Kanye West is a narcissist, and Kanye West is a celebrity. This basically means that he will say whatever he wants, and we will listen. Last night, as we all now know because of course we do, Kanye West went and did something he has become really good at doing: he took the attention away from deserving individuals and directed it towards someone else, namely himself.
When he stood up to parody himself at the Grammys it was funny for a moment (Jay Z definitely found it funny for longer than this). But parody only stays funny if the intent of the comedian is to actually degrade themselves for the sake of the joke. This was clearly not Kanye's intent, as he demonstrated at the Grammys after-party, where he declared: "All I know is if the Grammys want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain't gonna play with them no more. Flawless, Beyoncé video. Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé, and at this point, we tired of it."
When did Kanye West become the decider of all that is worthy and non-worthy in the creative arts, why did we start paying so much attention to him, and what are the associated problems?
There are a few sociological reasons that explain why we become so obsessed with celebrities, particularly ones who refuse to shut the hell up.
Firstly, we're the only mammals who elevate members of society for prestige over brute dominance. "Unlike other primates, we also differentiate social status in terms of prestige. In contrast to dominance, prestige is given voluntarily. It is freely conferred to individuals in recognition of their achievements in a particular field, and is not backed up by force," explains Jamie Tehrani, a social anthropologist at Durham University. We also need to continually check in with these prestigious individuals to make sure they deserve the power we've conferred to them. But we're pretty indiscriminate with what we admire in these people once we've elevated them. Ergo, we elevated Kanye West because he's a great musician, but we now admire everything he says and does, simply because of the position he's in. When Kanye declares himself God, we're like "oh yeah, he probably is", instead of using all of the other evidence in the world to believe otherwise.
Secondly, eye tracking research, undertaken by Douglas Kenrick, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, proves that humans – as young as eight months old – are attracted to attractive people. James Bailey, a psychologist at George Washington University, then discovered that the more we see a face, the more we want to see that face. So, celebrities look good, become good what they do, and then basically have the power to take over the world – or the attention of the world at least.
We see this kind of celebrity worship everywhere. Sometimes it's pretty harmless – Nespresso think that if they can convince us that George Clooney likes Nespresso, we'll like Nespresso too (even though it's highly doubtful that George Clooney drinks Nespresso IRL). Sometimes it's less harmless – James Packer thinks that if he can convince us that Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsesce like gambling, we'll like gambling, which probably doesn't have particularly positive social externalities.
Kanye's ability to command earnest attention sits somewhere in between those two cases – it's more harmful than believing George Clooney likes terrible coffee, and less harmful than creating a world of problem gamblers. But, by getting on his soapbox and declaring himself the decider of what is and is not creative, he's removing the attention from those – you know, creatives – who deserve it, and narrowing the definition of what creativity is in the mainstream. This #whoarethesuburbs #whoisbeck nonsense is only going to get worse if we've got Kanye's moronic "Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Beyoncé" declarations on loop.
Creativity is defined as "the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness", and a myriad Grammy 2015 winners fit into this – if not Kanye's – definition.
Beck's Album of the Year, Morning Phase, was his first album-proper in six years, time he spent producing for the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stephen Malkmus, and releasing randomly excellent things like his 20-minute cover of Philip Glass. It's also his first return to straightforward, emotive songwriting since Sea Change, released 13 years ago, and the intervening years have served him well; Morning Phase presents his ongoing lyrical concerns – disconnection, alienation and abstraction from people, from society – in the most emotionally arresting way to date. Before Morning Phase he released Beck's Song Reader; an interesting, progressive, some-might-even-say-bizarre attempt to present popular music in a new way, by releasing his record as sheet music that the audience could interpret. Surely this counts as "creative"? Before Beck's Song Reader he, oh, I donno, released some of the most definitional albums of their time, over the course of 20+ years. Like Midnight Vultures (1999) and Guero (2005) – both contagious fusions of '90s alt. rock, soul and hip hop. Or The Information (2003), a record that deals with the problems of our tech age before we knew they were problems. Or Sea Change (2002), a simple folk record that demonstrates the ability for music to be emotionally evocative like few others (Lost Cause kills). Yeah, I'd say Beck's pretty creative.
But there were other winners at this year's Grammys who have been excluded entirely in the resulting conversation, largely because Kanye didn't discuss them and apparently we only discuss what Kanye discusses. Annie Clark, AKA St Vincent, for example, won Best Alternative album. Her 2014 self-titled album is a confident fully realised creative vision by a "creative" at the top of her game. Via the lyrical sentiment of songs like Birth in Revere and Digital Witness, it challenges modern definitions of individuals and societies, and via subtle, aggressive, genderless musicality it compounds the lyrical challenges and presents new ways to go about things. She also happens to be the first solo female artist to win Best Alternative Album, which should be celebrated, and yet, I haven't read that story from last night's awards anywhere but here.
St Vincent is an artist who challenges mainstream music from within: her music is accessible, but different. She's an outsider, but only just. By being stuck inside Kanye's opinion, and therefore ignoring the creative achievements of people like St Vincent, we're never going to adapt our definition of what mainstream creativity is, or can be. We need to stop repeating "Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Beyoncé" (no offense to her incredible talent), and start repeating "who else is out there?"
I'm aware that by writing this I may have added to Kanye West's celebrity – although I haven't just copied and pasted a list of tweets so that's something – but it's impossible to move on from Kanye West without first discussing why we're struggling to, and why we need to, which ultimately is that, right now, the #1 enemy to the "creativity" Kanye West speaks of is Kanye West.
Published on February 10th, 2015 by Courtney Sanders
Follow Courtney on Twitter @misscjsanders
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