VAULT is a new weekly review series run by Ansel Wakamatsu (that’s me!). I’ll be checking out music, film and television, whether they be new releases or old favourites.
It was last Saturday and I was preparing to send off my first ever review to kickstart VAULT. It was a retrospective review of Kanye West’s 2004 debut album, The College Dropout. Just as I was adding the finishing touches, I checked my Instagram and saw Kanye had premiered his new music video (or ‘visual’, as he calls it) for the already controversial song Famous off of his latest record, The Life of Pablo. The video smacked of a man desperately attempting to source more outrage to power his non-stop ride on the controversy mill. If I’m writing my opinions about it a week later, well, I guess he has succeeded. My first viewing of Famous provoked a shrug of the shoulders and a “that’s Kanye for you” sort of response, but the more I thought about it, the more I was disturbed. In fact, I decided against publishing my review. Could I really support a man whose moral compass had shifted so far from mine? I’ll give my thoughts on the video later, but first, a synopsis.
The video features ten eerily life-like wax figures, resembling (from left to right) George Bush, Anna Wintour, Donald Trump, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Ray J, Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner and Bill Cosby. All naked, sleeping side by side on a very long bed. In the middle lies a non-wax Kanye and Kim, flanked by Taylor and Ray J respectively. A creepy handheld camera clumsily pans over each waxy visage, spotlighting each face in the dark. The Taylor Swift doll enters the frame and we hear the line: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex why?/I made that bitch famous.” A couple more shots of faces/body parts, then the music cuts and all we hear is very loud nose breathing (quite obviously added in post) and the chests of body doubles rising and falling. End credits. Then, over the Bam Bam sample, we get a tight, static, and well-lit shot of Kanye, slowly panning out until the full spread of bare bodies is revealed. End.
At this point, I would like to officially accuse Mr West of three violations:
• Number one: A flagrant disregard of consent, as it now seems that the video came as a surprise to most if not all the figures present. To think Kanye feels entitled enough to broadcast the nude bodies of ten unaware people is kind of mind boggling, and I really don’t see the difference between ‘Famous’ and a creep circulating leaked nudes on the internet. The voyeuristic glee which exudes from the video can only be classified as downright menacing.
• Number two: Objectification. The example I would bring up is that gratuitous shot of Rihanna’s boobs, which is a pretty strange (by strange I mean gross) way of representing a singer who has breathed life into some of Kanye West’s most recognisable hooks.
• Number three: Harassment. Honestly, what did Taylor Swift ever do to bring down the wrath of Kanye? There is something inherently unpleasant about watching a naked Taylor Swift unknowingly sleeping next to a naked Kanye West. Not only does is it violate the image and brand that Swift had established throughout the years, but the sadomasochist tendency to drag everyone, including Swift, back to the 2009 VMA’s ‘Imma let you finish’ debacle again is kind of frustrating. The video is created for the sole purpose of agitating old wounds. Rihanna and Chris Brown are paired together, and so is Kim K and Ray J. To try and provoke a response by creating and filming nude facsimiles of other people’s body is a dirty move. Simply put, ‘Famous’ was a sexual harassment campaign on a monumental scale. (For further reading, check out this article from Quartz here)
Luckily, Kanye has a fantastic cover: Don’t be offended guys, its ~art~. In all fairness, this statement might have some truth to it. The videotape aesthetic is consistent, the introduction is haunting, the final shot is striking. The video synergistically works with the music to provide a pretty astounding act of autobiography. Kanye stokes fires which had previously burned him; “George Bush hates black people,” “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time,” “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!!” etc. By doing so, he finishes his transformation from an underdog to a villain. Kanye is now generating controversy for the sake of controversy. The snake has now started to consume its tail in the ultimate act of narcissism. Thus, I reluctantly conclude that the video has shreds of artistic integrity. However, I want to make it super clear that his artistry does not negated the fact that he simultaneously robs autonomy and ownership of other people’s bodies. I recognise that Famous is large, ambitious, and loaded with meaning. It also violates the privacy of his peers, and would probably be considered phenomenally offensive by people who have been affected by revenge porn and other insidious forms of sexual harassment. Kanye’s ability to occupy both sides of the spectrum continues to confound, resulting in many people condemning his work, but not be able to fully dismiss it.
Am I surprised? Not really. I have always winced at Kanye’s overwhelming paranoia/disregard of women, which has been present in his music since the start of his career. That being said, Kanye has always taught me to compartmentalise, to not throw out the entire apple just because one side is bruised. One of the things which has always appealed to me is Kanye’s auteur sentiments. Sady Doyle wrote in her review of the video, “West is the unsympathetic narrator of his own life”. He bares his soul, flaws and all, releasing music which feels rough, authentic, and unfiltered. But a flawed guy is going to make flawed art, as demonstrated by this video. Some may say, “Oh, this is typical Kanye, he is a provocateur,” which is entirely true; Kanye has provoked me, a fan of his music, to like him a little bit less now. Will I keep continuing to listen to his music? Probably. But I’m sure that the next time I listen to ‘Famous’ again, there will be a slight nausea attached to the experience. I don’t know… it just bums me out a bit, I guess.
VAULT’S VERDICT: queasy/10
VAULT recommends: Thinking about where you stand on issues raised in this piece! Does art have to be morally upstanding to be good? Conversely, can morally reprehensible art have any redeeming features?
Ansel is a second-year undergrad studying Communication (Media Arts & Production and Creative Writing) and International Studies (Japan). He is an award-winning writer (NAPLAN English 2006, Distinction) and has recently completed his LMusA on air drums.
If you would like to contribute to VAULT, shoot me a message on Facebook or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.