Monday, September 13, 2010

It's Too Late to Apologize: Kanye West, Taylor Swift and the Music Industry Hypocrisy of MTV's VMAs

MTV's Video Music Awards used to be a thing of legend. I can still recall those commercials that encouraged us to call our cable companies and say, "I Want My MTV!" I remember how a little Black girl could watch MTV and not see any videos by Black folks on them, as well as the glee she felt when her idol, Michael Jackson, tip-toed on lighted floor squares, testifying that he was not the lover of Billie Jean or the father of her son. She can remember the mixed feelings of excitement when "Yo! MTV Raps" came on board, as well as the array of music, fashion, great performances and some antics that occurred annually at the VMAs.

She also vividly remembers Madonna writhing on the floor while gyrating in a wedding gown to the shock and awe of television watchers back home. She doth also remember the beckoning of bad behavior, rudeness, disses, flaming of beef between rockers and rappers and fights that spilled over from the VMAs into other awards shows but always, always at its height at the VMAs. She remembers rockers climbing on the set, causing danger for everybody and, as the years have gone by, how audiences grew a palate for even greater shenanigans. So much so, that there are now countdown shows on MTV and VH-1 that rank the stunts music artists have engaged in over the years, including having a grown man put his genitalia in the face of another grown man who never welcomed such antics? Or did you think we were going to forget that, MTV?

FYI, Eminem did not stage this entire affair. He had agreed to have Sascha Baron Cohen fly in next to him (and perhaps land in the aisle). Eminem was so angry by the manner in which he was tricked and violated that he purportedly got into a fight backstage with "Bruno", immediately left the Awards show, retrained his bodyguards and, as we saw for this year, he came, he performed, he picked up his award---and he bounced. I wonder if he ever received an apology?

Whelp. Things have changed...but not really.

Once upon a time, as in last year, 2009, the phenomenon of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" video (and it was, indeed, a phenomenon, not the least of which can be attributed to the uber-fabulousness of choreographer Bob Fosse and all of us who learned to keep our index fingers and thumbs poised 'just so', as it can be to the star quality of Bey and her dance leotards)---took the world by storm.

Simultaneously, a young teenage girl from Tennessee named Taylor Swift had taken the country world by storm by sitting in her room, embracing her own thoughts, writing out her own lyrics, playing her own guitar and being a rather sweet personality, in general. No, she would not be the best singer; but in a country so disappointed by the downfall of Britney Spears, the maturing of Cristina Aguilera (including marriage and child), as well as the increasingly disturbing sexualization of Miley Cyrus aka Hannah Montana, it would stand to reason that this, Ms. Swift, would be given a chance to shine. Thus, she was easily embraced by millions of tweens and parents, alike to the tune of mega record sales and dedicated fans.

Taylor is a country girl and between she and Carrie Underwood, White Americans were going to make sure their children, at least, would have some good, musical role models that wouldn't inspire teenage pregnancy or upcoming appearances on "Girls Gone Wild", Volume One Million and counting... When it came time for Taylor to win an award for Best Video by a female artist, up against the likes of Beyonce and Lady Gaga, it did seem unlikely that she might win; but the night was young and Beyonce was due the biggest award of the evening, actually. Besides, Taylor Swift's "You Belong to Me" was a top hit:

Begging an oblivious, teen boy to recognize your worth is filled with the predictable, low self-esteem produced by being a girl in a patriarchal, misogyynist culture, so of course these girls could relate to Taylor's narrative and sent her into stardom (even before she went on "Oprah", so you know...)

Enter Kanye West. Now, I have never been much of a Kanye West fan, not because I don't recognize he is talented but because I grew up with many talented people and I have known early on that you must use (not abuse) your talent. Further, there is a greater responsibility to being a Black artist in America and the world precisely because we are NOT post-racial, in the least. What you sing about, how you perform, the movies you appear in and promote, all of it matters and, while you should not be burdened by it, you do have some responsibility to your audience, to your community and, ultimately, to yourself.

I was pretty excited when I found out a preppy artist was coming to the fore to not only relieve Jay-Z's guilt for promoting a good portion of nonsense and misogyny but also because the image of a preppy rapper was long overdue for a comeback, as we were missing the balance that artists such as De La Soul, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and even Young MC provided with their happy-go-lucky, intelligent spirits. It was the perfect opportunity to bring some human balance to all that thuggery masquerading as manhood on the music scene.

But when Kanye West---who was raised in a middle class environment, whose own mother had a Ph.D. and taught English at Chicago State University (also home to one of the best literary celebrations in the country, the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference)---chose to name his debut CD, "College Dropout", I was pretty much through with him right then and I denounced him as being an extremely irresponsible artist, not to mention intellectually dishonest. Yes, it is true that Kanye West dropped out of college to pursue his music career; but imagine being even informally home-schooled by a Doctor of Philosophy in English. There was simply no excuse for his messaging, especially in light of Soulja Boy telling students to "throw some D's" on their report cards. Now, I am not blaming Hip Hop for the system of white supremacy or the continued existence of structural inequality in the education system. I would simply like for these artists to stop creating its soundtrack.

So, I don't even bothering offering an excuse as to why Kanye thought it would be even remotely acceptable to come onstage and snatch the mic from a 17 year old, impressionable girl (her race is irrelevant in this particular context) and ruin her first-ever acceptance speech for an award, after she worked so hard in her bedroom, writing down her ideas, nervously signing a deal that allowed her to project her own voice into the world, selling tons of records, touring the country with her Mother and maintaining a high degree of professionalism the entire time. Yes, Taylor Swift was a star long before he snatched her mic. What Kanye did was a disgrace; and I heard Taylor's mother was backstage ready to put her entire foot up his rectum. I would have been too, had that been my child.

But let's be honest. Kanye had been acting up and being immature for years (in fact, at 17 years old, Taylor was more mature and poised than he) and although myself and many others found him annoying, his previous antics were par for the course at award shows and other events involving his narcissistic peers. So, actually, I should not have written that his behavior would not be "even remotely acceptable" because, indeed, it was encouraged. Bad television behavior is ratings heaven and commercial success. Notice that, even this year, Chelsea Handler begged for unacceptable antics and appalling rudeness. Again, it is par for the course and welcomed in this context. The difference is that Kanye chose the wrong time and the wrong person in the wrong country.

On one hand, Kanye deserved every piece of ridicule and shunning he received following his rude behavior towards Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. And once he sobered up, even he realized the extent of his folly. But I also believe that the punishment should fit the crime and after being shunned, after being relentlessly clowned, after having to stay away from awards shows, losing bookings and suffering financially, emotionally and professionally, in addition to offering a sincere apology to Taylor Swift (which he did, actually, and she told everyone she had accepted it), then I feel the punishment has fit the crime and enough is enough, already.

But this is where pop culture, the hypocrisy of the music industry and, well, the politics of race in America come into play. It is as though the music industry is suddenly appalled at outlandish behavior when they encourage it. It is as though the music industry has not ever witnessed downright rude or disgusting behavior and has not ever allowed for an artist to redeem him/herself. There are so many instances of generally unacceptable behavior at these awards shows, it makes what Kanye did pretty lightweight in comparison.

But the fact is, Kanye was an uppity negro, an obnoxious Black man, who took something from a young, White girl with long, blond hair and ocean blue eyes. The racial offense has become much more than the actual offense and this is where I step in and call a major foul and an American epic failure. Further, my heart broke when President Obama (admittedly overheard, off camera on a hot mic) called Kanye a "jackass". Yes, his behavior embodied one but to get that type of chastisement from the Leader of the Free World was a bit much, as far as I am concerned. And that is not the same as defending Kanye for his antics.

Kanye acknowledged his folly immediately after the show on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (of all people):

Kanye was on Twitter just before the VMAs, apologizing to Taylor Swift as though he had never apologized to her before:

And I saw Taylor Swift repeatedly say she accepted Kanye's apology on various talk shows throughout the year, so imagine my surprise when I saw her appear onstage at the VMAs replaying the Kanye scene as though she were still being victimized by the interruption. Need I remind everyone that this was not the end of her story and that she was allowed to come back on and say her full acceptance speech, this time with even greater, thunderous applause (and rightly so), thanks to Beyonce allowing her to have that moment? Do you not find it interesting that the pop culture historians seem to gloss over that moment as though it did not happen? Whelp, you won't get away with it as long as I'm around. Some of us are not Revisionist Historians. And perhaps it does not matter at this point but did Taylor ever thank Beyonce for that? It was not Bey's fault that it happened and Bey was not under any obligation to give up her time. But I digress...

In some ways, I think Taylor was trying to tell Kanye that "it was okay" if I heard these lyrics correctly:
Who you are is not what you did
You're still an innocent...
That sounds nice; and I am hoping that Kanye fans are aware that one can be disappointed in how he is being treated now without bashing Taylor Swift. Unlike so many other artists, she's actually not an untalented hack.

But in my mind, we all know how this is done. They do a duet together. They come out holding hands to present an award and make light of the situation. They do a funny skit together somewhere in the middle of the awards show---or at the beginning---or at the end. One way or another, they both demonstrate some type of musical industry love fest to bring fans back to the counter, buying their music and keeping hope alive.

Alas, it was not to be, which only further incensed me and led me to applaud Kathy Griffin's tweet:

"He didn't rape her". Precisely, Kathy Griffin, precisely...

But in a system of white supremacy, I guess he did. Kathy's message should be directed to the hypocritical music industry and MTV's VMAs, though, not Taylor.

Which leads me to Chelsea's mishandling of the VMAs and her reenactment of "Birth of a Nation". Stay tuned...

In the meantime, I guess I'm glad Kanye was able to perform his tribute to "douchebags and a**holes" and the like because he certainly has been one but when it comes to the case of "The Music Industry and Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West", he was tried, convicted, punished and it is past time to bring that case to a close.

Thanks to the Twitter family for the engaging convo. To follow much of our conversation, check out the hashtag: #vmas

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