Much Ado About Molehills

It’s been some time since the Kanye West crisis at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. I tried to not think about it, but seeing that I’ve got that philosopher thing goin’ on, I found that my will was not as strong as I had hoped. I know that there are more important things to think about than the hullabaloo over Mr. West’s unsolicited comments during Taylor Swift’sspeech, but I felt that I might as well throw my two bits into the hat. So, here is my two bits. First off, I know that I am in no way making up the notion that, if there was any place where a celebrity (or one who thinks that he is) to “act up” it is at an awards show, in particular, one hosted by MTV. The VMAs , I presume, is the place where we would expect to expect the unexpected and even the unacceptable so far as behavior and famousness goes. I recall with great fondness Madonna’s steamroller impression during her performance of “Like A Virgin”, Prince’s peek-a-boo pants, Howard Stern’s Fartman appearance, or Marilyn Manson’s ghostly white, nearly translucent tuchus on the VMAs singing “The Beautiful People”. (that was back when we were actually shocked by people like Marilyn Manson. Oh, how the times have changed!) I don’t think that the suits at MTV ever envisioned that their awards show would be the place where decorum would be a popular idea. I don’t think that they entertained the idea that their show would surpass the Grammys in distinction or preeminence. The VMAs have always been a place where the famous draw attention to themselves, mostly by behaving badly. The Grammys meant class, the VMAs are the land of the publicity stunt. Somehow there is this big to-do over Kanye West. Maybe it’s because his comment hasd the unfortunate trait of having taken place at the end of a string of public outbursts that have become progressively more irritating in the minds of the public. I think that the fed-up-ness began with Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Big Game’s halftime show (Now, for my money’s worth, if she had just announced that she intended to show some boob the whole thing would have blown over. It’s not the break-in that got Nixon, it was the cover up), and reached a head with Rep. Joe Wilson’s shouting “you lie!” during President Obama’s speeche to Congress. People are already pretty irritated with loudmouths who shout stupid things in public as it is, and Kanye West did was just another example of a tourette’s-esque public display of screwheadedness. In a semi-defense of Wilson, I will say that a liar should be called oue when he is lying. But like we’re told by our mommies and daddies, there is a time and a place for doing so. Shouting it during the President’s speech is neither the time nor the place. You can wait until you’re on Fox News to do that. But that is not what Taylor Swift was doing. I mean, she wasn’t addressing the General Assembly at the UN. She was getting an award at the MTV Video Music Awards for cripes sakes! Does anybody remember Courtney Love threw her compact at Madonna and nearly beaned her with it while Madonna was talking to Kurt Loder? (Madonna looked really pretty during that interview, too). Anyway, far be it for me to disagree with Katy Perry, but Ms. Swift is not a “kitten” nor was what Kanye West said akin to stomping on one (by the way, if the Supreme Court rules anytime soon on the matter, it might not be illegal to videotape yourself stomping on one for fun). It was MTV, people. If no one remembers, this is the network that gave us Buzzkill, Jackass, “Puck” from Real World:San Francisco, and Tila Tequila. And really, this latest Kanye-can’t-keep-his-trap-shut incident isn’t his most egregious public display of moronocity. Here’s a taste of what the Napoleon-sized, self-proclaimed savior of music has said in other public places: * in 2004, after losing an AMA to Gretchen Wilson, Kanye West stormed out and informed the media that he was “definitely robbed”. * in 2006, after losing an MTV Europe VMA to Justice vs. Simian, Kanye West stormed the stage while the winners were accepting their award and declared that his video was the winner. * in 2005, during a Hurricane Katrina benefit show, Kanye West (famously) declared that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. (Ok, he wasn’t entirely wrong on that call — if anything, it’s that he was too specific). * Mr. West has insisted that he be addressed by incorporating his name into the name of Martin Luther King, jr. Yes, we can agree with President Obama that Mr. West is a “jackass”, but when you look at what he did, it was really no different from other celebrity outbursts, like the recent Christian Bale rant. There’s something (for better or worse) that expects such behavior from celebrities and other famous people. Our media has an entire sub-industry that is devoted to stars behaving badly — TMZ, celeb mug shots on the Smoking Gun, Star, People, The National Enquirer (and an infinity of other tabloids), Extra!, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood — all of them run like flies to turds to show the latest video of some notable mouthing off. They keep acting up and we keep watching. Now, I could say here that for some the whole ordeal isn’t about the fact that Kanye West interrupted someone’s acceptance speech. Some may say that his jackass stunt actually livened up the show. I think that, for some, it wasn’t a matter that he spoke, it was who he interrupted that is the problem. Think about it his way: if Kanye West had charged the stage while Violent J from the ICP was on the podium accepting an award for video of the year, I think that no one would have cared much. I definitely think that Terry Moran wouldn’t have asked the president for his opinion on the matter. If cute, kittenish Taylor Swift is interrupted, the world is throw off of it’s axis. If an overweight, outrageously made up shock rock/rapper is cut off not an eye blinks. I realize that a part of the problem (the problem underneath the problem) is that we’ve got a big, gaping problem of moral inconsistency that we have to deal with. We expect that celebrities will make asses of themselves by flapping their yaps, yet when we do, we act as though the behavior that we expected (and even encourage) is unacceptable. This is what I think: In some ways, Kanye West and Rep. Wilson are alike. Politicians and celebrities are public people (although I think that George Clooney might object to my assumption). Yet, oftentimes we hold each to a different standard of behavior. If Rep. Wilson had yelled during the VMAs. his outburst wouldn’t have been a problem. This is because we think that it is perfectly acceptable that a non-politician famous person yells out whatever they feel like nearly wherever they feel like saying it. The nature of the fame is different for a politician than it is for a “star” (although it seems that that line is constantly being blurred, as Tom DeLay is appearing on Dancing With the Stars). Thomas Nagel wrote in his essay “Ruthlessness in Public Life” ( an essay about individuals who hold public offices, but I think that it can apply to any public person), office holders (and I say celebrities in general) are “insulated in a puzzling way from what they do: insulated both in their own view and in the view of most observers”. This kind of insulation, Nagel says, is “strongly attractive”. Holding a public office Nagel says, confers a certain amount of power. Likewise, we often tend to assume that being famous gives an individual, among several things, money and power. That power affords a person to insulate themselves, not just physically from the public, but morally as well. They are apart from normal society, housed in a self-re-enforcing environment where they need not trouble themselves with the usual call for mannerly and orderly behavior that those outside that environment have to abide by. Entertainment Weekly contributor Mark Harris says that former SNL regular and star (and creator) of 30 Rock, Tina Fey, calls this environment “the Bubble”. The Bubble, Harris says, quoting Fey, is “that magical zone in which, because you have everything you want, you start believing that you earned it, then that you deserve it, then that you deserve even more”. On the outside, we see it. We lament that famous people “get away” with things that ordinary people don’t, not just acting loke an ass in public. (For example, I remember some of the reactions to Robert Downey’s “goldiocks” incident — he committed a B&E– and how some felt that he had been handled too preciously by the court). Celebrity drunk drivers, hit and runners, even those who have killed people (and I’m not just talking about OJ, either) get away with crimes when others (i.e. not famous) do not. Jay-Z stabbed some dude in a club. Is he in prison right now? With celebrity, we say comes fame, and with fame comes money, and with money comes power. With power, we conclude, is the ability to not be treated like everyone else. Harris says that the Bubble has an “arrogant sense of predestination”.Nagel writes that the exercise of power “is one of the most personal forms of self-expression”. Given the two views together, it is not difficult to understand why a celebrity such as Kanye West felt that he could interrupt Taylor Swift’s speech. As a celebrity, he may have felt entitled to his fame, and that as a famous person (with some amount of power) he cannot hold back from expressing himself whenever he feels that he needs to. His “art” depends on his self-expression. As an artist, he cannot, therefore, hold back when he gets the urge to speak. And, given an intimidating entourage and a flock of adoring starfuckers, a celebrity is free to run his mouth anywhere, anytime he wants to his heart’s content. Of course, the response would be that not everyone enjoys hearing what these “artists” have to say. It’s obvous, by the response to Kanye West’s comments both in the star community and without, that what he did was morally objectionable to some. To this I say that that is true. But that just goest to show what the problem is — our own moral inconsistency when it comes to celebrities. We alternately say that we expect famous people to rant in public, yet we condem them when they do. I ask, why do we do this? Nagel writes, “this would not be so unless there were something to the special status … in a role. If roles encourage illegitimate release from moral restraints it is because their moral effect has been destorted”. We are offended, yet everybody wants to be a star. We live vicariously through the lives of the beautiful people. We encourage them to be morally incorrect because we have placed the role of celebrity in a place where it is immune from moral scrutiny. If celebrities acted the same as us, there would be no reason to look at the stars and admire their beauty and differentness (from us). We are transmitting the inconsistency to them, as we praise them for what they do wrong (or at the very least we excuse the wrong). We say that a part of being a celebrity is getting to act in a manner that normal people cannot. We alternately (and arbitrarily) reward and ostracize stars for their behavior. In turn, I believe, this leads to even more bad celebrity behavior — as the stars do not know what kind of behavior will be praised or condemed. Until we figure out what way we want to deal with celebrities, and then consistently do so, behavior like Kanye West’s will continue. If anything, it’s Kanye West who is acting consistently. He’s a consistent jackass, but consistent nonetheless.
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