Is Kanye West More Relevant than Shakespeare?
I recently watched a YouTube debate from the Oxford Union which pitted scholars, students and street legends against each other, tackling the question of whether the Bard has a greater relevance in society and culture today than the beatmaker and rapper Kanye West.
A point the proposition (arguing in favour of West) touched upon was the idea that we can differentiate between the respective artists’ influence and their relevance. In other words, even though Shakespeare may have invented a plethora of words which are common in everyday speech, their relevance is diminished – their usage over the past few centuries has become so far removed from the man that people don’t know that they were his creations. For example, saying the word “addiction” does not instantly make Shakespeare spring to mind. Meanwhile, Kanye West can be seen to have more relevance today than Shakespeare: phrases and styles in popular culture are instantly attributable to the man. In a sense this is what I would call “conscious relevance” – people know who they’re referring to.
The opposition came back at this point, arguing that Shakespeare’s writings display a knowledge of human nature and society which transcend time and stay relevant for people today. The subject matter he deals with, in terms of human relationships, power dynamics, inner spiritual turmoil and so on, still hammers home with audiences today. We can watch Julius Caesar and think of our own politicians stabbing each other in the back. We can watch Macbeth and see how guilt eats at people’s spirit. These stories, the opposition held, are useful and relevant for people today: they help us better understand our lives through watching the events play out from afar.
Where I’d like to add my voice to the mix is to rebut this point. I’m not saying that the stories Shakespeare tells are not relatable and relevant for us today, but I would argue that they are too generally relevant. We resonate no more with Shakespeare’s writings than the people that have lived in the past few centuries. Sure, they help us understand the human condition at a broad level, but they do nothing specifically for us. Our society is a different species of animal compared to that of Shakespeare’s. We have new problems, new obstacles, a different mentality about the world.
Now here’s where Mr. West comes in. His rise in popularity coincides with the rise of the most powerful cultural force to date: the internet. And the internet has played a pivotal role in changing how we interact with others and how we perceive others. Whether we like it or not, everyone is a self-promoter on the Internet. Hell, even I am. Social media allows people to display and emphasise all the aspects about themselves that they want you to see, and the addicting phenomenon of “likes” keeps people posting. The end result is a society where appearance trumps substance. An apt motto for my generation is: “If you didn’t take a photo, did it even happen?” We prize fame and status ever more as a global audience is willing to watch. All the while insecurity spreads like an epidemic, as we users constantly compare ourselves to those with that which we desire. Because we see so many people becoming famous we expect ourselves to do the same. So at the macro level we have a mixture of self-obsession and self-doubt. Incessant consumption to fuel our image. Inner anxiety about maintaining it.
Remind you of anyone?
Kanye West’s albums are varied in subject matter, stretching from the personal to the political, however he has always embodied in his work the impact of this mentality. In his masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he doesn’t show us how fame is the end goal and we just ride off into the sunset satisfied. He shows us instead how desire for status is all-consuming and never stops past the point of superstardom. In “Power” he contemplates jumping off a building at the peak of his status to prevent a fall from grace, asking the ever important question: “You got the power to let power go?” On the same album he shows us the hollowness of celebrity; his personal relationships revolve once again around attaining status: “You love me for me? Could you be more phony?” All of his personal relationships fail as a result of his brash, narcissistic behaviour; to the extent that he advises those close to him to “run away as fast as you can.” Of course Shakespeare explores the human condition in astounding detail.
However the personal turmoil West experiences is a product of a human nature only possible in the modern age. There’s a sense that he’s been spoiled by his sudden rise to celebrity, as he becomes drawn into a mindset where people can be used and tossed away, life has no purpose and material is the new spiritual. The only way to escape the daunting fear that his life is purely superficial is through more excess: “The plan was to drink until the pain over. But what’s worse — the pain or the hangover?” Crucially, there’s no closure. No way out. He doesn’t offer a new path to a righteous life, rather he grudgingly accepts his fate. It’s a fate which Shakespeare would not have considered: to bear the suffering of his personal life and wellbeing for the sake of mere image. And this highlights how powerful image is in our world.
To be or not to be? That was Shakespeare’s question. Today we all face Kanye’s question: “To be what I see?”
We can draw parallels in our political world between Kanye and Donald Trump. (Incidentally, they met each other after his election win at Trump Tower.) For many years, Trump has led the celebrity lifestyle which prizes image. Trump Tower projects, for example, merely licence his name. It isn’t actually built by the man. Throughout his campaign he relied on… social media, with rants on Twitter often as vague and astounding as those of Mr. West’s. He’ll make statements without actually following up on them, simply to project the kind of personality he wants to show to the electorate. It’s a presidency which is manufactured for the 21st century - centred around image, viral stardom and controversy.
This article was co-written by Jack McClure (check him out on Medium)