Was there something literary going on at the Kanye West show Thursday night?
As I left the New Orleans Arena after the Kanye West show Thursday night (see my review for the Advocate here), I tried out a number of central thoughts and lines. I liked 'the show the Christian stoners in a high school theater arts class would come up with' but it seemed more dismissive than the show deserved. It was often unintentionally silly, but it was never boring and when he got to the business of the songs, the intense, full-bodied way he attacked them was compelling. The stagecraft frequently pushed away the hip-hop faithful judging by the response of some around me, but the right songs from all periods of his career could get people to rap with him for prolonged stretches.
In my review, I talked about the Alp onstage. In my notes, I kept referring to it as Mont Blanc, and the first time I saw it, I flashed on the cover of a paperback edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the book, Frankenstein and the monster both behave horribly at points, but each says, Let me explain, and the narrative is a story inside a story inside a story, each with the storyteller rationalizing away his behavior. Throughout West's sermon during "Runaway," he adopted an "I do it all for you because I'm bigger than you and can take it." As Keith Spera pointed out in his review of the show, Kanye compared himself to the lead slave, and he took the punishment for the rest of us - even though it's hard to imagine his existence as in any way slave-like.
The Wikipedia definition of the "Romantic hero" reads in part:
Literary critic Northrop Frye noted that the Romantic hero is often "placed outside the structure of civilization and therefore represents the force of physical nature, amoral or ruthless, yet with a sense of power, and often leadership, that society has impoverished itself by rejecting". Other characteristics of the romantic hero include introspection, the triumph of the individual over the "restraints of theological and social conventions", wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.
That's close enough to what I remember from university, and West's elevated sense of self is such that people found it easy to take at face value the satirical article that featured Kanye declaring himself "the next Nelson Mandela." He certainly works to define himself, but in Frankenstein, the characters' stories and aspirations don't line up with their behavior, and that was a sticking point Thursday. As I noted in my review, West sang that he never "downed nobody," though I suspect Taylor Swift would disagree after being told that she should have come second to Beyoncé when she won the VMA in 2009. As grandly as West presented himself Thursday night and throughout his career, his feuds and self-aggrandizing comments suggest that he's not as enlightened as he presents himself. In that way, he's much like the average rock star (which is where my Advocate review started), but that makes his music all the more impressive. People will get around Kanye being Kanye because of it.