By: Peter Kolb – Opinions Editor
Donald Trump, Taylor Swift, Bill Cosby, and Caitlin Jenner lay sleeping in a bed. Together. Naked.
No, this isn’t the set up to a painfully inappropriate joke your uncle tells at Thanksgiving dinner. It is the newest artistic endeavor from Mr. Kanye West. This past Saturday (June 25th), Kanye premiered the music video for his single “Famous”. The song features a hauntingly beautiful sample from Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” and served as the lead single for The Life of Pablo. The nine minute music video was shown to the sold out Forum theater in Inglewood, California while being streamed over Tidal online. The way this video premiered is a dead give away that this was not going to be just any other music video. This was a Kanye West music video. Just about as Kanye West as you can get.
The video begins with spliced up sound bites of Kanye’s most notable “freak-outs”, “rants”, or whatever else people call it when someone cares enough to wild out in public. Then, after the notorious “Taylor I’ma let you finish BUT” clip, the song begins, and we are taken to what looks like a poorly lit home video you never ever wanted to see. The camera slowly pans over a total of twelve naked celebrities: George Bush, Donald Trump, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Amber Rose, Ray J, Anna Wintour, Caitlin Jenner, Bill Cosby, and of course Kanye West with Kim Kardashian West. The video is in no rush as it slowly lingers over the naked, sleeping bodies of these pop culture icons. There is no censorship. You see all of them. After some of the most uncomfortable six minutes of your life, the film cuts to a sort of credit roll. The words “Special Thanks” flash momentarily, followed by the names of the subjects. After the final name is listed the words “For Being Famous” appear. The chorus of “Famous” comes bellowing back in and we now see the same scene directly from above in beautiful color. While the song plays out we are given our final moments with the slumbering gods. And as the camera pans out even further, we see the scene for what it really is: a work of art.
This is not a stretch of Kanye fanboy-ism. Kanye’s “Famous” scene is an almost exact replica of Vincent Desiderio’s painting titled: “Sleep”. Kanye simply replaced the anonymous subjects in Desiderio’s painting with some of the most recognizable faces in America today, changing the whole meaning of the painting. For the record, Desiderio was brought in before the video was premiered for his own private viewing after which he had nothing but praise and apparently tears of joy to give in response.
Of course, the interwebs responded much differently to “Famous” than Desiderio. Paparazzi outlets were thrown into a frenzy. Second wave feminists took to Facebook and Twitter to bash West for his continued string of misogynistic work (I will say that reading some girl’s Facebook post claiming that Kanye sexualized Taylor Swift, which is irresponsible to do considering her fans was one of the biggest laughs I’ve gotten all summer). And irrelevant, washed-up journalists such as Piers Morgan took the opportunity to make some idiotic remark in a desperate grab for any attention he could find. However, of course the most talked about question through and through: Was it real?!
The overwhelmingly negative reaction from the public and media only validates “Famous” further. The piece is meant to be a black mirror for our culture, exposing the most disturbing rituals we all take part in daily. “Famous” momentarily lets us in on the most vulnerable, fragile moments of twelve humans’ lives. We ignore any sense of privacy and watch them sleeping peacefully, unclothed and unprotected. What could possibly be more unsettling and intrusive than that? What about gawking at Amanda Seyfried’s recent wardrobe malfunction during a photoshoot? Or a USA Today article full of wild assumptions and jumps to conclusions regarding the cause of Robin William’s suicide. A Daily Mail article that is literally written just to tell people that Kim Kardashian was sweating today. Lastly, a TMZ reporter hiding in Kanye West’s yard in order to catch him in his garage at four in the morning. Please, someone explain to me.(:) Why is it an insensitive sexualization of a poor little girl when Kanye uses Taylor Swift’s body in a piece of art, but journalism when the Huffington Post publishes “Taylor Swift’s Wardrobe Malfunction At The 2013 Golden Globes: Oops, There’s Her Bra!”. We are always watching. Even in their most vulnerable moments, we watch.
We are disgustingly obsessed with these people; and they are, when all is said and done, just people. We fiend for any outlet we can find that allows us to peek into the lives of the “demigods” that walk among us. As if they deserve it. As if they ever asked for it. Kanye forces us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Because this is not just your typical angsty critique of the modern day American society. This is Kanye pointing out that our obsession with celebrities is beginning to take a serious, tangible toll on us. When Vincent Desiderio paints twelve anonymous figures sleeping, it receives acclaim. Perhaps for its beautiful composition, colors, or intriguing subject matter. However once they are replaced with people who are famous, that reception to the piece is replaced by thousands on the internet desperately trying to find out if they actually saw Bill Cosby’s naked body (no, you didn’t. They were most likely wax figurines). As a culture, our celebrity fetish is now preventing us from even attempting to appreciate works of art.
Just to make it clear that I’m not tsk-tsking our society from some high horse, I will admit I could tell you right now what clothes Kanye was wearing when he arrived in LAX this week. I’m no better, and neither is Kanye. Kanye’s message has never been “you, the American people need to change”, rather it has always been “we need to work together and change”.
It’s frustrating to sound like a broken clock. Every month or so Kanye does something no one else would even think of trying to do in the entertainment industry. And every month I try to defend whatever ridiculous thing it was he did against the knee-jerk reactions to call him “crazy”, “mentally ill”, or “delusional”. However I imagine my frustration from defending Kanye in these articles pales in comparison to the feeling Kanye gets when another message he cares enough to talk about is written off as another crazy “Kanye rant”.
Or worse, the feeling thousands of artists get when they see a culture slowly turning its back on their art in exchange for the newest celebrity nude leak.