As an amateur sociologist, bona fide twenty-something and sometimes people watcher, I'd lump young people today into three basic categories: hipsters, bros... and girls. A broad, but perhaps not inaccurate, characterization.
Among these three divergent groups, a remaining cultural bridge is the ability for each group to grouse about celebrities on Facebook.
The modern equivalent of the water cooler, social media is one of the few bonds we have in an increasingly frayed culture. Celebrities are like a crop in a harvest of buzz feeds: a conglomerate of Twitter accounts and reality TV appearances, allowing the youth of America to join together under one purpose, almost irrespective of background or circumstance. Pop kingpins, entertainers mostly, have become not merely the center of multibillion dollar industries; they are, for better or worse, the life blood of what unites us, and thus what makes us American.
No one better embodies our conflicted relationship to fame (and smart phone culture) than Kanye West, recently named one of Barbara Walters' most interesting people. In 2013, two high profile interviews with The New York Times and Zane Lowe resulted in an explosion of nauseating think pieces solely committed to dissecting the ludicrousness of his statements. Even President Obama, in between reprogramming healthcare.gov and accidentally solving the Syrian crisis, managed to find time (twice!) to weigh in on the rapper/producer/"creative genius."
Practically everyone's got an opinion on Ye, whether it's the juiced out bruh, over-privileged scenester, or the kind of girl who dates both. Some cannot stand his public persona; others are weary he is no longer making danceable songs like "Gold Digger." We tweet, we text, we Snap Chat, and when it comes to Kanye, we are all on the same page. The message is clear: talented or no, his increasingly obnoxious behavior makes him an outlier in a society that indulges twerking and Honey Boo Boo.
Still, overlooked by his critics (it's practically en vogue to be anti-Kanye) is the way West's staying power in our culture transcends the typical rite of passage an overexposed artist undergoes. Rather, our paradoxical scorn/admiration for West reveals a deep-seeded tension between an artist and his audience. West -- through all his savvy and narcissism -- captures our great, troubled ambivalence about today's world. For all his shortcomings, they make him fascinating and are symptomatic of larger trends concerning privacy and the pitfalls of relentless self-possession. He becomes in a tragic, Frankenstein monster kind of way, the epitome of the modern man.
A valid point against West is that he can be out-of-touch, a deluded and pampered celebrity. But before he was renting AT&T Park to propose to Kim, his backstory actually shares quite a deal with the average American. Like many Americans, West comes from a middle class upbringing, divorced parents, raised predominantly in the suburbs. Like many Americans, West attended college. Eventually suffering a painful breakup, West also grieved the death of a parent. Sound familiar?
The narrative changes, of course, in a wild streak of career moves and strokes of luck that Hollywood could not write. Fifteen years later, he is on Jimmy Kimmel, defending his absurd, yet strikingly honest views on celebrity and fame.
A key to understanding West, one of the defining figures of 2013, may actually be a short story first published in 1924. "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" is an excellent study of the quixotic relationship between an entertainer and her audience. Written by Franz Kafka, the story examines attempts by a community to understand its single artist.
A singer, Josephine is worshipped by the 'mouse folk' until she grows disenchanted with them, eventually leaving never to be seen again. Likewise, members of her community grow skeptical of her, alienated by both her superior attitude toward them and the special treatment she is granted.
West's career has followed a similar path. Uncomfortable and even contemptuous of his audience, West's recent public appearances suggest a man punch-drunk off his own celebrity, while battling to maintain his self-awareness. Much of his best work ("Flashing Lights" and "All of the Lights") centers on this apprehensive attitude. But it's his latest record, the provocative and race baiting Yeezus, that perhaps best encapsulates West's contradictory nature. In an album proud of its defiant and anti-corporate posturing, some were understandably confused then by Motorola's use of the inflammatory single "Black Skinhead" in a recent commercial. Ahh, to be Kanye...
Yet "Josephine the Singer", or the "Mouse Folk" also reminds us of an audience's complicity in enabling an entertainer. This is particularly true with West, who began his career as a rapper earnestly, with uplifting tracks such as "Family Business." Now, after at least two live breakdowns on national TV, many more highly publicized rants and a well-timed South Park parody, the public's quota for Kanye self-indulgence appears to be maxed. Except that, Yeezy is as popular as ever. He is begrudged for his antics, but they only enhance his brand as an eccentric jerk. More than his impressive, anthem-like discography, West is embedded in the national dialogue in ways a Pitbull or a Flo Rida could only dream. He's succeeded, in a fashion only he could truly appreciate, to "pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist."
It's not that West is actually the voice of his generation, as he claims; it's that such self-regard makes him ideal fodder to draw broader generational conclusions. Through his biography, and now thanks to his boundless self-regard and lack of filter, West is an apt poster child for Generation: Me, as dubbed by Jean Twenge. The crisis of self-entitlement in the United States, and so-called Millennials, may be an overwrought topic, but it is wonderfully ironic given the equally overwrought treatment of Mr. West by today's thought leaders. Whether your critical stun gun is set on our Facebook addiction, or celebrity worship, Kanye West is the perfect storm, a match made in word counts.
Each era demands its own hand-wringing crisis (for Millennials, tech savvy self-absorption), and every generation since World War II has needed a divisive cultural leader to embody its values. Think of it as an academic exercise, or a fill-in-the-blank for historians. As such, by articulating our own unease, through his incessant tweeting and inability to self-censor, Kanye West achieves just that. To paraphrase the elegiac James Gordon at the end of The Dark Knight, West is "not the celebrity we need right now, but the one we deserve."
And, hey, everyone's got to make a living.