There is but one truly serious question in pop culture and it is embodied in the puzzling figure of Kanye West: is he really that ridiculous or is it all an act? This goes to the question of what determines success in the entertainment industry. Is success due to talent or is the industry all business and success the product of image and celebrity?
There’s an especially telling line in ‘famous’, a track from Kanye’s new album, The Life of Pablo: “feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, Why? I made that bitch famous”. Here Kanye references the 2009 VMA incident in which Kanye tore the microphone from Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech and declared Beyoncé more worthy of the award. The incident generated controversy, the controversy generated media attention, the media attention generated exposure and the exposure generated albums sales. With these lyrics, Kanye identifies the link between media attention and success in the entertainment industry – not just in Taylor’s rise but inadvertently in his own career as well. The VMA incident is probably the most notorious of many controversies surrounding the singer/rapper/producer/voice-of-a-generation, lending to his heavily-satirised image of being an egomaniac – a walking deficit of humour and self-awareness, clad in designer shades. But I would argue the opposite: Kanye West is an incredibly self-aware artist who has enlarged the most abrasive aspects of his personality in order to generate the media attention that guarantees his albums will sell.
This tactic rests on the principle that once music reaches a certain threshold of excellence, listener enjoyment becomes sufficiently subjective such that artistic improvement bears little relation to audience appeal. At this point it becomes impossible to predictably increase sales through any further alteration of the music. However, while the proportion of people who like and buy a song will remain at, say, a stubborn two per cent of total listeners on average, you can still increase the number of sales by increasing the total number of people exposed to the song. This can be achieved through practices such as payola (paying radio stations to play your music). But it can also be achieved much more cheaply and legally by generating controversy around the album or the artist, which in turn increases overall listenership and therefore sales.
In the ballad of Kanye, the music industry is stretched before us. Success is not the deterministic by-product of hard work.
The more arbitrary the value of a product the more control institutions have in determining that value. Like a diamond, music has no intrinsic value. The reason we pay money for it it is because it has personal value to us as consumers.
The practices described above happen to some extent in all industries but in a market where the product’s value starts and ends with “how it makes us feel”, there is more scope for value to be determined by outside factors.
Kanye’s phenomenal sales can therefore be linked to his ‘controversy rich’ public personality. But this doesn’t mean that said image is artificial. An alternate narrative is one of a tortured genius spinning his soul into sick beats. This is corroborated by the absolute dedication Kanye has shown to his work from the beginning – at the age of 13 he cut his first ‘record’ in a dingy basement studio, of which his mother once recalled: “the microphone was hanging from the ceiling by a wire hanger. But he was so excited, I couldn’t say no”. It is further evidenced by his public reworking of already-released tracks, in an attempt to perfect them and the fact that ‘egotistic’ Kanye is consistently critical of his own music. All of this points toward the image of a man who truly cares about his art. But when taken with a persistent focus concerning the sales of his albums and the number of accolades won at high-profile award shows, we see that Kanye measures the value of his work not through some internal metric but through their reception by the public and critics.
From Kanye’s evident awareness of the threshold phenomenon described above, we begin to see a picture of an eccentric artist who has taken the more abrasive aspects of his personality and accentuated them in order to ensure the success of his work through the only measure he values. In the ballad of Kanye, the music industry is stretched before us. Success is not the deterministic by-product of hard work. Once a certain threshold of excellence is reached, the measure of value becomes subjective enough that an artist’s personal eccentricities and the industry itself determines sales. To Kanye, this is success.