This is our truth, tell us yours
OK, I’m going to dip my toe into dangerous waters.
They’re the waters you have to paddle in to say, even regretfully, that I don’t think a lot of Kanye West’s performance at Glastonbury.
He’s a hugely successful artist, and he represents a huge challenge to the orthodoxies of the music and media industries. He sees himself as the greatest rock star on the planet. Since he would, as of right, demand that he defines what that means, he may even be right about it.
Personally, I hate the schlock. We, the audience, decide who is the greatest rock star on the planet and, usually, we disagree.
Elvis, for instance, was not the greatest rock star on the planet. His early stuff was derivative, and depended on his image and his astute promotion. In midlife he transformed himself into a white boy doing a kind of saccharine flavoured blue eyed soul (like In The Ghetto) that he sounded more at ease with, whose meaning is overlooked just as we try to forget the utter shite that was produced during his ‘film career’. Incidentally, if you want to see how I think In The Ghetto should be sung, here’s Candy Staton giving it the treatment.
That last paragraph, by the way, is not a quote from a textbook. It’s only my opinion. If I say that Kanye West’s auto-tuned vocals last night left me flat, dispirited and uninspired that’s my taste, nothing more.
Music acts shouldn’t be football clubs. You shouldn’t support them, right or wrong, as if they’re that rooted part of your community that defines you. Somewhere in my harddisk is a live album by Whitesnake where the fans chant the band’s name like the crowd at a football match – it’snot the only example I know of. I remember seeing photos of those audiences,with scarves bearing the band name wrapped around their wrists. Do we need to belong so badly that we’ll become partisans, passionate supporters of artists who clearly can do wrong, even as we believe they can’t? On the other side, do we need to become haters, who will oppose someone being booked for Glastonbury because we don’t like what he represents? This is nothing new by the way; learning not to be at the front at Reading on Sunday evening when the bottles of pis start flying at whichever sacrificial lambs had been booked to fill that gaps was a life lesson in the 1980s, long before Kanye went to Glasto.
Kanye West has a way of explaining his music, and his career, that makes clear it’s not about the music. You could make the point that he must know his auto tuned vocals sound shit, but doesn’t care, because it’s not about the music. It’s about being Kanye. It’s like those discordant noises Jimmy Page (another man never troubled by modesty) used to wring from his guitar with a violin bow during the life threatening tedium of a Led Zeppelin gig – Kanye, Jimmy Page and dogs licking their testicles do it simply because they can.
Kanye appears to believe that he is making statements about blackness not just when he performs, but just by being Kanye. On one level of course he is; he is a black man in an industry that is as racist as the nation it exists in, and he has resisted that racism simply by being determined to have a career on his own terms. His opinion about how you represent blackness is more valid than mine, because of his experience of being black, but it is not the only way. Kanye has become a work of art that he creates, and his dedication to being Kanye is immense, and striking. In defying conventions, form and all that has gone before he’s like the Turner Prize winning artists in the UK who excite the golf club bore to scream that an unmade bed can’t be art.
For reasons that are only mine, and not about his race, I look at Kanye, and see the performance, the commitment and the front, but not the depth. The first time I heard Gil Scott Heron I got the feeling that here was a man laying his soul on the line and asking us not to endorse it, but just to witness it. Other bluesmen have left me with the same feeling, that they were telling me how it was to be them. Black women, like Candy Staton and Millie Jackson have told their stories with power, with honesty and with passion, even as they could only dream of the platforms and privileges Kanye has enjoyed as a result of coming a generation later, a generation further down the line from a starting point where black artists were routinely ripped off, exploited and discarded.
The key word, as so often on this blog, is authenticity. Watching Kanye’s performance of being Kanye, held aloft on a cherrypicker (out of range of the piss bottles – presumably the lighting rig also was so low at the start of the set to stop anyone achieving a decent trajectory from beyond row three) I was impressed, startled, and umoved. Whatever else though, it was right that he was there, even if he looked faintly absurd, prowling the vacant stage like a man who expects the rest of the video to be blue-screened in after he’s finished his performance.
If Kanye being there annoys you, it’s not just about not buying a ticket. It’s about asking why. Why does it annoy you that he was there? Worse acts have headlined Glastonbury before, and will again in the future. As Kanye himself acknowledges by claiming to be the greatest rock artist ever, there’s none of his stage act, full of bluster, theatricality and special effects that hasn’t already appeared in the lexicon of cock rock. Actually, that lone prowling figure, resolutely sure that being Kanye is enough to drive a performance is maybe his one innovation; no posing with the band, no joking with the bass player while the guitar player fills in time with another fucking solo; for Kanye, he’s all you need, and being Kanye is all he needs to be.
That’s some confidence, and some performance. Now, if only he could sing….