When pictures featuring the rapper Kanye West as the crucified Christ were circulated in the media a week ago, I was immediately reminded that much of what passes for pop music today is really about public image than about talent. Granted, West has displayed a talent in creating rhythmic loops that can be infectious on the radio and dance floor, even as his music is really mostly a tapestry of samples and pre-recorded beats stored on a computer. But what the “Passion of Kanye West” photo for Rolling Stone magazine reveals is how aggressively the artist is trying to project a public persona. With his controversial (or inane) statements, and his seemingly childish arrogance, West is really trying to promote the person more than the music. Music therefore becomes a means toward celebrity, or rather towards becoming a public icon.
The opinion columnist Jonah Goldberg describes this well when writing about Kanye West. He points out how the image of the rebellious individual has been used repeatedly to generate sales of records, and that audiences are willing to fall for image over music again and again:
But I do think I understand marketing and public relations, and I am astounded by the naïveté of young people — black and white — who actually buy the canned rebelliousness not just of rap music but of most pop music.
West is simply the latest example of decades of hucksterism. Under the headline "The Passion of Kanye West," the rap star graces the cover of Rolling Stone posing as a bloodied Jesus with a crown of thorns. I particularly enjoy the publicity around the piece. Clearly borrowing from the same press release, publications across the country proclaim that the "outspoken rapper defends his brash attitude inside the magazine."
Ah, yes. It's about time. After all, it's so rare to find a rapper with a brash attitude. Normally they're shy, retiring types overflowing with modesty and humility. I was particularly enamored with the "aw, shucks" Andy Griffith personalities of Niggaz Wit Attitude and the late Tupac Shakur.
Rebellion and arrogance sell, especially to the youths who identify with such behavior. It is likewise evidence that teenagers are incapable of actually judging what’s actually good, and so aesthetic decisions on art, music, and even fashion are determined by attitude and mood. Whether it’s the gangsta rapper, the goth rocker, or the techno DJ, their musical output emphasizes an attitude against the world and particular obsessions common to the cult of fans who buy their music. And yet the fans do grow up and their attitudes on life change, while the music they once listened to hasn’t. What was once an overpowering image of rebellion and sexuality to the teenager now seems whiny, sleezy and shallow to the mature adult saddled with responsibilities. Pop music, which is anything that is popular to a mass audience, often relies on an image to represent it, preferably one that relates to the primary target market -- the youth. Without an attractive icon, the music becomes unmarketable, no matter how appealing. The Milli Vanilli scandal was a case in point: a German producer with his session musicians and vocalists had created pop r&b tracks that he was confident would be popular, but he was in desperate need of an image that could headline the music. He saw nothing wrong with taking a couple of black models with no singing talent to promote the songs and the rest was history.
The show American Idol is very illustrative of the importance of image. The show’s founder and most critical judge Simon Cowell is the embodiment of the contemporary music industry’s fixation with style over substance. Whether its Teletubbies or handsome tenors playing shlocky operatic pop, Mr. Cowell is a pro in turning unlikely acts into hits in spite of the embarrassing quality of the music. He repeatedly makes the distinction between vocal talent and sellable image and makes it clear that the latter is more important than the former. There’s no arguing that this works in selling many records, especially in the initial releases. The drawback is that often the icon’s music success is short, which it is rare to find artists who can maintain hits past a second album. The icon’s relevance evaporates as tastes among the public change. To maintain relevance, the icon either has to remake their image to fit the new times or one engages newsworthy behavior.
My suspicions are that Kanye West will follow the latter, as it’s clear to me that he has no intention in pursuing a music career longer than he can afford to do something else. His image as the ‘preppy rapper’ was well timed as the need to react against the thug image of prior rappers was long overdue. But West’s music is for the most part insubstantial. He’s eager to promote his brand identity and unsurprisingly is already starting his clothing line. “Me, Inc.” has now evolved into “Me, registered trade mark”. Kanye will likely pursue Hollywood, the ultimate place where individuals are valued by who they are over what they can actually do.
What’s interesting about pop stars or starlets is that their career paths end up in two opposite directions: Either they are consumed by celebrity, the image they have cultivated and embark into a self-destructive life of alcohol, drugs and crime; or they become the savviest of businessmen, parlaying their brand image beyond recording and usually becoming executives in the very music industry that exploited them in the first place. The instance when David Bowie issued “Bowie Bonds” comes to mind, or when Michael Jackson bought the Beatles’ song catalogue.
One of the most enlightening case studies regarding the value of image over music is the career of David Bowie. Long known to be a chameleon, his music was often erratic in quality, and his most profitable part of his career was regarded by fans as his artistic low point (1980’s). Before then, Bowie struggled to create the right persona, from mod gentlemen, to hippie folk singer to proto-metal rocker. He finally scored when he created his character as a bi-sexual alien glam-rocker, but soon transformed himself into a white soul singer before it was too late. Bowie’s early struggles and massive debts had taught him lots about the music industry, and as soon as he attained solvency, took steps to secure his wealth with very little pressure to generate lots of record sales. Still, Bowie is quite different from West in that he cultivated a changing layered persona that is markedly original, with music of such admirable complexity that he earned a loyal fan base. West’s fan base is more ephemeral, as demonstrated by the fact that he could only fill half the auditorium during his last concert in Dallas.
I get the feeling that Kanye is clever enough to secure his wealth. He probably knows that he has probably only five album’s worth of material in him before opting for other opportunities. Still I have doubts as to whether he can maintain his brand identity for that long as he tries hard to put off many potential fans with his silly comments. He doesn’t seem to be cultivating fan loyalty at all which is crucial to ensuring a long career as a recording artist. Today’s predominance of hip hop kind of reminds me of the disco era, in which some catchy songs were produced and are still enjoyed but listeners could care less about the music’s artistic merits. And whatever happened to the disco divas of the past?