith personalities of Niggaz With Attitude and the late Tupac Shakur.
We're supposed to believe that West has been persecuted for his anti-Bush tirades and his determination to keep it real. But his biggest complaint is that people criticize him for being arrogant. "You want me to be great, but you don't ever want me to say I'm great?" he asks.
Of course, the editors also hoped to stir up some controversy, maybe even incite some religious conservatives to play to type, by exploiting the imagery of Jesus' suffering. I never went to Sunday school, but I don't recall that Jesus was crucified for being smug.
It's all such an obvious con game. We hear so much about how kids today are cynical, skeptical, media-savvy and so forth. But if they're buying this hooey, they're idiots.
When asked by Rolling Stone if he's worried that his outspokenness might cost him a Grammy, Kanye replied, speaking in the third person: "Kanye is always opinionated and outspoken, and now that it's Grammy time he turns into a house nigga? Come on. That's not even realistic." Right, but the suggestion that the guy with eight Grammy nominations is a pariah, never mind suffering from Christlike persecution, is entirely plausible?
Alas, this shtick works. It certainly worked for such "gangsta rappers" as Ice Cube, Ice-T and Snoop Dogg, all of whom once talked a big game about keeping it real and not being "house niggas." Now they're all successful mainstream actors. Messrs. Cube and Dogg make a nice living appearing in family-friendly comedies. I guess acting came naturally to them.
Obviously, none of this is unique to rap or "black" music (quotation marks necessary because white suburban kids are the biggest market for the stuff). Big corporations have been marketing "rebellion" since the 1950s. And the kids fall for it every time. In 1968, Columbia Records promised in an ad that "the man can't bust our music!" Madonna made her career glamorizing slattern chic and attacking bourgeois morality. Now she peddles children's books.
Today, there's a great cell phone commercial in which a corporate executive explains to his assistant that his new billing plan is his own private way of "sticking it to the man." His assistant replies, "But sir, you are the man." The boss says, with some dismay, "I know."
As far as the music industry goes, Kanye West is the man, but he won't admit it. Instead, he sells himself as a victim of a society that can't handle his truth. Four million records sold and saturation adulation in the media suggest that it can handle his truth just fine.
The problem is, it ain't the truth. It's just a scam for kids too stupid to recognize they're being played — again.
Want to be a real rebel? Read a book.