In Defense of Kanye West

I take a fair amount of heat for liking Kanye.  I have no issues with his ranting.  His all caps.  Or his impromptu award show stage visits.  As a matter of fact, I wish there were more Kanye Wests and I have a theory as to why he is such a problem for so many people here in the nice round year of 2010.   Let’s look at the environment that Kanye inhabits vs the environment some of his predecessors inhabited.  Please indulge me and read on 🙂

First, let’s look at the history books.  John Lennon, one of the most revered musicians ever.   ‘Bigger than Jesus’ was his famous larger-than-life quote that demonstrated total disregard for a billion or so Christians.   He may as well have said the Beatles are bigger, more important and certainly more relevant than an entire religion.   Yeah, so people freaked, took it out of context, got highly pissed, likely talked shit about him over dinner and yet look how the world regards him today.  He acted out, had strong opinions, and is pretty much still bigger than Jesus.

Led Zeppelin.  These guys thought so much of themselves, how could they ‘just order room service’?   With blatant disregard for authority and appropriateness, they destroyed hotel rooms, fucked groupies with mud sharks in those hotel rooms, and showed large degrees of disrespect for the rules we common people had to play by.  They were above the rules and defined debauchery.   And now, Jimmy Page is considered one of the best guitar players of all time, the band routinely tops lists of best rock bands of all time, Robert Plant still sounds pretty amazing, and Stairway to Heaven is… enough said.

So why are things different for Kanye?  I am going to cross my fingers and pray to John Lennon that it has nothing to do with race.    Here is what I am thinking…

  1. Reality TV Nation. We live in a world where somewhere along the way, likely coinciding with the rise of The Real World, Survivor, American Idol and The Bachelor, the playing field was leveled.  Famous people no longer required talent, which put most famous people  about one-good-audition-at-the-mall above the regular people.  Celebrities became far more accessible.  These days, I could name 20 friends that have been to some party that Jay-Z was at.   If it was 1984, could I say the same thing about Michael Jackson?  Hell no!   Now we live in a world where we think famous people are just like us, or we are just like them.    It is totally feasible that you could walk into a bar and MGMT will be sitting there having a drink just like you.   This changes the whole dynamic.  Now our rockstars are not allowed to be the rockstars of old.  We cannot trash hotel rooms, so why can they?    We cannot be bigger than Jesus, so why can they?   Three weeks ago, the celebrity may have lived in a trailer park.  Shit, we are better than they are! Kanye and his extreme personality is forced to suffer in the post Reality TV world.
  2. Brand Intervention. This one is definitely close to home for me.   When you can no longer make money making music, you have to resort to endorsements, brand partnerships, or simply some sort of brand involvement.  This requires a nice polished image that looks absolutely nothing like Led Zeppelin or even John Lennon.  Impressively (in 2010), it does not look like Kanye either.   Unlike many musicians of a certain stature, he makes the majority of his money from the act of making music.  And like John Lennon and Led Zeppelin who also made money from music not brands, that gives him the ability, and perhaps even the right, to be a douche bag, to talk shit, and to be a real rock star.  Since most of his peers require brand dollars to maintain their lifestyles, Kanye also suffers in a world full of well-behaved musicians.
  3. Age Discrimination. I will keep this one short.   I would imagine there is a distinct division in the Kanye / Anti-Kanye camps.   Young vs. Old.   People my age harbor the cynicism of Gen X and what rubbed off on Gen Y.  We are older and more established and have spent the last 10 years watching the real superstars of our youth replaced by completely disposable talent generated by reality television.   The only problem… Kanye is not a product of reality television, yet we are guilty of looking at him through that lens.  We are the problem.

If Kanye decided to build his own theme park, everyone on the planet over 28 years old would collectively vomit and ask for an apology from him.  But 30 years ago, it was cute when Michael Jackson did it.  He was a god and did god-like things.  He was on another monkey-having level than all of us, and we were cool with that.  If Michael Jackson said ‘George Bush hates black people’, the nation would have asked for impeachment and congress would have moonwalked.   Back then, you had to earn your stripes.  You had to earn the trust of the people to be a superstar and act like a rockstar.   Now we live in a world where we are all stars (or think we should be) and we reject those that act out because most of us cannot.

See the forest through the trees.  What if John Lennon acted a little more normal or grounded?   Or Led Zeppelin went back to the hotel and slept every night after reading a few verses of the Bible?    Or if Kurt Cobain lightened up?   That is what a huge portion of the population thinks Kanye should do.   Personally, I think he should keep being Kanye, and if anything, dial it up a bit.  Maybe he’ll inspire others to do the same.  If not, what are we left with?

The New American Dream Will be Redefined Back Home

The American Dream is being redefined right in front us. Not by the media. Not by schools. And certainly not by the financial institutions seeking to maintain the status quo.    Marketers give them names like GenY or Millennials, but make no mistake, the American Dream is being redefined by the young people who have inherited an obsolete idea. This is the generation weaned on digital and their dreams have no physical borders.    The new American Dream is largely global and fluid. The need to own a home will be replaced by the desire to live abroad – multiple times. The need to lay down roots will be replaced by the need to remain mobile. This impacts everything from transportation, to dwellings, to the pursuit of higher education.

Personal experiences are the new assets. Individuality is the new wealth.

Working on (or as my UK friends may charmingly say ‘looking after’) a number of brands that serve the younger generations of Americans, more often than not, you are presented rather alarming data about kids of the future.  Things like:  The kids being born today will be the first generation of kids that do not have it as good as their parents.   Or:  The recession is forcing entire graduating college classes to sit out of employment, and be passed up by younger grads once the economy turns around.  A lost class if of you will.


Photo of Taj Reid, of WeJetSet.

As dismal as it may seem, I also think that as a society and marketers, we are looking at these kids through the lense of the now antiquated American Dream.   People are resilient.  If the passion is there, or a drop of ambition, I am confident that these kids will redefine the American Dream – make it a global one, relevant – and make it work for them.

I have had the very fortunate situation, in my opinion, to have had a taste of the old American Dream, and now what may be a new one.   I went to school.  Got a job.  Bought a house.   Dogs.   Marriage.  And it really did not even suck.  It was all I knew.  Most of my friends are living that very dream right now.   Many probably assume that some day they’ll sell their house at a great profit, or better yet, simply strike it rich.  Either by the hands of some benevolent corporation, or by the equally likely winged horse that will fly from the sky to deliver them that big pay day.   Somewhere along the way, probably as a Texan living in New York during a time our country divided down the middle politically and rationally, I realized it was time to adjust the mirrors and clean the windshield.  I have found myself in this somewhat migratory/nomadic lifestyle that I personally find pretty goddamn amazing.   I am not rich.  I don’t even own a car.  But I am free in every imaginable way – a feeling I don’t ever recall as an adult.   A blank canvas.  A GPS waiting for an address.

There is a statistic that measures the number of kids that have moved back in with their parents in their late 20’s.  The number is high.   People who read the stat sit back in their conference room chair and chuckle at the prospects.  I actually think of that scenario – the act of moving back with you parents – as the ultimate gesture or better yet, middle finger to the old American Dream.  It is not a bad a thing… those 20-somethings will emerge poised to take on the world from a new perspective.   The biggest mistake they could make would be trying to jump back into the old rat race.  It is the ultimate opportunity  to rethink your place in the world.   Read books.  Dream big.  Volunteer.  Start over.  It is a beautiful thing.   People that move home now will be the pioneers of the new dream.  Embrace it.  Marketers should not write these people off, but instead seek to understand the great potential of these individuals.  They are the ones starting revolutions in food.  Social entrepreneurs.  They are highly educated with nothing to lose – a powerful dynamic that I don’t recall in my lifetime.

When I wrote the quoted text above for a project I was working on, it was rooted in the observations of the young people I meet, or their blogs that I read.  Perhaps not their actions, but certainly their aspirations.   I am beyond confident they will figure it out.  I hope they let an old man in on what they have cookin’.

My New York Experience: Bright Lights, Big City

As the first of what I hope will be at least 2 times living in NYC comes to a close, I want to use the power of images (Michael J. Fox in Bright Lights, Big City) and sounds (Bryan Ferry and New Order) to sum things up for me.   Ironically, of course. More to come on this topic.

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