What Statement Did Kanye West’s “Famous” Video Make?
07.05.16

My first touchpoint with the “Famous” music video was a screen grab of a grainy Taylor Swift sleeping naked next to Kanye West. My stomach dropped and I clicked. These two things are very important:

My stomach dropped.

And I clicked.

Shock. Intrigue — the two emotions Kanye West wanted me to have, and you know what? I had them. Dutifully. Easily. It felt like breathing. But then a third emotion trickled in: fear.

Here is what we know about the Kanye “Famous” music video:

1. It premiered live on June 24th on a 100-foot screen at the L.A. Forum in front of 8,000 people.

2. It was Tidal-exclusive for a week then was released on YouTube this past Friday.

3. It was inspired by a painting by Vincent Desiderio called Sleep.

4. It shows the very realistic and very naked likeness of Taylor Swift, Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Caitlyn Jenner, Ray J, Bill Cosby, George W. Bush, Donald Trump and Chris Brown in a bed with Kanye West.

5. After it premiered, Kanye tweeted: “Can somebody sue me already #I’ll wait.”

And then, because it’s Kanye and because it’s 10 very famous people (appearing in a bed) (naked), we all did the thing he wanted us to do: react.

Vanity Fair‘s Dirk Standen interviewed Kanye about it, who said: “Our life is walking performance art.”

NPR‘s Rachel Martin talked to painter Vincent Desiderio, who said: “I was absolutely floored and honored, and I almost felt like crying.”

Rolling Stone explored whether the people featured therein should sue and said: “It’s what courts call an ‘expressive work’ — you know, ‘art’ — and not even California’s strict Right of Publicity statute can prevent artistic uses of a celebrity image.”

The Verge‘s T.C. Sottek said it was genius clickbait: “West is probably wearing a Kevin Spacey-in-Se7en-sized grin, as his master plan to stoke public voyeurism and dominate search engines for the next month unfolds.”

Lena Dunham posted her reaction on Facebook and said: “Make a statement on fame and privacy and the Illuminati or whatever is on your mind! But I can’t watch it, don’t want to watch it, if it feels informed and inspired by the aspects of our culture that make women feel unsafe even in their own beds, in their own bodies.”

Here’s the thing: I get it. Kanye West is making a comment on fame. I think the concepts of fame and celebrity are fascinating. I think Kanye West and the Kardashians are fascinating. I spend a lot of time in bars steering conversations towards “how fucked up and interesting fame is.” I’m here for it. I am. And Kanye has a legal right to comment on fame in a way that makes everyone feel weird.

But what he can’t control is whether or not what he’s created strikes fear into the hearts of women because it perpetuates a culture wherein we often cannot feel safe in nor in control of own bodies. A culture wherein our bodies are so often used to further an agenda other than our own.

Of course, not all women disliked the video — it is an eye feast. And on the same accord, not all men liked it. The objectification of the male body (if you are willing to call it that), rendered naked in the same video, was set on display, too.

But this is where it gets a little twisty and hard to follow. Because if women are shocked and disgusted by the video then Kanye gets to say it worked, right? Kanye gets to stand on all the visceral emotions he’s created with his art and say, “Look at all these emotions! This is why I’m the most important artist in the world!” And a lot of dudes (almost every guy I’ve talked to, in fact) says: “Wow, he really did it. He’s pushing the boundaries. He’s a real artist!”

But at what cost? Do those costs matter?

Remember when everyone was talking about whether or not comedians should make jokes about rape? Remember, for instance, when a lot of women got mad that Daniel Tosh told a female heckler that he hoped she got raped that night? And remember when a lot of male comedians and their male fans defended him because FREE SPEECH, as if anyone was saying that rape jokes should be illegal? It was weird and awful, right? To have a bunch of men claim “ART” while a bunch of women claimed “FEAR”?

If you don’t recall, here is a piece Lindy West wrote on how to make a rape joke in response to all that. In it she says, “The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them. But the best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse.”

I’m not going to spell out the parallel but I do want to know: do you think Kanye called bullshit on fame? How did “Famous” make you feel?

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