Bertrand Russell was the one who said, “Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.” I would have to agree. In our daily lives we are much more viscerally connected to where we stand in our immediate social world than to where we stand in the world at large. We know this about ourselves, but often forget it about others.
Forgetting this allows us to feel shock when we see reports suggesting that many populations in the third world are statistically just as happy as the average American, or it lets us feel disgusted when the rich and famous publicly show any sort of anger. This brings us to Kanye West, a figure in popular culture who is as divisive as they come. This article does not attempt to make anyone like or dislike Kanye West, or his music. It does, however, try to analyze how we assign narratives to figures in popular culture that quite possibly have more to do with us than with them.
In spite of all the tabloids, music videos, interviews and infamous award show moments, the overwhelming majority of us have never personally known Kanye West or any other figures of extreme fame, nor will we ever. This makes our impressions of him and others in his position extremely fragmented. The allusion that West sees himself as a demigod on his newest album “Yeezus” is a particular fragment has not been received well by many. The need persists, however, to keep him and other such divisive characters in the popular lexicon— be it as a rapper, an egomaniac, a creative, or someone who is just plain angry. Why is this?
Objectively, the demand speaks for itself. Negative press about Kanye West and his personal life sells. So too does his music. People enjoy loving the man as much as they do hating him. Expressing one’s opinion about Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, or truly anyone of widespread fame is a way of asserting one’s own social identity. When people express outrage over a Kanye outburst, or an MTV event such as Miley Cyrus twerking, for example, it’s more likely that they want to assert to others something about their own values more than they are authentically shocked that a pop star would do something sexually tasteless. It’s not really about her. It’s about how individuals peg their own behavior to hers.
The consequence of this for all of us is that when a famous person becomes known for a fairly generic behavior, be it positive or negative, it robs the person of fame of their own identity, replacing it with a caricature that is tailored to fit a larger social narrative more than it is a profile of who they actually are.
This then degrades the perceived value of everyone else’s personalities too, for we are all partly forced to talk about our feelings and ideas through a series of familiar pop references instead of through the much more personalized lens that any given person sees the world.
A great deal of this is a result of mass media’s push towards a global culture, but it’s also a very voluntary act by the majority of us today when we click the links and buy the magazines that fuel both the gossip and much of our own self-discontent. We resent the status that people of fame have because the recognition of our own thoughts and ideas pales in comparison (not to mention the concept of wealth as a validation of ideas). The flip side is that we fuel their status by discussing details about their perceived private lives, which make them seem ever more distant from us, and further dehumanizes them.
Famous people suffer from this predicament as well, for they are often elevated for superficial reasons that they had not intended to be known for. Given that so many celebrities come from the arts and remain working in creative professions, such as writing, acting, or music, it’s no surprise how many of them express anger about their public perceptions. They want to be recognized for their work and fear that the cultural narrative about their personal lives, regardless of its accuracy, elevates their fame by degrading their creative endeavors. What is truly more frustrating? Anonymity, or total misperception?
The famous and the not famous both appear to be hurting the other’s sense of self, making everyone ever angrier that they are not being viewed in the light that they would like to be seen. Kanye West makes some very blunt points about this in his most recent interview with the BBC.
Famous or unknown, rich or poor, all of us want to be taken seriously. Popular culture has stolen some identities and disfigured others. Perhaps, as time goes by, popular culture will mature to a point where the need for authenticity may one day trump the need for attention. In the meantime, the Kanyes of this world are destined to ever more success, and perhaps also ever more frustration.