I first heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2014, four years after the album’s release, and long after Kanye West had entered the public spotlight. I still remember hearing the defining opening notes of the track “Runaway” streaming in from my then-wired headphones and staring up at my bedroom ceiling, completely unaware that I was listening to what would soon become arguably of one of my favourite albums of all time. My ninth-grade brain was no match for the drama of the record’s lyrics and its lavish instrumentals, so I spent hours listening and re-listening, trying to pick up on samples I couldn’t quite place, and turning to Genius to explain lyrical references that went completely over my head.
I knew very little about West prior to my obsession with his fifth studio album. My nine-year-old self had garnered a deep hatred for him because of his transgressions against my at the time idol and celebrity big sister Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, but that grudge slowly faded as my tastes changed, and I no longer had any reason to despise the man who would later create a song that was the answer to all of my musical fantasies. Until he gave me one. Or rather, many reasons.
In his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye asks his audience: “Do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby? / Did he forget the names just like Steve Harvey?” He then tweeted to his 27 million Twitter followers that Bill Cosby, the disgraced comedian accused and later convicted of aggravated indecent assault, is innocent. Later that year, he released his music video for “Famous”, which showed graphic depictions of many celebrities, including Taylor Swift, naked in bed, without their consent. In 2018, while hosting Saturday Night Live, he goes on what appears to be a pro-Donald Trump rant, wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, which he likened to his very own, “Superman cape.” Since then, Kanye West has become notorious for his inability to conform to standards of accepted celebrity conduct, whether through likening himself to a God, insisting that enslaved people in America could have simply escaped, and a series of other disastrous public debacles.
While some have likened Kanye to an anti-hero type, and many liken him to the sort of disaster you just can’t look away from, there is something disheartening about seeing the personal life of someone whose music you enjoy go up in flames. As a fan, it’s difficult to see the person you once idolized turn out to be someone who publicly promotes hateful and cruel behaviour. It is especially tough to witness your favourite celebrity take a stance on a topical issue that deeply contrasts your own. In my case, I struggled to decipher whether I was allowed to listen to Kanye’s music, or if I was committing some moral offense by enjoying the creation of someone whose views and behaviours personified everything I felt strongly against. In a time where audiences are invested in the personal lives of the artists they love and political apathy is no longer accepted or encouraged, a lot of guilt can be harboured around consuming media created by problematic people. This internal conflict becomes a matter of moral conduct, and more specifically a question of whether you can enjoy the work of someone who you think is problematic.
The standard argument in these situations is: “I support the art, but not the artist.” This method of separating an artist from their artistic work is useful for scholarly analysis, and can provide an objective look at the function and meaning of a work of art. However, in an age where things like streaming music and buying merchandise have the ability to propel people both financially and socially, this critical distance between art and artist becomes urgently closer. Artists receive compensation from Spotify for every thousand times their song is streamed, in the same way that authors make money from royalties and YouTubers get paid per number of views. Although you might not be outwardly voicing your support for an artist that you do not agree with morally, you are still supporting them financially, and are therefore cushioning the lavish lifestyle that allows them to commit these transgressions without retribution. While previous eras and artforms made it easier to distance the artist from the art, this era of heavy monetization and uniquely personal content makes it difficult to do the same.
In an ideal world, you could simply stop listening to music made by people who do things that you don’t agree with. This artistic dogma of protecting one’s moral values, however, does not account for the sentimental attachment that many people have to certain pieces of art. It is not easy to stop watching the comfort movie that you turn to in times of sadness, nor would you want to stop listening to the album which defined your teenage years. In some cases, you don’t have to. Obviously it depends on a number of things including to what degree you believe this artist has offended you morally, and to what degree you care about the morality of the art you consume. But ultimately, you can try and find ways to engage with the art you like without further supporting the creator financially. Being critical about the art you consume doesn’t mean throwing away merchandise you’ve bought or tossing DVDs you’ve had in your basement for years, it means stopping yourself from investing more money in the people you no longer idolize, and ensuring that you do not find yourself idolizing them again. You can still find ways to enjoy the things you like, but with necessary critical distance, it might be hard to do so.
Every once in a while, the song “Runaway” appears on my phone screen as the result of a shuffled “Liked Songs” playlist on Spotify. As much as I’d like to say I skip it, I don’t. I listen to it all the way through. I’m brought back to my childhood bedroom and my wired headphones and the glow of my teenage amazement. Navigating this relationship between me and my favourite artists is something I am still trying to figure out. Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to decide how much they care about the moral connotations of the stuff they choose to fill their leisure time with. I’m almost certain where I stand, but something about listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy makes me too selfish to part with it. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop listening to the album. I can’t really listen to it the same, because of what I know now, but I’m hesitant to put it away forever. Until that time, I know I will find myself occasionally indulging in the record that quite fittingly explores the impact of an incredibly public persona on one’s moral behaviour.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Camilo (Album Art/Covers)