I’m Fascinated By What Kanye West Is Doing

In The Beatles first film, the wonderful A Hard Day’s Night, George accidentally wonders into a casting office and is mistaken for teenager, seeking work in a new commercial. You can watch it below. And you should. It’s funny and it’s relevant.

I’ve been thinking about this scene a lot lately and how it relates to Kanye West and his new album Swish, Waves,  The Life of Pablo. Specifically, I’ve been trying to figure out if I think Kanye is a new phenomenon or just a trouble maker.

But, first some background.

Up until a month ago, my exposure to the music of Kanye I might have included hearing a Kanye West song somewhere once. This was not a stance I had taken against Kanye for making Mike Meyers uncomfortable, more on that later, it was a product of an unconscious choice I made when I was 15.

In Jr. High, I loved rap/hip hop. I came home from school every day and turned on Yo! MTV Raps and got into Kwame, Heavy D, Digital Underground, Biz Markie, Special Ed, KRS-One, Sir Mix-A-Lot (Pre-Baby Got Back), The Beastie Boys, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, and my absolute favorite, Public Enemy. Hip Hop wasn’t all I listened to, but it was most of it.

And then, in March of 1991 I heard Out of Time by R.E.M. and that was it for me and hip hop. It wasn’t a clean break. I still bought and loved Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Fights Black in October of that year, but by then I had begun to drift toward Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

I was aware of The Chronic and Doggystyle, much in the same way that I was aware of Diesel and Razor Ramon in the WWF, something else I had once loved and drifted from once high school hit. But I missed almost everything that happened in rap and hip hop after 1991. I missed Biggie. I missed Pac. I missed Jay Z.

I didn’t miss Eminem.

But I missed everything else. Including Kanye West.

So, a month ago, I listened to The College Dropout and read Wikipedia and my opinion of Kanye, built exclusively on his award show nonsense, his anger at not being allowed to have a career in the fashion industry, and his appearances on South Park, broadened considerably.

College Dropout (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’ve know this for a long time) is amazing. And I found his backstory of trying to become a rapper after being pigeonholed as a producer and creator of beats for other artists fascinating.

The conceit of the last track, Last Call, where he describes his career to that point and  basically says, “no one thought this would work, but I made an amazing album that will change the world” is fantastic.  Remember, he wrote and recorded that song before anyone had heard the album. The only proof he had that it was great was that he was sure it was great.

And it was great.

But I’d never heard it, so here’s what I thought about Kanye, and it’s what most of your typical Simon Marshall’s thought of Kanye. This guy is an egomaniac. All he does is talk about how awesome he is while confusing white people on stage at awards shows. (There’s a great short documentary to be made of a dinner with all the people Kanye has derailed during award shows) He doesn’t have a sense of humor about himself or anything else (hell, he doesn’t even get the fish sticks joke), and he has a strange sense of entitlement.

I was truly baffled by his assertion that he should be allowed to be a fashion designer and that the fashion industry was bigoted and holding him back, as if everyone on earth has to actively turn down their job as a fashion designer, but Kanye has to beg just to get a meeting.

I still think that’s kind of nuts, but it makes more sense after listening to Last Call. People have been telling him he can’t his whole career, this was just another example and he was going to prove them wrong.

Maybe Kanye is a new phenomenon.

Then I worked my way through his catalog, liking some of it more than others. I’m not a huge fan of autotune, so draw your own conclusions about which albums I was less interested in, but I like artists that stretch and try new things. If every album sounds exactly the same you had better be as awesome at creating that same sound as AC/DC is at creating their song, and most people aren’t.

So, I was actually looking forward to his new album.

I’d begun to follow him on twitter and pay attention to the information that was out there about what was called Swish when I first became aware of it.

And then I delighted in the Wiz Khalifa twitter explosion that accompanied Kanye changing the name of the album to Waves and thinking that anytime anyone tweets the letters KK they are throwing shade at his wife (what must he think of references to the Klan?).

I had this image of Kanye in my head, stopping the entire recording session and pacing back and forth across the room with his phone in his hand screaming nonsense about Wiz Khalifa and then tweeting all of it realtime. I have no knowledge that this is what happened, but you’d have to work to convince me otherwise.

If he can become so completely unhinged after a misunderstood tweet to the point where he felt forced to tweet the next day about how he never let an ex-girlfriend anywhere near his butthole, he had to be nuts, right?

Then he changed the name of the album again. The Life of Pablo this time. Announcing it via twitter. He leaked a track listing. Then it was clear that he was still recording parts of the album, changing the songs, adding new verses, deleting old collaborations, not done with it yet, possibly moving the release date. It all seemed nuts.

And any thought that his twitter explosions might have been a calculated way to create more buzz around his album seemed unlikely.

Maybe, Kanye is just a troublemaker.

After all, he just can’t seem to leave Taylor Swift alone, rapping about having sex with her and then shouting about her back stage at SNL last weekend.

He can’t seem to finish an album or release it in any comprehendible way.

TLOP was played live at Madison Square Garden during a Kanye fashion show.

A different version was release on Tidal the next day, with lyrics about how well the MSG show had gone, and also, I guess, up for sale on his website.

Then it wasn’t for sale on his website anymore and he announced it would only ever be available on Tidal and never for sale anywhere.

And I think some of the songs have been changed since then.

It’s all very confusing and I probably got some of that wrong.

But you know what I haven’t done? Listened to TLOP yet. I don’t have a Tidal account and I’m not going to get one. Not out of spite, but just because I’m not going to get one. I’ve already got too many ways I’m paying to get content these days. No plans to add another right now.

So, I have no idea if it’s any good or not. I’ve heard good things. People who tend to like Kanye, seem to like it. I’ll probably hear it at some point, but the fact that I haven’t heard it doesn’t really lessen it’s impact or potential importance.

Because here’s what’s really interesting about all of this to me. The thing that may just swing my pendulum all the way from troublemaker to phenomenon.

With all the changing album titles and added verses and altered track listings and changes in distribution methods, Kanye is possibly reinventing the music industry in real time.

Ask anyone who has ever written a book or recorded a song or made a movie and they’ll tell you that their work was never really done. It was just done enough to be published, or put on the album, or released in theaters. You want examples?

Go see Bob Dylan in concert or listen to any of his Bootleg series. He’s always changing his songs.

Stephen King rewrote parts of The Gunslinger 25 years after he released it.

George Lucas has tweaked Star Wars countless times over the years.

Kanye is just embracing the technology and admitting that this album may never be done. He changed it the night he released it, not 25 years later.

And why not?

It’s his work. His vision. His creation. He can keep creating it until the end of time, or until his attention is drawn elsewhere. Which it will be, he got more clothes to design, or maybe he wants to be an architect next. He’s already reached out to Mark Zuckerberg to become the financial backer for all of his next artistic whims.*

Sure, it looks nuts, and maybe it is nuts, but we’re seeing the process in ways we’ve never seen it before. And change is messy.

Especially if you have a twitter account and a phone in your hands at all times. But twitter is just Kanye’s way of turning down the volume and saying rude things about Susan.

Which might just make him an early sign of the new direction. I’ll know in 10 years when I finally listen to TLOP.

 

*Mark Zuckerberg, you can back me and get me out of debt for a lot less than $53 million. Call me.

The Unique Passing of David Bowie

I awoke this morning to the news that David Bowie had died after an 18-month battle with cancer that was seemingly never made public. I say “seemingly” because I’ve never spent a ton of time keeping up with what David Bowie was doing from one minute to the next, so while it’s likely I’d have heard the news that David Bowie had cancer, it’s certainly possible that I might have missed it.

So, seemingly.

The news didn’t hit me like it has hit many. I like David Bowie and everything, but he isn’t George Harrison to me. That doesn’t mean he isn’t as talented or influential or important in the history of rock music as George Harrison. It just means that I have a deeper personal connection to the Beatles than I do to Bowie.

But the news certainly did hit a number of people in that personal space inside each one of us that is created when we discover music, and gets filled throughout our formative years when a song or an artist or an album comes to define how we think of ourselves at that point in our lives.

And that space is an amazing space.

It’s completely personal in that mine was created and filled by songs and artists that are unique to me and that music combines with each other and with me to build a meaning that that music by itself, or even in similar combinations, could never mean to anyone else.

But it’s also universal. While I don’t connect to the same songs in the same way that you do, I know there’s a space inside you that is filled just as full and is just as vital to you as mine is to me.

According to my Facebook page and my Twitter feed, I know a lot of people with a Bowie-sized hole in that space.

Which isn’t surprising. Bowie was certainly a massive figure in music over the last 40+ years.

What was surprising to me was the number of conversations I had about David Bowie today with total strangers. There were more of these conversations than I’ve had about Bowie with my friends throughout my entire life, and most of those involve his appearance on Extras making fun of Ricky Gervais.

I wasn’t singing Bowie songs. Or wearing a Bowie t-shirt. Or reading an article about his death. I was just sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room and at least three people just looked at me and basically said, “Wow, huh? Bowie.”

And these interactions made two things clear to me.

  1. I look like a David Bowie fan. I must, otherwise, that’s a strange thing to say to a total stranger.
  2. David Bowie made people want to seek a connection with their fellow man. So much so that when he died, people felt the need to share this loss with people they’d never met before in their lives.

That’s pretty amazing.

And it’s unique.

I didn’t have that experience with any other musician who died in 2015. Not Lemmy (from Motörhead). And Not B.B. King.

The death of Adam Yauch was close, largely I think because the impact of The Beastie Boys on other musicians and creative people was even greater than their popular appeal, immense though that was. And this seems to be true for Bowie as well.

But not even the biggest loss is really comparable to this. When Michael Jackson died what seemed to be happening everywhere I went was people blasting Thriller or Bad or Off the Wall from every radio they could get their hands on. Cars with windows rolled down, bouncing to the bass line from Billie Jean and people very publicly remembering how much they enjoyed the King of Pop (and also, a little, how weird he was, but less than you’d think considering how much we talked about how weird he was when he was alive).

Bowie seems to be different.

And best I can figure it comes down to this.

Michael Jackson was big in ways few have ever been (The Beatles and Elvis. That’s pretty much the whole list). He was wildly popular and insanely successful. The music and the impact of Michael Jackson filled the sky.

Bowie was important. And influential. And amazing. He was incredibly popular and successful. But while Michael Jackson’s impact filled the sky. The music and the impact of David Bowie filled the ocean. His impact was huge and visible, but it ran deep and it flowed in unseen places.

 

And its the hidden, less obvious, nature of his impact that is prompting people to look at strangers and say, “Wow, huh? Bowie.”

The Gen-X Response to the VMAs

Last night we finished the marathon that is Margaret and then I hopped over to Netflix to watch S1 Ep.9 of Orange is the New Black. At some point in the evening, I hopped on Twitter and saw that the MTV VMA’s was going on. This has become my annual tradition; discovering that the VMAs are on via some form of universal Twitter reaction. This suits me fine.

Here’s what I know about this year’s VMAs.

My Twitter feed is glad to be done with the VMAs.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I’ve Made Colin Meloy Proud of Me Again!

In January, 2011 The Decemberists released their wildly successful album, The King is Dead. It became the number 1 album on the Billboard 200 Album chart, and the single Down By The Water was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song, but was beaten out by some guys who fight foo’s in their spare time.

They toured in support of The King is Dead and while on the tour, the band announced that they’d be taking a long hiatus following the tour to focus on other projects, etc. etc. yada yada.

Well, on Friday, this happened.

What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World

The long hiatus was over three years long, and I could not be more excited to see it end. I love the Decemberists, and not just because of my predilection for songs about the ghosts of babies, or WWI ranch warfare love affairs. And because of this love, any announcement of a new album would be greeted, by me, as liberators.

But this means so much more. And here’s why.

Colin Meloy is no longer disappointed in me, personally.

In 2011, I made a career change that had its positives and its negatives, and this year, I made another career change out of that previous career change.

In a direct response to the choice I made in 2011, Colin Meloy told his band to go home and not make any more music until I’d come to my senses. Well, this past spring, my senses were arrived at and, now, firmly placed upon a new trajectory, The Decemberists have agreed to quit punishing the world with their absence.

I’d like to apologize to everyone for causing this break to occur in the first place. I didn’t know that was going to happen, and if I had, I never would have done it. Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea Maxima Culpa.

I’d also like to accept everyone’s thanks and gratitude for getting my it together and making a choice that Colin could support.

You’re all welcome.

In your face, Galileo Galilei!

For those of you who are stuck with your the outmoded belief that the Catholic Church is horribly behind the times and culturally stagnant, I present for your approval irrefutable scientific proof that they are, in fact, “with it.”

While it took the Vatican somewhere in the neighborhood of 360 years to change their stance on Galileo’s outrageous stance that the Earth was not the center of the universe, it only took them, or at least their newspaper, 32 years to get over John Lennon’s statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ.

[Insert sarcastic applause here]

New R.E.M.

I’ve been an R.E.M fan for almost 20 years now. The last 10 off those have been less exciting than the first 10. Since the departure of Bill Berry after 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi the output from the Tri-pedal Athensites has been hit and miss. There have been some good moments and some painfully mediocre moments, but I just heard the new single from their upcoming album. The song, Supernatural Superserious has a title that doesn’t necessarily pop, but the song itself is FANTASTIC. It has a strong, pulsing beat a great guitar rif, forceful and passionate vocals and more energy than anything since Green. Give it a listen if you are even remotely an R.E.M. fan. You won’t be disappointed.