Rock’n’roll history is full of badly behaved egocentrics. So why does Kanye get criticised for following in this grand tradition?
Everyone – aside from the millions of people who buy his records, attend his live shows and devour his interviews – hates Kanye West right now. Whether it’s members of the public starting moronic petitions, or former boyband members declaring him “shite”, nobody can stand the man (apart from the millions of people who have made him the biggest pop star on the planet, as I pointed out earlier).
Yet there’s one group of people who seem to have reserved a special amount of ire for West, and that’s the greying old guard of rock’n’roll. Ageing white men in bands whose time has been and gone. Now those guys really hate Kanye.
“He can’t write, sing, or play. At all,” tweeted David Crosby last week, adding: “He is an egomaniac, he is dumb as a post, he creates nothing, helps no one.”
It wasn’t the first time Crosby had attacked West. Back in March, he claimed the Yeezus mastermind was “an idiot and a poser … has no talent at all.” This time he backed up his attack by saying West’s music seemed “like percussive poetry to me ... but not very good poetry. Mostly very bad poetry”, which sounds like something my mum might possibly say about him, and she hasn’t engaged meaningfully with pop music since Adam Faith made her go weak at the knees in 1959.
Crosby’s not alone. “Kanye West. Utter shit”, tweeted former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher after the rapper – backed by an entourage of UK grime stars – pulled off the most astonishing performance at this year’s Brit awards. At least it was an improvement on his brother Noel’s viewpoint: “Kanye West? I’d have knocked him out,” ran a recent NME coverline. Devoid of the guitarist’s usual comic wit, it seemed like a weirdly Neanderthal-like threat.
Elsewhere, Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame opined that the multiple Grammy-award-winning artist who’s only ever released critically acclaimed albums is unable to “put a couple of notes together either vocally or two bars of valid music playing an instrument … I don’t know if I call it songwriting from a musician’s standpoint. Beck is obviously a consummate musician. He plays instruments, many instruments.”
So what is going on? You could argue that all this was simply a case of older generations not understanding the younger upstart. But then Glastonbury happened, Kanye declared himself “the world’s greatest living rock star”, and rock’s old timers revealed what it is that really irks them.
“Who’s the biggest rock star in the world? That must be Elvis Presley,” said the Who’s Pete Townshend from the stage the following night, failing to grasp Kanye’s use of the word “living”.
Slipknot’s Corey Taylor was even moved to record a video message, complete with a slapped wrist, to tell Kanye that he had to “stop it”.
Could the reason creaking rock’n’rollers are getting all upset is that they see the “ownership” of rock’n’roll under threat? Ever since white guys got to rewrite rock history on their own terms (as Mos Def eloquently pointed out on his 1999 track Rock’N’Roll), they’ve been relatively content to pass down from white guy to white guy, but don’t seem to be able to handle it when it’s suddenly claimed back by a black man.
Just look at the criticisms, which seem to attack Kanye West for the very things rock’n’roll supposedly celebrates: bad behaviour and egocentricity. Liam Gallagher can walk out of US tours, Slipknot can declare “people = shit”, and countless metallers can spend a lifetime consuming drugs and groupies on the Sunset Strip. But when it comes to Kanye, suddenly everyone’s talking about “manners” and “showing respect” – classic tropes displayed by white people when faced with the “uppity” black person.
The irony is that Kanye’s behaviour isn’t even bad – he’s a married man with a child who works obsessively and never seems to be out of control on drink or drugs. He’s better behaved than Justin Bieber! Sure, he likes to proclaim his own greatness a lot, but isn’t that what rock’n’rollers have been doing since the dawn of time? Wasn’t that part of the thrill of Oasis? Isn’t it the kind of thing even pondlife like Catfish and the Bottlemen get away with, week in, week out, on the pages of NME? So why is it OK for them but not for Kanye?
Notable exceptions who are happy to let Kanye join the party are scarce. Paul McCartney, who recently collaborated with him, shows the same kind of open mind that made the Beatles a unique musical proposition. Lou Reed – who always boasted a more advanced empathy with, and understanding of, identity than his peers – wrote a brilliant review of Yeezus. That he (mostly) admired it is almost beside the point – the fact Reed engaged with West’s music, regarded him as a musical equal, is what elevates his opinion above all the others.
“The guy has a real wide palette to play,” he wrote, adding: “Very often, he’ll have this very monotonous section going and then, suddenly – “BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP!” – he disrupts the whole thing and we’re on to something new that’s absolutely incredible. That’s architecture, that’s structure – this guy is seriously smart. He keeps unbalancing you.” It’s a far cry from the typical “he just uses computers” and “can’t sing” jibes.
Elsewhere, though, there’s little love for Kanye, and even less reflection. Maybe self-examination of your kneejerk opinions is not very rock’n’roll. But it’s not doing the old guard any favours, and they’re not winning the war.
When Corey Taylor was asked if he enjoyed the frenzied reaction to his Kanye rant, he let his mask slip: “No! God no! Here’s the thing: I’ve written three books, I’ve sold millions of albums, I’m in two different bands, I’m in movies and shit. And this is what it took? This is what it took?”
When it comes to rock’n’roll, it’s clearly Kanye’s world. All the other rockers are just whining in it.
This article was written by Tim Jonze, for theguardian.com on Monday 13th July 2015 15.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010