Cutting Off My Nose to Spite His Face: Kanye West, Donald Trump, and the New Morality of Our Digital Democracy
July 16, 2018 | I am a Kanye West fan. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was my hip-hop gateway drug and I will always defend Kanye’s genius and influence. In spite of this, I did not listen to his newest project “Ye.” To me, Kanye’s embrace of Trump—whether a sincere expression of support, a mental health episode, or a prolonged, cocky marketing campaign—was too selfish, too willfully obtuse, too performatively cynical to ignore; I could not stand to participate in boosting his album up the charts or increasing his paycheck by whatever measly percentage Apple Music would have given him for my quick, 30-minute stream.
Lots of people made a different decision. “Ye” debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart. For millions of people, West’s embrace of a President whose racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and cruelty have been well documented was not important, or at least was not important enough to warrant skipping out on a great artist’s latest work.
Were these people wrong? Was I right? The farther we get from “Ye”’s release, the more conversations I have had to sit out and the more thinkpieces I have had to skip reading because I haven’t heard the album. These sacrifices make me wonder if my decision to boycott Kanye’s work matters in a world where most people will not punish him for aligning with Trump. Is there any reason for me to deprive myself of experiencing what I have to assume is most likely great art simply for the sake of making a principled, but almost comically pointless stand?
Of course these questions are nothing new; they are all extensions of a debate that has lumbered in our collective conscious since the first prehistoric Picasso scribbled a wooly mammoth on the wall of his cave: how do we handle bad people who make great art? Is there a distinction between art and artist? Are we obligated to consider a person’s life, behavior, and personality when evaluating their artistic output?
These are old questions, but they take on a new salience in today’s media economy where the internet’s hyperactive content factory—and the similarly frenetic response machine—has given us the ability to measure popularity and influence with more precision than ever before. Plays, views, follows, likes, and the myriad other quantifiable digital interactions we engage in every day—not to mention the billions of data points scraped from our search histories and inboxes—have given artists and the people who pay them unprecedented insight into exactly how popular, how salient, and how resonant their art is.
The internet has undermined gatekeepers and middlemen in almost every industry, but it has had a particularly strong effect on art. Instagram and Soundcloud, among other apps and platforms, have opened up new avenues for artists to find and connect with fans. Of course, record executives, journal editors, and gallery curators still retain a certain amount of sway as arbiters of taste and—perhaps more significantly—reserves of cash, but even these previously titanic figures are now being crowded by the direct democracy of views, likes, and follows.
The common consumer has more power in this new media economy than we ever have in the past. The choice is no longer listen to the radio or turn it off, buy the painting or leave it on the gallery wall. Those were big, binary decisions. Now we can confer our approval in more precise ways. We can like without following, stream without adding to our library, view without liking. And even if we are one among millions, we can be secure in the knowledge that our act, our decision has been noted, catalogued, and analyzed. We see it right there on our screen. Ten million likes blips to ten million and one when we double-tap. It is like voting, but we can see our vote matter.
At the same time the internet has given new power to consumers to confer or retract approval, it has also collapsed the barriers between artist and artistic output. Everyone is a brand now, and art without a personality attached feels hollow and incomplete. We expect to know the artists we follow and any artist who wants to succeed needs to reckon with the fact that they will have to sell a personality alongside their art. All the world’s a stage, and the audience is storming the green room.
All of this is exciting and unsettling in the way that fresh democratization always is. Yet it also creates dilemmas and questions that we must grapple with. Most importantly: now that consumers have new power, do we also have a new responsibility? If we can now directly elect our cultural leaders, should we scrutinize their personal lives the same way we scrutinize their art? Given that the artist is now as much a part of the art as the output, is it even possible to look at art without also seeing at least a shadow of the person who created it?
Consumers’ new power has certainly made it possible to affect change in ways that would never have worked in the past. The #MeToo movement leveraged the power of social media and collective consumer action to not only expose abusers who had thrived despite committing oppressive violence against women, but also to bring about promising changes in the entertainment, news, and political industries. This movement achieved success where other similar efforts had failed because we now live in a world where individuals publicly announcing and acting on their disapproval of an individual or company’s brand identity directly impacts that person or company’s bottom line.
However, while #MeToo proves that our new consumer direct democracy can affect change, it by no means guarantees that it will. For every Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, there are plenty of Bill Shines and Louis C.K.s. More broadly, Kanye’s support of Trump may have hurt his streaming numbers and album sales slightly, but “Ye” was still a major success. Even more disturbing, just a few weeks later XXXTentacion received immense posthumous praise from celebrated figures in his industry and his legions of devout fans despite committing brutal violence against his pregnant girlfriend.
These are the moments when it seems like our consumer direct democracy fails. They are also the moments when it feels stupid, pointless, and even naive to take a stand. My decision to avoid listening to “Ye” despite that fact that I believe I would enjoy and gain something meaningful from consuming the project means nothing when so many other people are streaming the album. I have to ask, then, if I am making a principled stand and speaking out with the only voice have or if I am simply cutting off my nose to spite my face?
The sad answer is that, at least in this case, I am probably closer to self-mutilation than to creating any meaningful change. Consumer direct democracy only affects change when people almost unanimously condemn a given artist or product. Taking a stand that goes against the majority is inherently fruitless and will remain fruitless until the majority comes around to your side of the issue.
Yet that does not mean we should not stand up for what we believe. Really, is there anything else we can do? There are no hard and fast rules about which artists or public figures we must support, no sacrosanct lines in the sand that we must guard with our streams, likes, and follows. In a world of immediate, direct democracy, those kinds of rules disintegrate with the same speed that memes fade into and out of our collective consciousness. Our obligation is not to serve as guardians of some collective morality, but instead to look within, to define our values, and to live lives that align with our principles.
We cannot control others, but we can control ourselves, and when we live lives of intention and conviction, we show others that it is possible and that the sacrifices it requires are worth making. We might not change our world in a day, a month, or a year, but if we focus on defining our beliefs and holding ourselves accountable in every facet of our lives, then we can make the world a more thoughtful, intentional, considerate place. My choice not to listen to “Ye” may not matter to anyone but me, but my decision to define my values and enact them in every aspect of my life is the most important contribution I can make to transforming our culture, our country, and our world.
So go ahead, cut off your nose. Maybe your face will learn a lesson.
Jake McNichol works as a political consultant in New Jersey and is a contributor for Arbitror.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo: two unknown men and Kanye West (Twitter)