Ralph Waldo Emerson has this to say on the difference between academic and letter writing: ‘The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, – and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words’. This exchange of letters between Herman Asselberghs and Emiliano Battista certainly hopes to prove Emerson right, though it will be for you, the reader, to decide whether their exchanges are graced with ‘good thought’ and ‘happy expression’. Their subject is cinema and anything related thereto that seems to capture and reflect something of the contemporary situation. An exchange can be discrete, or build on an earlier one; it can be long, or short; lopsided, or even-keeled; it can come across as a dialogue, or as two monologues joined only by a common object... There are no rules, other than sticking to ‘chosen words’.
I hope you will forgive this very belated missive about Kanye West’s Famous video, which created something of a stir when it first dropped, but the dust settled pretty quickly: even the recent appreciation by no less than Werner Herzog was buried in the crevices of cyberspace and not plastered all over news outlets that most of us would have seen (Kanye, of course, saw it, and tweeted a link to it). And forgive as well the fact that this is reaching you in what is no doubt a terrible moment, since I know you’re working hard on finishing your new film, and not exactly dying to think through Kanye’s experimentations with the language and aesthetic of art videos. That said, the delay may have been worth it, since what seemed, when the video first appeared, to be an outlier, can now be seen, in the wake of Frank Ocean’s releases late in the summer of 2016, as something more along the lines of a trend than an eccentricity.
I came to Famous predisposed against it, since I’ve never been charmed by Kanye, his persona, or his antics, and since I’ve never warmed to his music all that much, even though a lot of people whose opinions I trust say that he is the real thing. And I can’t deny that the use of ‘Do what you gotta do’ in ‘Famous’ (the song) is great, from Rihanna’s fairly stunning a cappella opening to the few seconds of the defining Nina Simone version that closes out the song. Actually, all of The Life of Pablo is pretty solid. As for the video, I am not totally convinced by it, pace Herzog, though I do recognize that it is a carefully thought-out attempt to mobilize a different filmic language than that of the music video: it is long, for one, has stretches with no music at all, and clearly wants to be seen as an art video more than a music one.
It’s impossible to discuss Famous without addressing the ‘controversy’ surrounding it, not because we cannot detach ourselves from the reactions it generated, but because in their own way those reactions are part of the work, and not just hype for media outlets to sell copy and fill air time. In other words, the ‘controversy’ is precisely what Kanye expected, and should be treated, I think, as part and parcel of his ‘commentary’. The whole uproar, you will recall, turned on two interrelated elements: the partial nudity of the sleeping bodies, accompanied by the less than subtle suggestion that we just missed a star-studded orgy, and the fact that Kanye helped himself to all the celebrities in the video without bothering to get their consent. Taylor Swift was the first to react: she was not at all happy to find herself lying next to Kanye, and was understandably less than thrilled about her cameo in the song ‘Famous’, where Kanye raps, the second Rihanna is done with the a cappella intro, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous (God damn)” (as these lines are sung, the image is framing Swift and Kanye in bed). A curious fact: Taylor Swift is the only person in the video mentioned in the song (in the entire The Life of Pablo record in fact), and it’s hard not to think that this whole thing – including the perfectly-timed leaked recorded conversation between Swift and Kanye – was deliberately calibrated to piss her off in particular. If so, mission accomplished. Donald Trump is in the video too, but he didn’t complain, for narcissistic reasons too obvious to detain us, and limited himself to saying he had no knowledge of the whole thing till it appeared. Dubya is in it too, and his camp was happy to deny consent or knowledge, and to add that Dubya is in much better shape than his wax figure in the video suggests. Whatever…
Kanye says that Famous is a tribute to Vincent Desiderio’s Sleep paintings, and the filmed scene is indeed directly modeled on Desiderio’s work, with the all-important difference that the sleeping bodies partly covered by a white sheet in the video are famous, and not, as in Desiderio’s paintings, anonymous. Besides the people just mentioned, there’s Bill Cosby, Rihanna, Kanye himself, Kim Kardashian, Chris Brown, Ray J, Caitlyn Jenner, Anna Wintour, etc. The reason for this change is that Famous, Kanye says, is supposed to be a ‘commentary on fame’. He doesn’t elaborate on just what this ‘commentary’ is exactly, but a couple of ‘comments’ can be read out of the video (I note in passing that Herzog’s appreciation focuses – why not? – entirely on the video’s formal qualities, and ignores entirely the ‘commentary on fame’ business.)
Famous is split into two parts and bookended by images of the sun, the brightest, let’s say the most famous, star, the center of our planetary system: there is the rising sun, shining brightly in the distance of a clear blue sky with clouds below it, at the start, and there is the setting sun, a huge purple halo around it, at the end. A dialogue over the opening image, in which someone claims that ‘we’ (rappers? hip hop artists?) are the ‘new rock stars’ ensures that no one will miss the association: sun = star = famous. The transition point is the ‘Special Thanks’ section, which comes, not at the end, but a bit past the middle of the video, and is as such not an appendix with info, but an integral part of the work. The slightly shaky image of the sun, like an old VHS cassette in need of tracking, that opens the video is abruptly followed by a montage of news footage: the snippets last barely a second, and we see Taylor Swift, again, and Dubya as well; interestingly, it includes elements from the video Famous, so that our first images of it already anticipate (court?) its own newsworthiness. Just as abruptly, Rihanna’s voice rings out and we find ourselves, thanks to the subjective, hand-held roving camera, no longer in the position of the glazed consumer of media images, but of the voyeur, the peeping Tom looking in on a scene that we’ve clearly not been invited to. Through the eyes of the camera as through a keyhole, we scrutinize the sleeping bodies and their setting from various angles, lingering over details and body parts: the folds of the white sheet, breasts, limbs, etc. In a nice effect, the song stops just as suddenly as it had started, and the three or so minutes that follow are no doubt the most beautiful in the video: we hear the sound of breathing, someone clearing his or her throat, faint snoring, and we see signs of movement in the otherwise motionless bodies – a heaving back, someone’s hands and head moving slightly.
So, the first commentary on fame, then, seems to be this: the incessant gaze of the camera, meaning the constant media attention, is just as voyeuristic and intrusive as the illicit camera filming these unsuspecting bodies; not bothering to get the consent of the ‘figures’ involved is a way to make this as creepy as it actually looks. The camera reduces celebrities to a set of body parts, bathed here in a post-coital aura, the only pity for those of us watching it on YouTube being that the camera arrived too late to film the sport that preceded the deep sleep of the well-sexed. Fame turns persons – with feelings, desire for privacy, maybe even for the semblance of a normal life – into commodities, sexualized commodities in particular. As a public figure, you have little control over your public figure or image: you are de-robed and dispossessed by fame. The spat with Taylor Swift is emblematic here: she had little legal recourse once she discovered she was in it; no doubt Dubya and Cosby would probably both have stopped their inclusion had they been able to, and even the likes of Chris Brown and Ray J were a little taken aback by the whole thing. The reason the ‘Special Thanks’ section appears where it does is that its whole function is to accentuate this sense of dispossession. Kanye thanks all the ‘participants’ by name, starting with Bill Cosby, who is furthest on the right, and moving across the huge bed all the way to Dubya, furthest on the left (Kanye doesn’t include his own name). But he doesn’t thank them, as we would imagine, for being willing participants, but ‘For being famous’. And hence exploitable in just this way. As the first groans started being heard and the ‘controversy’ reared its head, Kanye tweeted: “Can somebody sue me already #I’ll wait”. Wisely, perhaps, no one took the bait.
The ‘Special Thanks’ is followed, at long last, by the establishing shot: the song returns and the camera pans upwards, slowly, until it gives us a view of the whole. The very quality of the image has changed: it has lost its grainy, oddly lit, shaky, and ‘homemade’ quality and become bright, crisp, unswerving. Perhaps an equivalence between the perv and the media? The camera freezes precisely when everyone is under its scope. The song stops too. And Kanye, in a moment meant to be as stunning as the blinking eyes in La jetée, moves his head and stares straight at the camera, at us. But the nature of the stare is ambiguous: does it show complicity? surprise? defiance? Hence a second commentary on fame, which we can call the paradox of the fan, and goes somewhat like this. We’d all like to see the person – vulnerable, naked, off his or her guard – behind the image of the tabloids we consume; we scour every scoop, every ‘behind-the-scene’ magazine feature or documentary that promises to give us the ‘real’ person. But as we know all too well, these never deliver: the homes we get to see are so clean and proper that no one seems to live in them, and the slightest mess is clearly a staged ‘human’ touch. The problem is with the desire itself, with the fact that the very dynamics of the situation cannot but be deadening. I am reminded here of David Foster Wallace’s observation on the mass tourist in ‘Consider the Lobster’, where he writes: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: as a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.” The danger with Famous is that it risks being the very thing it wants to comment on.
I suppose that one reason why it seemed interesting to write about this video at all is because of its evident ‘artistic’ aspirations, the fact that it tries, and succeeds, to mobilize a plastic language and an aesthetics that owes more to the world of contemporary art and video installations than to MTV. The Frank Ocean releases I mentioned earlier are infused with a similar ambition, so I’d like to close this letter with a few words about them, for perspective if nothing else.
Late in the summer of 2016, and after interminable delays, Ocean finally released his second album, entitled Blonde, but for some reason spelled ‘Blond’ on the album cover. Rather than simply releasing the album, Ocean seized on the moment to organize a sort of happening or, if you want, a sort of intervention. Before the album was made available for streaming or download, he handed it out for free, along with a hefty magazine of his photographs entitled Boys Don’t Cry, which document his fascination with cars – and, as luck would have it, Kanye is in it, seen placing an order at a McDonald’s drive-through in a Lamborghini. The CD and the magazine were distributed at convenience stores, basically our night shops, in LA, Chicago, NYC, and London (have a look here), all of which featured some form of plastic intervention from Ocean himself. The next day the album was made available on Apple Music, and there was another surprise in wait, because with the album Ocean dropped as well a 45-minute long video, shot in black-and-white, in which he is seen building a staircase. The video is entitled Endless, and it is in fact a record unto itself: music plays pretty much throughout, mostly original compositions by Ocean, though there is music by Wolfgang Tillmans too. But the music has to fight it out with the sound of electric saws, hammers, and other tools. You cannot buy or stream it as a record, only as a video (yes, I know, you can play the video and not watch it). Ocean builds the staircase himself, and one of the intriguing features of the video is the layering: sometimes there is one Ocean at work, sometimes two, and sometimes three. The conceit is reminiscent of the way songs themselves are layered and given depth with the gradual addition of tracks. When the staircase is finally built (no, it is not the glorious, euphoric end!), it has a lovely sculptural quality to it, but it disappears almost immediately, as if it had been nothing but a mirage. Like a lot of art videos, Endless is at once boring and strangely hypnotizing – there is, after all, something intriguing about watching this guy see the monotony through to the end when he must have known that most people would not watch more than ten minutes of it. It may be a little precious, I don’t deny it, but I am receptive to the quieter key that it plays on when compared to Kanye’s, in Famous as in most of his stuff; one of the lines in Blonde is “Shut the fuck up I don’t want your conversation”. Hard to imagine Kanye saying that, but it fits perfectly someone who likes to build stairs on his own. That’s neither here nor there, though: I’m not judging one or the other. My point is just that these seemed to me like two attempts that venture into the language of contemporary art, and that it would be interesting to think them together.
Curious to hear your thoughts on all of this,
It is my turn to apologize for my very late response to your welcome report on West world and Ocean life. In fact, I wrote a reply not too long after my film premiered but thought it wise to refrain from sending it out in the midst of the unfolding Kanye soap/saga at year’s end. I guess for a moment there I was expecting the unhappy end that all too often befalls Afro-American music celebrities (remember Lady Day, Bird, Dinah, Jimi, Marvin, Tupac, Biggie, Whitney, Michael, Prince…). Fortunately, it turned out for the better: Yeezy is recovering from a serious mental breakdown these days. For sure, there will be other incidents to come. So, now is as good a time as any to discuss Kanye West. And how could I forget that refraining has no place in the K multiverse?
I have to confess that your letter immediately made me revisit some of my favorite Kanye stuff online. I am not talking about the load of utterly banal music videos to many of his hit songs. Do check ‘Slow Jamz’, ‘Gold Digger’, ‘Homecoming’, ‘Amazing’ or ‘Power’ for boring visual proof. I am pointing to the (basic) coverage of his headlining live set at Glastonbury, June 2015. Massive is what comes to mind here. Everything is huge: the audience, the stage, the performer. Most of the show looks like a solo performance piece for the size of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The instruments, the musicians and the backing vocalists have been moved out of sight. What is left is empty space, a stark void flooded by a vast ceiling of white lights. Kanye, in ripped and paint-splattered denim, performs alone beneath this beaming spaceship hovering low over his head. It is not entirely clear if the vessel has just arrived or is about to take off again. Either way, Kanye will take a stand: a solitary figure in an abstract landscape, steadily prancing around like a nocturnal animal in its barless zoo cage. You wonder how he communicates with the monster crowd a 150,000 strong in front him. For he seems to be in the zone a lot. Eyes closed, rapping and ranting hard, squirting abridged versions of songs (29 in total) in incendiary ‘Swaghili’. Somehow, substantial parts of the audience get the picture from the get-go. They sing along; fierce, quick and eager to fill all word gaps. Numerous white boys and girls chanting “all day, nigga!” right on cue is far from the most bizarre thing happening. Kanye repeatedly cuts short the show’s flow. He prompts mood swings as much as Lady Gaga changes podium attire. He exits the stage unannounced, leaving the plane strangely bleak for the longest time as if it were an arcane art work in itself, on display for collective contemplation. Finally, he reappears on a crane in order to deliver a next to final set of songs high above the masses. It must be the proper platform for a man who does not shy away from comparing himself in public to Picasso, Escobar, Kubrick, Saint Paul and/or Jesus Christ.
You can see a small-scale, minimalist variation on this gargantuan Glastonbury performance in the intense official video to ‘All Day / I Feel Like That’. Director Steve McQueen offers a sober choreography for camera and Kanye. Mr. West aka Pablo is rapping inside a no-frills, empty yet chic warehouse with bulky and boisterous sets of speakers in all corners. He is donning an unusually modest outfit: black t-shirt, dark skinny jeans, a pair of light grey/white Adidas Yeezy 750 Boost (of his own design, about 350 dollars in retail). The camera is locked on target. For six relentless minutes and in one single continuous shot, it chases its moving subject, covering the entire floor. Hard to decide if this is a game of cat and mouse or a round of shadow boxing. Probably both, since at first Kanye is engaging in the prancing and darting and dodging while delivering the rhymes to ‘All Day’ with his usual ferocity. Then, halfway, both mood and song change. He slows down, falls silent, catches his breath, drops to a squat, sinks to the floor, leans against the wall while pensively lip-synching the symptom inventory of anxiety and depressive disorder which make up the lyrics of ‘I Feel Like That’. The camera is still there, but maybe getting drained itself. One more time, it comes up real close to his face before it finally withdraws to the back wall of the space, leaving Kanye jaded. It feels like the standoff is unresolved. Match undecided. For the moment.
The bipolar structure of alternating ups and downs runs throughout Kanye’s entire work. Just listen for example to ‘Love Lockdown’ before or after ‘I’m in it’ (I’ll leave the order up to you). The first one makes melancholic use of Auto-Tune to express contemporary heartache (‘Heartless’, of course, does the same). The second revamps dancehall and porncore for a maniacal descent into sexual politics West style. Or play this one track only: ‘Blood on the Leaves’. The resolute early 21st-century torch song uses a chopped, pitched-up sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of Holliday’s pained protest anthem ‘Strange Fruit’ and bluntly sets it off against rap verses that make ‘alimony’ rhyme with ‘unholy matrimony’. No attempt is made to blend the lyrical address of a social issue (the racial lynching in ‘Strange Fruit’) with the drug-fueled relational drama that Kanye may or may not have lived through himself. I find it difficult to say what the juxtaposition of these two different sound registers produces exactly. It surely is no Beyoncé. Her public display of the stages of healing from her husband’s infidelity and her clear endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement read as clear declarations of empowerment. Despite all of her superficial flirting with the outward signs of feminism and the Afro-American civil rights movement, one cannot deny that she currently consciously operates within a black music tradition that fuses personal matters and social concerns, and that goes back to Marvin Gaye’s seminal concept album What’s Going On or to a great deal of Nina Simone songs, such as ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. It is precisely this unequivocal, humanist stance that made her a very welcome guest at the White House under Obama, singing at both his inauguration ceremonies. That won’t happen soon to Kanye. Apart from him being too unreliable a performer, I cannot imagine any president subscribing to outrageously ambiguous statements such as “I put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” (from ‘I’m in it’). Which makes me think of that stunning moment in the Glastonbury live show when a bigger part of the concertgoers avidly answers Kanye’s call in ‘New Slaves’. He: “I’d rather be a dick…”. They: “…than a swallower”. Barack was clear about this kind of crude behavior: “Kanye is a jackass”, he stated, probably not (yet) having heard ‘Ultralight Beam’, the opening track of The Life of Pablo which attains spiritual heights at the level of Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life.
I seem to remember reading a few times about Kanye’s signature commingling of the sacred and the profane. Needless to object to this valuable framing of the many tensions and contradictions in his work. Still, to reinstate those dichotomies solely to a familiar practice in art history feels like doing an injustice to the unpredictability and incalculability of Yeezy’s prolific output in music, fashion and entrepreneurship. Appraisals such as ‘the melding of the sacred and the profane’, or ‘the trademark blend of transcendent emotion and flawed humanity’ (indeed, these are just two results produced by an instant Google search) do not really match the jolts of surprise that I frequently experience when turning or returning to Kanye’s songs, performances and (some) videos. Often, I see and hear the unexpected and the capricious. Sonic moods and mood shifts that are at times hard to grasp yet, whether high or low, often intense. Words and sounds that now and then need a bit of computing but repeatedly turn out clever and witty and, as rap wants it, equally bawdy and brutal and simply bad mannered. Angry rap has just too many titles to list. Inevitably, the flip side of hip-hop machismo rears its languid head now and then (check Earl Sweatshirt’s deeply depressed album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside). Again, my point is that Kanye may be one of the few in black pop to self-consciously embrace the cycles of highs and lows of depression as a creative structural principle.
The Famous video seems to me then a fine example of Kanye’s ongoing public exploration and exploitation of the bipolar mind. Completely true to the logic of celebrity culture in which person and product become one, the disclosure of private and intimate space is a given. So, when Kanye opens up the door to the bedroom and invites all and everyone, the camera too, into his bed, it cannot come as too much of a surprise. The caustic mode in which he stages the ‘intrusion’ does. Remember when Madonna did the same thing? Her early 90s sex provocations now look as playful as they were meant to be then (just watch that final shot in the Justify My Love video). No such innocent pleasure for Kanye. In fact, Famous is all about after the fun. The post-orgy bedscape truly feels gloomy, a bit eerie and somewhat funereal. Hey, I do find the bold non-consensual use of famous people really funny. I am not overlooking the bright bookends that you justly mention. And there is definitely a vulnerability to those naked bodies sleeping and the nearby sounds of their calm breathing. Even so, its first seven and a half minutes may well be the coldest story ever told in music video art. Go to ‘Wolves’ to see how the very same Kanye is able to also give a more conventional and gracious visual form to his melancholic episodes. That lengthy, black-and-white music video served as part of the Fall 2016 ad campaign for the Parisian fashion house Balmain. It premiered a month after the Famous piece and stages Kanye surrounded by his wife and a small horde of Instagram celebrities and supermodels. All of them are showing major pieces from the lush, boudoir-inspired collection in some kind of catwalk/backstage after-party setting. All of them are crying, their elegant tears ostentatiously running down their faces. Hard to say if the stylish weeping is for the sad state of the world or for themselves – for the burden of being famous and the pressures that it apparently can bring to conjugal life and mental health. Kanye’s past year of stellar highs and abysmal lows suggests the latter. The Guardian recently charted his packed 12 months of megalomania: it really is a thin line between acting crazy and becoming crazy. You write: “The danger with Famous is that it risks being the very thing it wants to comment on.” I would argue: the force of Famous is that it risks being the very thing it wants to comment on.
All of this not to mention that I completely missed out on Blonde. Shame on me. I urgently need to catch up. We urgently need to catch up.
Talk to you soon,