Kanye West… Why does that name ring a bell?
It’s sometimes hard to find something to write about. When journalists run into that wall, one of the most tempting things to do is to take an issue that we all agree about as a society, and then just put “Why ____ is wrong,” around it. Occasionally this strategy leads to genuine enlightenment on a subject. More often, though, it just produces click bait for the pitchfork ‘n’ torch wielding Internet commenters.
Such was the case last week when Arthur Chu, writing for Salon, posted a piece defending Kanye West from the charges that he’s an A-hole for taking a dump on Beck after Beck won a Grammy over West’s good friend Beyonce a few weeks ago.
Chu exemplifies the laziness of this writing strategy with a sweepingly unsupported, borderline-racist piece about how anger at Kanye for being a poor sport in the aftermath of Beck’s win over Beyonce at the Grammys a few weeks ago is really just jealousy at what Chu calls “black excellence” vs. “white mediocrity.”
I’m not even going to dignify his sub-moronic arguments for this concept, which amount to throwing Taylor Swift, Macklemore, and Nirvana (yeah, really, Nirvana) out there as examples of how white performers don’t really put their backs into it, with a response. To do so would be to insult us all. Let’s just all agree, for the sake of civility and human decency, that the color of your skin is not related to the quality of your art.
But the thing that people like Chu seem to gloss over with these acrobatics in the service of defending Kanye from the malicious masses is that Beck is the very opposite of mediocre anything. I’m not even that big a fan, and even I concede: if you’re looking for an example of a white guy who’s had his success handed to him on account of his whiteness, Beck is not the guy. He’s an adventurous, unclassifiable, eclectic musical talent who swims comfortably in the waters of punk, alternative, hip hop, country, and a dozen other genres. And he does so successfully because in addition to being a great musician, he’s a great scholar of other musicians. How that becomes “mediocrity” in anyone’s eyes is beyond me.
This reminds me of the story of Isiah Thomas calling out Larry Bird for being put on a pedestal for his whiteness. It was the 1987 version of “check your privilege,” the Orwellian racism sweeping college campuses these days. Thomas backed up his friend Dennis Rodman’s assertion that if Bird had been black, he’d just be another good ball player and not the superstar he was made out to be.
As in the case of Chu’s flailing on behalf of Kanye, it’s not that these ineloquent statements don’t have a kernel of truth buried somewhere in there. Is there racism in the NBA, the music industry, Hollywood, and everywhere else? Of course there is. In fact, Thomas had much firmer ground to stand on in making his assertion than did Kanye, or Chu, in theirs.
The problem was that Bird, like Beck, was just not the guy to make that point with. He was legitimately one of the best players in the universe, and everybody outside the Pistons locker room, or Jay Z’s after-party, knew it. And what Thomas was exhibiting, as was Kanye, is being a sore loser, for which I agree they’ve taken probably more flak than they really deserve. It’s certainly not the end of the world.
But don’t lamely defend them by putting society on trial. Sometimes people just say stupid things. Sometimes when we all agree on something, like that Kanye was simply out of line in claiming Beck is somehow a demonstrably inferior artist to Beyonce, it’s because it’s just obviously true.
There’s of course nothing wrong with liking Beyonce more than Beck, or liking Thomas more than Bird. But if you’re doing it because of the color of their skin to fit your preconceived notions of victimization, there’s a word for that.
It’s called being a hack.