Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kanye West's Runaway, post 2: Man, you referenced the wrong history

This is my second post on Kanye West's recent music video epic, Runaway. In the first post, I discussed the general story framework, and the critics' reactions. I also linked to the video, so click through to see it. Tomorrow, I'll talk about some interesting thematic elements that make this a unique media artifact.

Today: where this project fits into recent mass media history.

Kanye is a big star, and he knows how to make headlines. Just recently, he got a pop music meditation written about him by Taylor Swift and performed at the VMA's, and no matter how you judge that, it's proof that he's made an impression. His Twitter account is followed madly for its insight and comic touch. He's had a funny relationship with SNL, leading to an interesting performance on the show recently. At this point, he's in danger of overexposure. But he's not the first guy to take over the mass media for a while... and his most recent output, that batshit insane music video, is not the first project of its kind, either.

The House Next Door mentions Michael Jackson, who did this sort of thing from time to time. Of course, the MJ line in the song and the paper mache MJ in one of the scenes is a reference to Jacko, who was the progenitor of this narrative-montage format. In terms of message, Runaway is a far cry from Moonwalker, which was strictly a hero fantasy with no sense of irony or self-criticism at all. However, in tone and scale, Runaway strongly resembles the object of comparison, and given how few such projects have really come together, I think this comparison works to Kanye's credit.

This video also strongly reminds me of Madonna's historic Like a Prayer. It's partly the color palette and the thematic ambition; it's partly because of the image of a mythical figure coming to life as an object of desire, and because of the use of classical performers as a backdrop to a pop performance. Madonna was also exploring her own media condition as a theme. Her piece was shorter and much more focused; Kanye is ready to say something about everything. Again, I see this as an asset.

I'm sorry if it just sounded like I said Jesus is a myth, by the way. I meant "mythical" in scope and cultural influence.

There are a couple more notable resonances between these two videos. As with Madonna's black Jesus, Kanye includes a racial theme, where the female protagonist appears to be of mixed race. Kanye also references white oppression in the form of a child in a Klan hood -- a reference that Madonna shares in her controversial video. However, unlike Madonna's video, Kanye doesn't come across as making an activist statement: many of the black characters are the wealthy exploiters, in a clear shot at the big money of hip-hop. It's never clear, along racial lines, who perpetrates the oppression.

Madonna and Kanye also both use the female body as an element of the spectacle, with lots of cleavage in both cases. Obviously this is for different thematic purposes: Madonna's liberated sexuality was transgressive, a feminist response to the controlling power of conservative media, reinforced by her relationship with the black character. By contrast, Kanye's media environment is not conservative, and his use of the female form isn't exactly taboo-breaking at this point; in his case, the almost nude model is garbed in a fashion designer's fantasy of divine wings. Kanye is celebrating the permissiveness and spectacle of his media, using this powerful and remote female presence as a symbol of innocence and desire. Make of this what you will -- it probably deserves a few words from a good feminist critic.

Of course, there's almost a touch of Lady Gaga in her fashionable excess, isn't there? Gaga, who's been mixing narrative and fashion for a few media cycles now, and who is notably influenced by Bjork. The phoenix (non)-costume is reminiscent of Bjork's iconic swan dress from the 2001 VMA's. The phoenix is Runaway's nod to the fashion world, which goes hand in hand with hip-hop and with the global media spectacle as it evolves.

How about another one? As I've written about Runaway, I've realized it also feels like Guns n' Roses' epic rock and roll videos, like November Rain, from back in 1992. Again, it's the themes: love and loss, the return to oblivion as a signal of redemption. It's also some of the techniques. Like Axl Rose, Kanye performs his piece on a piano before a captivated audience; like Slash, he then stands on that piano to deliver the climax.

The context here -- Madonna, MJ, GnR -- demonstrates one of the notable quirks about Kanye: he has the sensibility of a rock music video artist, even as he has the sense of irony and "arrogance" (read: self-praise) of the hip-hop artists who inform his sound. Apparently, when he talked about this video, he talked about it being "Felliniesque," which is a little silly. Hype Williams probably doesn't know who Fellini is. But Italian art cinema just wasn't quite the right context for this project ("Them Italians sure know how to make what the ________s want").

A better context would have been this history of epic music videos, that don't subscribe to the same standards of subtlety and taste. It may have a lot of ideas and references spinning around in there, but this is not intended to play out like literature. It's all about the spectacle, like those giants of the form: Jackson, Madonna, Bjork, Axl and Slash. And watching the videos above, I think Kanye's intense, ostentatious approach is going to prove an asset in the long run.

Luckily, despite all the nostalgia, there's also something here that's uniquely Kanye. I'll cover that tomorrow, when I discuss this particular video's subtexts.