When Kanye West took center stage at the 32nd MTV VMAs to accept the “Vanguard” award for his innovative, ground-breaking music videos over the course of his career so far, what choice did he have? The billing and the presentation around all this was centered on the fact that Taylor Swift was presenting him the award after their famous incident on a previous MTV awards show in 2009 sent them both careening in opposite directions: it crystalized Swift as a damsel while chaining West to being a dragon.
And so it went for the next several years. As MTV and the industry latched onto Swift as the latest answer to “Who’s That Girl?” hitching their horse to her impressive bandwagon now that they’ve used-up the likes of Madonna (the OG prototype) and Brittany and finding others (Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Miley) wanting, Kanye West became The Heel; throatily booed, criticized and reviled.
Where Swift’s image softened and became warmed by a collective embrace (and incentive) to see her rise, West’s image hardened, darkened and amplified around the sonic tones of his perceived arrogance and anger. It’s little surprise that his next album after this incident, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy, was so critically-acclaimed: it was an album-length Kanye-brand tirade whose every track was equal parts tongue-in-cheek mockery of what had come to be expected of him, and an angry apology (in that kinda-sorta way that Kanye is infamous for).
It was, quintessential West as we’d created him to be at that point: on the every surface of the album, from the cover art to the names of nearly every track name, it affirmed what we’d come to expect and believe of him, simultaneously celebrating him and berating him. West is on the game the entire time too (something that I think is missed by many fans and non-fans); the last two tracks, “Who Will Survive in America” and “See Me Now” could also be seen as the closing statements on the gladiator arena he’d found himself tossed in: picture West a bloodied Maximus standing over all the earlier versions of a Kanye West we rejected, asking, wearily, angrily: “Are you not entertained?”. Unsurprisingly, it’s West’s most critically-acclaimed album, while at the same time, his lowest-selling solo album to that point.
But American culture loves to see the inhumane limits it can impose on the pain to become and maintain becoming a celebrity, and certainly a black one, and so you get the impression that none of this penance was/is enough for many people. There was still The Taylor Swift Incident to atone for, and his soft-repeat with Beck at the Grammy’s only deepened the concern that Kanye West, the complicated, bombastic, brash artist that can’t quite figure out his place and his decorum was beyond redemption.
And so, what choice did he have? MTV, who long trolled the entire incident afterwards to their benefit (and Taylor’s, for sure), lured the dragon from his cave with their Vanguard award, and even offered up the neck of Taylor Swift too. It would’ve only publicly re-criminalized West to not attend and accept the award: imagine the headlines for that. Instead, he found himself taking center stage again (and, interestingly, quietly passing on a performance he was initially asked to do that night), and what should’ve been an opportunity to take 3-5 minutes to thank the industry that part adores him, part reviles him, part needs him, West, ever in on the game, went on a 12:00 tirade that was part plea, part politics, and part presidency.
Predictably, the public, ever the dullards for sensationalism and headlines, missed the heart of not only West, but his speech. While so many people focused on his declaration to run for POTUS in 2020 (missing that it was a crescendo of West trolling all of us again), they overlooked what Kanye more pointedly addressed; a series of commentary that was part meta-conversation with himself, part “f*ck you” to MTV and the awards show industry, part plea to his artist community (which includes Swift):
I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing. I still don’t understand awards shows. I don’t understand how they get five people who worked their entire life … sold records, sold concert tickets to come stand on the carpet and for the first time in they life be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser!
He ended the speech with his declaration that, yup, you guessed it: he’ll be running for President in 2020. And as soon as he left the stage, the internet and the media predictably exploded: praising him for his contriteness or his honesty, reviling him for being ungrateful for the industry recognition or his unfettered popularity, mocking him for his audacity or his attire, in awe of his arrogance or his greatness.
What should be a 12 minute highlight in his almost 12-year career will be reduced to another question of when his 15 minutes of fame and presence will dry up so he can disappear.
It’ll be what’s remembered most about the VMA 2015 night; not that Taylor Swift released a new music video, set in an Africa that features virtually no Africans, or that Miley Cyrus referred to Snoop Dogg as her “mammy”, but that Kanye West continued to be The Heel because we’ve reduced him to an obnoxious sound-byte.