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Kanye West and celebrity

Celebrities have always existed to be made examples of

Artillery Row

Kanye West has a public meltdown. To me and many others, it’s an obvious psychotic break. The man goes on Tucker Carlson, his appearance reads closer to Shelley Duvall’s infamous Dr. Phil interview where she threatens to “f — ing kill” him for attempting to steal her “moon mole” than, say, Sean Connery quipping that slapping women isn’t “that bad if the situation calls for it” to Barbara Walters in 1987. West takes to Twitter, claims he wants to go “death con 3” on the Jews. The media cycle continues apace: Kanye West is a virulent antisemite, possibly even in his right mind. 

It doesn’t matter that he’s clearly mentally unwell. Those who even broach the issue claim it’s “no excuse” for what he’s said, despite the fact antisemitism, like gangstalking, is one of the most common tropes in these types of paranoid, psychosis-fueled outbursts. West being an antisemite is just a better story than his mental health very publicly coming apart at the seams, and so that’s what people go with. West loses ad deal after ad deal; his net worth plummets something like $600 million, if the Press is to be believed.

The news cycle loves a supervillain in our surveillance culture

I happen to believe that his mental wellness should be more closely scrutinized than his antisemitism (and I’m speaking here as a Jewish person). Why are we taking him at face value? Why is Kanye West suddenly being treated like he’s Farrakhan with ten times the platform when he has a documented history of mental illness, with psychotic features

Maybe it’s because the Right was too quick to defend him. Maybe it was the right-wing talking head’s compulsive contrarianism which claimed his Tucker Carlson appearance was “insightful” — no more insightful than Britney Spears’ episodes on Instagram, ladies! Or maybe the most conspiratorial depths of the Internet were right, and he did attack a sacred cow and had to be punished for it. Or maybe — and here’s the one that I think is closest to the truth — that’s just the function of celebrities in our media ecosystem. We don’t treat them with the compassion we’d treat anyone else in our community, because that’s not their purpose. 

What is the purpose of celebrity? They’re commodities. Nobody listens to music. Nobody goes to the movies. But the curtain never closes on outrage, and so for celebrities locked within traditional institutions, their purpose is to generate headlines. A good threat has always generated more clicks than pity. The news cycle loves a supervillain in our surveillance culture, so Kanye West becomes a supervillain. In another era, perhaps he’d be cast in another type of role. 

People in my milieu — the alternative media ecosystem, the counterculture that allegedly rebels against the clickbait economy — love to ask, “Why can’t we separate art from the artist? Entertainer from the entertainment?” In my heart, I want to believe that we should, and perhaps once did, allow artists to be artists. 

I’d like to believe that there was a time and a place where the public stage had enough space for eccentrics and provocateurs to explore the full expression of their voices. Maybe not without fear of reprobation, but certainly without fear of banishment. I reach back into my memory, and return to some mystical re-interpretation of the ‘90s, where enough charisma could allow you to drop a bomb on national television and still have a career the next day. But things have never been like that. 

What’s shifted is what trips the alarm, not that there’s an alarm system

Celebrities have always existed to be made examples of: to be under constant scrutiny, to guide our consumption, to be identified with or against. What’s shifted is what trips the alarm, not that there’s an alarm system at all. Sinéad O’Connor wasn’t allowed to criticise the Catholic Church in 1992, and Lisa Bonet wasn’t permitted full-frontal nudity in 1987. Kanye West won’t get his redemption arc until it’s expedient to offer it. The nature of celebrity is so obvious that it’s easy to disregard entirely. Celebrities aren’t artists who became famous because they earned it in any traditional sense of the word. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t celebrities who are talented or aren’t true artists; there are plenty. I would imagine many people would count Kanye West among those. 

But their talent isn’t what makes them celebrities

Celebrities belong to a complex ecosystem of institutions that help determine the texture and longevity of their careers. We don’t democratically decide their relevance. Their relevance is decided for us. The naivete of wondering why we can’t separate art from the artist, or entertainers from the entertainment, is the underlying assumption that any of this is about art or entertainment. 

Dismantling these structures was supposed to be one of the great promises (or threats, depending on your vantage point) of the Internet. Remove the necessity of institutional support, and perhaps fame would become something like a meritocracy, or at least not beholden to advertisers. For some dark corners of the web, that’s true. Perhaps West’s true redemption relies in the world of the cult following — not celebrity as we know it. There he’d be appreciated for what he creates, not what piece he is on a board.

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