Friday, March 11, 2011

Kanye West, Music, and Pedagogy

In my 1102 course, we have found that one of the ways to get students to learn how to interpret/read is to use music videos. Jen and Melissa had the brilliant idea to use Kanye West's video for his excellent song, "Power." The video is short, but chock full of "symbolism" (we'll come back to the quotation marks):

When we were assigning the music videos, we asked the students to pay particular attention to the visual elements. Before we showed them the Kanye West video, we prepared them for this type of interpretation with the Rhianna video for Disturbia--with a catch--we turned the sound off. I had never seen nor heard this video before, but watching it with the sound off was, frankly, powerfully affecting.

However, when I got home, I decided to watch it with the sound on and was disappointed with the result. Instead of a dark Manson-esque guitar riff (which is what the video makes one thing of) I got a pansy ass pop song with typical beats.

The strange thing about the videos is we asked them to pay attention to the visual elements in the video, while indicating that it was also ok to "discuss the lyrics." It seemed as though we gave the song the shaft. I realize that this is precisely what I did with the Rhianna video. Frankly, its just not that good of a song--or at the very least--the video seems as far away from the song  as possible.

But not because of the lyrics. Indeed, the lyrics to Disturbia fit the video's dark atmosphere:

"Your mind's in disturbia, it's like the darkness is light
Disturbia, am I scaring you tonight?
Disturbia, ain't used to what you like
Disturbia, disturbia"

Profound? no. Dark/creepy? yeah. But the music, the tone, the atmosphere--this didn't "fit".

Contrast the Kanye West music video. The song begins with a sort of "primitive" chanting "ah uh, oooohhhh oohhhh" that recalls West's lyrical and visual content. West has done more than merely compare himself to an Egyptian pharaoh--he has merged a kind of pan-africanism ("in this white man's world, we the ones who chosen") that connects Africa to Egyptian heritage with samples from perhaps one of the "whitest" bands from one of the "whitest" genres--King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Unlike Rhianna's video, West is saying something with his music as well as his lyrics. To interpret the video along with the lyrics as Kanye West's ego on the fritz, I think, denies the complexities of the music and lyrics. First, let us look at the "rhetorical context." West's record that Power is from is called Dark Twisted Fantasy. West's fantasy is like a crazy dream (see the full video for "Runaway")   Consider the chorus of Power:

"No one man should have all that power/
The clock's tickin, I just count the hours/
Stop trippin, i'm tripping off the power
(21st century schizoid man)"
(alternately: "till then, fuck that--the world's ours")

And what I will call for convenience's sake the "outro"

"this will be a beautiful death/jumpin out the windooowwww/lettin everything go"

West says that no one man should have all that power--we assume that he is talking about himself (particularly from the visual elements presented). While I would hardly argue that this is incorrect, I think another couple lines from "Power" might give a different interpretation:

"They say I was the abomination of obama's nation/that's a pretty bad way to start a conversation"

"Ye got the power to let  power go"

"I treat the cash the way the government treats aids, I won't be satisfied till all my niggas get it, get it?" (Gorgeous)

Maybe I'm crazy, but I would argue that Kanye could be addressing not only himself, but president Obama. I wouldn't say this is because Kanye doesn't like Obama, but that he may be addressing many white liberal opinions that now that we have a Black President we have really progressed. How come we can take obama seriously, but not West? How come people say he is the "abomination of obama's nation?"

I say all of this to both digress and preface my real concern: why aren't we paying attention to the music when we have people interpret music videos? Why do we consider musical interpretation a skill that is basically "subjective" and according to "taste". Furthermore, and I get this point from Greg Ulmer, why do we not take more seriously the concept of "taste" in both it  physical, sensorial dimension AND its Kantian aesthetic connotations? Can "taste" be trained? Is there a common "taste"--a "sensus communis" (Kant?). Why do we not explore this in composition courses? Why must music videos and songs be reduced the lyrical/textual signification?

In an era of hip hop sampling from Public Enemy to Kanye to GirlTalk and in an era where, to paraphrase one of my students, "anyone would rather be listening to a song then listening to a lecture," why is music not a more prominent metaphor for writing and composition. We speak of music in today's world as not the product of a band (such as Beatles) or a single artist, but as a collective. Furthermore, "production" has become just as important as chords, melody, and lyrics--perhaps moreso.

(Sidenote: I believe that this is part of the battle between major and indie "bands" or musics--a lot of indie bands have taken it upon themselves to sound "rawer" and messier in order to refute the slick production of pop music. The question is not whether or not universally this is "better" or "more authentic" but rather does it contribute to the music itself?)

Production, composition, sound, resonance, feeling, mood, atmosphere, "timbre"--all words we should take seriously as writers in rhetoric and composition.  

Composition is a musical term, and, I believe, an inherently intertextual term. Taking a minor course where we focused on the history of Western music, I have come to realize that even Baroque, classical, and Romantic composers were "quoting" one another constantly within their music. Composers never were singular "geniuses" that worked in a vacuum (just as writers never were)--they borrowed from nature (Olivier Messiaen--see Natoya's recent blog post) as well as each other. 

Let us return to Kanye West's "Power," and ask ourselves why he may have taken a cut from King Crimson:

Death seed blind man's greed
Poets' starving children bleed
Nothing he's got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Particularly, "Nothing he's got he really needs" undercuts many who believe that Kanye just wants to be rich and famous. He is the 21st century schizoid man--divided between what he has and what he sees, what he says and what he sees or how other people see and say about him.

Never in a million years would I have expected to find so much in Kanye West. Furthermore, I do not want to feed his ego, but, a la Mitchell, want to take a work and ask how it puts an entire institution or thought-structure into question. Above, I was still involved in the act of hermeneutic interpretation--making non-signifying elements, signifying. It means something that Kanye has chosen King Crimson for his sample. Particularly in light of the sort of pan-africanism that seems to permeate the video. Mitchell speaks of the imagetext--is this what "Power" is? Is it an imagesong? The video itself is structured like a slightly moving painting--a tapestry. Kanye is in the center as Christ would be in the center of religious works of art, surrounded by modern cherubim. The painting is moving and yet contains a stiffness, a solidness that is hard to ignore.

All the visual symbols seem to point toward Kanye's glorification even as he feels constantly threatened by "haters" ("Screams from the haters/got a nice ring to it/I guess every superhero need his theme music).

However, if we take the hybridity of the music into account--we can see that this is not just some un-examined Garvey-esque back to Africa fantasy with West on the throne, but a self-aware song about the precarious postmodern condition of famous black men.


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