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Kanye West’s ‘Famous’ Video Debate: Celebrity, Warhol and Taylor Swift

Empty provocation or something more? IndieWire's critics debate the rapper's latest publicity effort.

Kanye West

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Editor’s note: On Friday, Kanye West premiered “Famous,” an extended music video for his single in which he portrayed a variety of recognizable faces sleeping in the nude. The 10-minute video has naturally sparked a mixture of outrage and confusion. Here, critics Eric Kohn and David Ehrlich attempt to figure out what the rapper is trying to say.

ERIC KOHN: It may have commandeered the cultural dialogue within moments of its release, but Kanye West’s “Famous” video is about as intellectually basic as the celebrity-obsessed terrain it’s designed to deconstruct: Stars — they’re just like us! Whether it’s Chris Brown or Donald Trump, everybody snores. And yet West’s titillating provocation is fundamentally amusing precisely because it’s such a lark. Minutes drag by as grainy digital video of his sleeping subjects slowly reveals more and more participants, setting the stage for an epic zoom that unveils a singularly bizarre tableaux — with a snoozing West at its center. 

While he proclaimed his love for Matthew Barney’s experimental narratives in an interview with Vanity Fair, West’s gimmick suggests more of a cartoonish middle finger to the entire idea of fame as a controlled status. “Famous” drags hordes of notable faces down to the level of “Trash Humpers,” with the hallmarks of amateur video deglamorizing their identities. It’s basically one prolonged punchline without much to say, and for that reason, one of the weaker creative achievements in this formidable artist’s career.

But it does feel like a stab at pushing beyond the restrictions of the work for which he’s best known, and could signal the first step in an attempt to reach beyond his chosen field. I’m both underwhelmed and intrigued enough to see what else he’s got in store. You?

DAVID EHRLICH: Somewhere in Los Angeles, Kanye just spat out his Cristal all over one of the walls in his house, ruining one of the velvet portraits of himself that presumably hang on the walls of his mansion. “Stars — they’re just like us?” Kanye is a man known for keeping his emotions in check, but he’s gonna be straight furious when he reads that during his daily morning digest of everything IndieWire published while he was sleeping.

I mean, this is the same guy who recorded a song called “I Am a God,” in which every ounce of what little humility he has left was required for him to concede that his close friend Jesus is still “the most high” (“But I am a close high,” Kanye points out). This is the same guy who doesn’t care if the world thinks that he’s $53 million in debt, because he believes in his heart that celebrity has become the only currency worth carrying. 

kanyefamous

Not for a moment do I think that the “Famous” video is intended to elucidate the artificiality of fame. If anything, I think this (relatively minor) new piece of work is meant to enshrine the opposite, to clumsily articulate the same principle of identity politics that Yukio Mishima forged as a harmony between pen and sword: Celebrity is an art form unto itself, and the only celebrities who matter are those who are ultimately indivisible from their brand. Even in their most vulnerable human states — for ideal effect, everyone should have been on the toilet — it’s impossible for us mere mortals to remove the likes of Taylor Swift and Donald Trump from our public conceptions of them.

That’s why I take Kanye at face value when he says that he’s not judging these people; it’s why I believe that, regardless of his feelings towards Bill Cosby, this video doesn’t serve as an endorsement. I think it’s more that these people, for better or worse, define the cultural consciousness of our strange times. And naturally he’s right there in the middle, the sun at the center of this constellation of stars (or maybe, in an expression of his persecution complex and a nod to his buddy, the Jesus in the middle of the after party to the Last Supper). As I sat through those interminable minutes of snoring and fake plastic body parts, all I could hear was Bill Murray’s voice in my head: “I’m a God — I’m not the God. I don’t think.” 

Still, I agree with your larger takeaway about the value of the video: There’s nothing here that wasn’t more exuberantly communicated by the mere existence of “Runaway.” 

EK: I take your point that Kanye is more focused on the nature of celebrity rather than the people beneath. But without sounding too reductive, can’t it be both? On one level, he has crafted a window into celebrity identity of the moment with himself at the center. But he’s also stripping away anything remotely polished about that world. It’s basically a prolonged contradiction: Here are a bunch of recognizable faces in ways you never expected to see them — entirely vulnerable. If there’s a real precedent for the creative intent expressed here, it’s Andy Warhol, who dug into the nature of fame as a purely image-based construct. 

But Warhol would’ve extended this sequence to eight hours and it would’ve played like gangbusters in a gallery. Kanye’s work is more directly engineered to stimulate a widespread reaction — maybe even a panic. And that, to me, is the most exciting thing about it.

Much in the same way that he instigated a riot by nearly playing a pop-up show in Webster Hall earlier this summer, Kanye is looking to stir shit up, overemphasizing the degree to which he has obtained power by virtue of his fame. “Can someone sue me already?” he tweeted shortly after the “Famous” premiere, and nobody has yet, which only strengthens that underlying point. 

But whether or not Kanye deserves the ire of a dozen celebrity attorneys he’s trying to reach, “Famous” does raise more moral questions. I could personally care less if George Bush is offended by his appearance here. But topless Taylor Swift? There are some icky voyeuristic things happening here that we need to unpack. 

DE:  I definitely don’t think you’re being too PC — or PC at all, really — to recoil a bit at how Kanye and co. are appropriating Taylor Swift’s body, particularly in the wake of their public back-and-forth about the “Famous” lyric about how she owes him sex. We may never get to the bottom of whether or not she consented to him using her name in one of his songs (and the idea of artistic “consent” and all of its connotations makes the matter even more loaded).

This video clearly feels like a giant “fuck you” to her and her body. “I don’t care what you say, I can believably create an image of your naked body and broadcast it to the world. I can control it.” It’s icky to the extreme. But, so far as I can tell, Kanye naturally assumes that he’s doing anyone a favor by sharing a sliver of his spotlight with them. Not to suggest that his lyrics should always be taken at face value, but I have to think that he kind of means it when he says “I made that bitch famous.” 

And yeah, I agree with you about Kanye’s insatiable need to stir shit up. He is an agent of chaos, and he’s not happy unless he’s got the whole world in a frenzy. If fame is his currency, everything he does to provoke a reaction makes him that much richer. Just look at how the story about this video exploded — it may not be a fraction as artistically exciting as “Runaway” (or as aesthetically curious as “Bound 2”), but it sure is getting the job done.  

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