When Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released last November, it immediately received rave reviews from a majority of critics and was even crowned as the best album of 2010 by Pitchfork. In spite of the positive praise for MBDTF, there has been an ongoing conversation about misogyny in the context of this album ever since, a conversation that has only become more complicated by the release of the music video for “Monster,” a video littered with the bodies of dead white models, and featuring a pre-video warning that claims “The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative toward any groups of people. It is an art piece and shall be taken as such.”
I’ve had such a hard time figuring out where I stand in this conversation, especially in light of the advent of a new wave of ostensibly misogynistic acts like Tyler the Creator (who frequently raps about raping women and was recently called out by Sara Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) for his blatant misogyny and homophobia) and The Weeknd (who, in one song, sings about an soon-to-happen debaucherous sexual encounter by cryptically admonishing “Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this”) cropping up and garnering a lot of attention and hype, both positive and negative. On the one hand, Kanye’s misogynist lyrics absolutely offend my feminist sensibilities. Most of what Kanye has to say about women in his music, at least at the surface level, is damn near indefensible.
But on the other hand (and this is where things get especially tricky), the sound of his music is undeniable, and my artist’s brain affirms that the freedom of artistic expression is of paramount importance. I was a creative writing major in college and my writing professors always emphasized the importance of distance between oneself and one’s writing, because what you write is not an extension of who you are as person: it is its own entity, and you are merely the vessel that is putting it to the page. And perhaps this is why I’m reluctant to write off Kanye’s music, and to a larger extent Kanye as a person, as wholly misogynistic without thinking about his lyrics in context. In an article about Kanye in The Atlantic, Chris Jackson describes how listening to rap is “more complicated than you think it is”:
“Rap can be free wordplay or linear narrative. Sometimes a rapper uses words as rhythmic devices, as percussion, with little concern about literal meaning. Rap can be polemic or stand-up comedy. It’s autobiography, fantasy, confession, satire, lecture, dream. The voice of the rapper can be first-, second-, or third-person, comic or hyperbolic or earnest. Even then it’s complicated: Jay-Z’s voice, even in earnest first person, is not necessarily Shawn Carter’s voice, but then again sometimes it is… Kanye West may or may not be a racist and a misogynist, but before making that claim he deserves a fairer hearing than a surface reading of his lyrics. We all know that rap is narrative, with unreliable narrators, and that the point-of-view in any narrative is not necessarily the point of view of the writer, but then we occasionally choose to forget this; in those moments we make judgments on rap songs without making the effort to first understand them on the terms of the form. “
He goes on to explain why it’s difficult to make a moral judgment on Kanye in the context of the form:
“It’s a concept album–a narrative–which immediately complicates the question. Then there’s the style of narration: stream-of-consciousness… That is, Kanye’s raps aren’t about a static, fixed identity as much as they are about the passing flow of thoughts through our consciousness, thoughts that are wild and contradictory and hard to justify in the light of day. They pulse with love and seconds later hate. Our thoughts are all over the place: they surge with unrealistic ego and then punish us with unrealistic doubt… I think he’s often wildly inappropriate and offensive–but I think if I was to come down one way or the other, I ‘d say he’s more of a provocateur–and a crafter of ambiguous narratives–than an evangelist of hate speech.”
Immediately this strikes me as over-excusing, but in a way, it does make sense: Hip-hop, historically, has been a misogyny-laden musical form; saying it’s part of the art form doesn’t excuse it, but it does mean that at the very least, Kanye is simply adhering to the long-established rap paradigm and that we need to approach listening and understanding his music with intelligence and discernment. Samhita from Feministing weighs in on the issue by saying “I get that Kanye is calling himself a monster and I get that he is trying to be shocking, but I have great contention with this actually being a new frontier in music or art. What frustrates me most about Kanye is that he seeks (or rather hopes) to be avant-garde, artsy, cutting edge, something different and new… Disturbing, violent or just overtly sexualized representations of women is the oldest trick in the hip hop book, but has taken on new flair and currency in his post-gangsta hip hop imagination… He’s not transcending narratives of race and gender, he’s repeating them.” This is a point on which I absolutely agree: Kanye is a talented rapper and producer, but in terms of content, he’s not doing any real trailblazing. And what’s sad is that it’s entirely possible that his potential to really shake up hip-hop at its core is being capped by his inability to deviate too far from the already-established form.
In that same vein, I think this Kanye conundrum illustrates the hypocrisy of our entertainment culture: we are outraged by the surface message of Kanye’s music and criticize him for it, but we also continue to voraciously consume music that propagates that message we claim to detest. It makes me think of Beyonce’s video for “Run The World (Girls)”, and how she’s been critcized for asserting the power and preeminence of women in a world where that is clearly not the case. We expect our pop stars to embrace political correctness and use their music to affect social change, which seems unfair given that more often than not that is not their intention or goal. Their intent is to make money and sell records and they take whatever tack achieves that goal, but the fact remains that popular music is so often crafted to appeal to the masses, and provocative and misogynist content has proven appealing in that regard time and time again. Maybe that is more a poor reflection on our skewed sociocultural ideals and our unwillingness to take steps toward creating a world in which misogyny is not accepted in any context rather than a poor reflection on the artist as an individual.
Ultimately, I don’t think I could say definitively that this post is a matter of condoning or condemning, but rather an effort to approach the issue from every angle. I’ve seen it written all around the interwebs that Kanye’s pre-video disclaimer is a cop-out, and that he can’t avoid owning up to the video’s misogyny simply by claiming artistic license. But I’ve also read that the mass media’s focus on the dead women in the video detracts from other statements that are clearly being made in the video, like the half-resigned half-defiant affirmation of historical characterizations of black people, and especially black men, as monstrous. Discussions of this nature are of paramount importance. We have a responsibility as consumers of art to generate conversations that address the validity of artistic statements, calling bullshit when we see it but also being open to multiple interpretations.
I can say, however, that I would much prefer an artist to explore misogyny at a distance through their music without embracing it as an individual, than to have an artist like John Mayer who sings tender love songs as a performer but spews racist misogyny in an interview with Playboy as himself. Maybe that’s just further proof that adherence to an art form and personal conviction aren’t inseparable, but rather distinctly autonomous.