Even if you’ve never listened to a single Kanye West song or viewed one second of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, you probably have an opinion about Kanye and Kim. They’re one of America’s favorite couples, living proof that any attention is good attention. Buzz is that they’re fame whores — everything that’s wrong with American society. But that attitude brings out the contrarian in me, so I submit that, to some extent, you’re wrong about them.
People are quick to dismiss Kanye as nothing more than a loudmouth. But he’s a consummate performer, and the role he’s assumed is voice of the id.
Let’s start with his stunning takedown of George W. Bush. During A Concert for Hurricane Relief after Hurricane Katrina, Kanye famously went off script and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His mike was cut, but everybody heard him. To many, this comment was manifestly true. It landed like an uppercut, and Bush himself said it was “one of the most disgusting moments of his presidency.”
My beef is that Kanye apologized. If you’re going to say it, own it. He did.
When Taylor Swift was accepting the MTV 2009 Best Female Video Award for “You Belong With Me,” Kanye jumped on stage and said that Beyoncé actually deserved it more for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Everybody lost their minds — big, crazy black man embarrassing the perfect little white girl as she got her award. The horror! Except that a lot of us agreed with him but were too decorous to say it.
After Kanye dissed Beck for winning Album of the Year over Beyoncé at last year’s Grammys, even Beck admitted Beyoncé deserved it more. It’s not Beck’s fault that the Grammys are pathetically out of touch with mainstream culture — and Beyoncé’s probably sick of all this — but what Kanye points out in his flamboyantly tactless way is that race still plays a role in who wins awards, in politics, in American culture.
Undeniably, Kanye deserved his 21 Grammys and has created some of the most interesting hip-hop of his generation. Listen to his music and see that he’s a lot more than just a clown. He’s deeply aware of racial issues, of his own foibles, and the challenges of African Americans from within and without. Separate the artist from the art.
What about Kim?
Kim is most definitely a part of that art, the perfect foil for her husband. It’s my considered opinion that Kim Kardashian is misinterpreted by, well, just about everyone who talks about her.
Reality shows like Kim’s create the illusion that we know the participants. For research purposes, I watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and anyone who thinks it’s anything other than a loosely scripted sitcom is silly. Our false intimacy with Kim makes us think we can speak with authority about who she is. It’s a character, folks. She’s selling an image that people are buying in spades: a materialistic, spoiled girl with only first world problems. What everyone misses is that it’s a send-up.
The biggest criticism of Kim is that she’s a vapid fembot. The roots of her career, and the careers of her entire family, grew from a sex tape that was leaked to the Internet. Many of Kim’s critics use this as proof that she’s a glorified porn star. She took a situation that would have shamed others and turned it into the basis for a dynasty. That’s nothing short of enviable.
What is the only thing a person truly owns? Her body. Common wisdom is that a body is all Kim has and a pretty (surgically altered) face. However, like Helen of Troy, that face and tuchus have launched a thousand ships. People claimed to be disgusted by her oiled up photos in Paper magazine, but 5 million people went to Paper’s site to view it, not counting all those reproduced images. She got paid for that in nothing but fame.
I’ve heard people hyperbolize that Kim is a symbol of the downfall of American culture, that it’s morally offensive that she’s famous for being famous. In Bossypants, Tina Fey says Kim was made in a Russian lab to sabotage our athletes. No one will admit to liking her, but paradoxically, there’s an insatiable demand for her. Her net worth is $85 million, and she makes about $25 million per year, mostly endorsing products and selling merchandise that everyone knows she doesn’t use. She’s selling a fantasy, and lots of people are buying. Don’t know if I admire her as a person (after all, I don’t know her, and neither do you), but I find her success formidable.
Perhaps Kim’s just well-managed and has no agency in any of this. If so, she sure toes the line. I’m not saying she invented the app that raked in $200 million last year, or that she writes the scripts for KUWTK. But Kim spends a lot of time in the public eye and never freaks out or breaks character, even in the face of scathing personal attacks, pervasive slut shaming, and media overexposure. Not for Kim public breakdowns, drug abuse, or rehab. She rarely makes controversial comments or political statements. She and Kanye complement each other perfectly — he’s too raw and truthful; she’s the well-oiled Teflon surface. And they’re both always showing their asses in public.
Obama is right
President Obama and I agree: Kanye is a jackass, but he’s talented. And he’s speaking from real hurt, a genuine feeling of being slighted by a culture that still can’t get past its racial issues. He’s keeping it real.
Kim’s not real at all and never pretended to be. She’s Tinkerbell. If you believe in her, clap your hands and she’ll keep flittering around. Don’t, and she’ll disappear in a puff of body glitter. While she satisfies America’s deep need for a cultural whipping girl, she’s going to continue to get rich off our scorn.
It’s the American dream, folks. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Photo of Kanye West by David Shankbone via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.