Kanye, We Hardly Knew Ye

November 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

On the new-books shelf of the library yesterday, I saw this.



The Cultural Impact of Kanye West already? You mean Kanye has already levitated from mere pop to high art? With new discussion questions?

I remembered what W. H. Auden said in an interview long ago – maybe in the late 60s or early 70s – when he was asked what he thought of Bob Dylan as a poet. Auden confessed his ignorance and explained, “One has so much to read.”

Alec Baldwin, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick (the audio is here), tries to get Remnick to diss the New York Times for its culture coverage. Says Baldwin “There’s things that they cover in pop culture, I go: They put that on the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times??”

Remnick disagrees. “I think that’s OK.” and adds, “It’s important for somebody my age [he’s 57] to remember that Kanye West is for his audience . . . what Bob Dylan was for his audience thirty years ago.” Remnick also identifies himself as “somebody who still goes to see The Bobster and others, and it still means everything to me.”

Like Auden, Remnick puts Dylan (and Kanye) in the bin labeled Pop. The difference is that Remnick has time for them while Auden attends to more serious things. But as time passes, and as academics move into the neighborhood, what was once pop can become serious. It’s like that New Yorker cartoon of a course at the New School devoted to “I Love Lucy.” (I can’t find the actual cartoon. As I recall, it shows a professor in front of a large whiteboard filled with diagrams – arrows linking circles labeled “Ethel” or “Ricky” or “Chocolate factory.”)

Dylan and Lucy, starting from very different cultural places, both wind up in what Jenn Lena calls the “Traditionalist genre.”

At the start of the Traditionalist genre, a scholarly literature emerges that strives to preserve, codify, and organize the field. . . .Scholars and lay historians are often preoccupied with the quest for the true or authentic, complete history. [from Banding Together ]

I thought it might be a bit early for Kanye to have entered this ultimate and elevated genre. But there was that book. True to academic protocol, nearly all the essay titles in it have a colon (only two of fourteen have had their colons removed), titles like “When Apollo and Dionysus Clash: A Nietzschean Perspective on the Work of Kanye West,” or “Confidently (Non)cognizant of Neoliberalism: Kanye West and the Interruption of Taylor Swift.” Ah yes, the Interruption. What book about Kanye could omit an analysis of that crucial historical moment, an analysis very much in keeping with “quest for the authentic history.”

It’s as though the scholars are saying to Kanye, “Imma let you finish your career, but first I’m gonna write this essay about your oeuvre to date. ”

One thing puzzles me: those “new discussion questions” promised on the cover. I wonder, do they elevate Kanye even more, inviting still more academic analyses? Or do they lower the Kanye Studies program from highbrow to middlebrow, like those discussion questions now tacked on at the end of novels aimed at the book-club market? Maybe Kanye’s next album will come with the study questions already embedded.

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