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Chronically Online: The Politics of Kanye West

Before Kanye West started dating Kim Kardashian, he appeared in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in relaxed jeans and an untucked white button-down to “make Kim over.” West rifled through the walk-in closet of Kim’s Tuscan-style home, tossing out stilettos and leopard print tunics. He was soft-spoken, bordering on tight-lipped, in a way that so starkly contrasted high decibel 2010s reality TV it was almost disturbing. This tonal dissonance intimated a foreboding much larger than Balenciaga-ifying a reality star’s wardrobe. The Netflix docu-series jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy confirms a similar suspicion. Somehow, producers Coodie and Chike had the foresight to anticipate enough material for a trilogy years before any real fame. Even from the beginning, Kanye West represented something huge and unignorable about American culture. It is unclear now whether he is a symbol or merely a signal of precipitous decline.

One can no longer have a conversation about West that is strictly about culture or aesthetics. He is now an explicitly political figure.

In 2014, Kim and Kanye were married and Yeezy S1 dropped a year later. The collection’s most noted characteristics were its minimalism, both in color scheme and silhouette, and utilitarian/military pastiche. The Yeezy GAP collab was announced in 2020. It was a moment, if not an ephemeral one, during which high and mid-brow looked to converge. GAP is a company that seems fundamentally at odds with Yeezy. It markets to the Average American. It is consistent, reliable, denim… not Yeezy. Spartan basics were to be sold out of giant trash bags on the floors of GAP stores at a price point somewhere between a pair of GAP jeans and Yeezy sweatpants. The concept wildly arpeggiated across an aesthetic spectrum: apocalyptic army and the American mall, nihilism and mass consumption, high concept, and mass production. This realizes a shock value only achievable by extreme, unexpected contrast. 

It is challenging to organize the sheer breadth of West’s political web and how it continues to grow more tangled and convoluted, especially given the events of the past couple of weeks. At the Paris Fashion Week Yeezy show, he wore a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt alongside Candace Owens who Vulture, in their piece on the matter, described as a “right-wing darling.” Even the availability of descriptions like “right-wing darling” signals a kind of aesthetic attunement to politics and the creation of aesthetically motivated archetypes within politics. The impulse to identify archetypes in politics is curious and seems to be a distinctly contemporary phenomenon, at least as it appears in this degree of overtness (e.g. the phrase “right-wing darling”). In this way, the convergence of aesthetics and politics is the perfect ‘in’ for a figure like Kanye West, whom the culture deemed an artist and who deems himself a politician. 

There is a bizarre dissonance that emerges when trying to reconcile these two spheres in one man to make sense of the rapidly manufactured layers of identity. There was a time in the past few months that bore a Kanye West headline at least once a week. A particularly notable one was his dinner with former president Donald Trump and company, one of which was white supremacist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes. The dinner produced a predictable slew of absurdist one-liners. Trump claimed to not have known of Fuentes or what he stands for. West asked Trump, “[w]hy when you had the chance did you not free the January sixers?” In a debrief of the dinner with one of his campaign advisors, who was none other than Milo Yiannopoulos, West said, “[w]hen Trump started basically screaming at me at the table, telling me I was going to lose. I mean, has that ever worked for anyone in history? I’m like, whoa, whoa, hold on, hold on Trump, you’re talking to Ye.”

Less than a week earlier, Rolling Stone published a story titled “Kanye West Used Porn, Bullying ‘Mind Games’ to Control Staff.” Pete Fox, the president of Yeezy, told Rolling Stone, “[i]n high fashion, there’s a lot of sexy, controversial things that maybe they reference or look at, as opposed to a company like Adidas where you would never show any nudity in a mood board.” Here, again, aesthetic value is assigned to a power dynamic that is far more lecherous than art or fashion: it’s political. In fact, Fox’s statement might perfectly describe what is so profound about West’s recent rampage. It has to do largely with a dangerous flippancy, feigned artistry, a disturbingly glib confusion about what is really “art” and what is “real life” and a disregard for how one is used to achieving the intended effect in the other. This would explain his use of pornographic visuals as adjectives. Former Yeezy collaborator said that, after playing MILF porn, West expressed watching that video is what he wanted putting on Yeezys to feel like.

One thing feeling just like something else seems to be a large part of West’s ethos. At the 2018 Trump-West summit, West expressed how affecting he found the MAGA hat. “It was something about when I put this hat on … It made me feel like Superman. That’s my favorite superhero. And you made a Superman cape for me.” Wearing Yeezys feels like watching MILF porn. Wearing a MAGA hat feels like being a superhero. It is not exactly that thing but it might as well be because it feels just like it. 

West’s music has always been political, but it is when he shifted from political art to artistic politics (2020 presidential bid, meetings with Trump) that he forwent the ability to obfuscate his politics by playing them off as just “stylish, sexy, or controversial.” Today, American politics, on both sides of the aisle, are dangerously concerned with dramatic aesthetics. Politicians have large social media followings and are recognizable by their faces. They release merchandise and their family dramas play out in tabloids. This easy perversion of popular celebrity culture presents the opportunity for politics as a commodity, as ideological material to be packaged into consumable material, such as a MAGA hat or, for that matter, an AOC sweatshirt. Being able to categorize and arrange political ephemera to the point of aesthetic cohesion, begs the question of whether this is more or less the same thing as ideological cohesion.

In his book The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, Jean-Paul Martinon writes, “[a] distinction between ‘curating’ and ‘the curatorial’ means to emphasize a shift from the staging of the event to the actual event itself: its enactment, dramatization, and performance.” The curator can be both the stagehand and the actor, perhaps, in the same way, West’s art has been curated to present the curatorial object: his politics. 

In a cultural moment increasingly concerned with aesthetics and with the increasingly advanced tools at our disposal to collage them into existence, it is interesting to consider the evolution of American politics through a curatorial lens. West offers an opportunity to decode what might be the New Republican Man. This Republican has eschewed the red-neck, gun-toting, Trump-rally attendee connotations of his party. He is not limited by traditionally conservative geography or scared away from liberal bastions. He is drawn to J.D. Vance because he is an academic and the vocal fried, louche-right, Dimes Square Red Scare girls because he likes art. He’s over-stimulated, mentally ill, dangerously misinformed, and enjoys increasingly inappropriate genres of pornography. He is also chronically online and, as a result, everyone knows all of this because it is broadcasted in excruciating detail all over the internet and because he cannot seem to stop tweeting about it. 

In Kanye West, the public bore witness to an incredible rise and an incredible fall. Years of increasingly erratic and public behavior culminated in a bizarre, incoherent anti-semitic Twitter screed. West was dropped from his label and divorced by Kim Kardashian. Both collaborations with Adidas and Gap were terminated. In a final, perfect twist of fate, West married a Yeezy designer who bears a remarkable resemblance to Kim Kardashian, although, even more poetically, the marriage is not legally binding. It seems West is poised to do it all over again.

Feature Image Source: CNN

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