A Line-By-Line Deep-Textual Reading of Kanye West’s Candidacy Announcement
MTV’s Video Music Awards took place on Sunday night. Those readers with enough self-control to skip the telecast didn’t miss much: Hannah Montana made sure everyone knows she is very cool and enjoys doing drugs, Nicki Minaj asked Ms. Montana “what’s good?” but, like, in an angry way, and Taylor Swift showed off how many friends she has.# Like all parties thrown by the popular clique, it was pretty lame and mostly demonstrative of the hollow nature of celebrity.
The moment that grabbed the most headlines, however, was Kanye West’s surprise announcement of his candidacy in the 2020 presidential election, the triumphant final line of a minutes-long speech touching on subjects as diverse as award show legitimacy and leather shirts.
Below, we’ve picked through his landmark oration line by line and located the wellsprings of hidden meaning beneath Ye’s words:
Bro. Bro. Listen to the kids.
Strong start. Kanye establishes an unspoken audience decisively and early. In giving the vague command to “listen to the kids,” Kanye communicates that he’s addressing the old guard — the out-of-touch hegemony that’s dismissed, mocked, and belittled him at every turn. It’s almost a little ironic; Kanye knows that the people who need most to hear his words, the people at whom they’re aimed, won’t be watching the VMAs. They’ll read about it tomorrow.
Jeremy, I gotta put it down for a second. It’s beautiful—Jeremy Scott, the designer.
Ever the class act, Kanye takes a brief pause before getting started to acknowledge Jeremy Scott, who revamped the look of MTV’s moon-man statuette. He’s got a lot on his mind, as we’re clearly about to see, but for Yeezy, there’s always time to appreciate style for style’s sake.
First of all, thank you, Taylor, for being so gracious and giving me this award this evening. Thank you.
First things first, Kanye wants everyone to know he doesn’t hate T-Swift. That whole big crazy misunderstanding at the 2009 VMAs was nothing personal. Kanye’s an agent of justice, objective and swift. When he called Beck out at the Grammys, he proved that the mic-grab wasn’t a slight against Swift in particular. She just had the poor fortune of being the undeserving victor over Beyoncé.
And I often think back to the first day I met you, also. You know, I think about, when I’m in the grocery store with my daughter and I have a really great conversation about fresh juice at—you know. And at the end, they say, ‘Oh, you’re not that bad after all.’ And like, I think about it sometimes—like, it crosses my mind a little when I go to a baseball game and 60,000 people boo me. Crosses my mind a little bit.
Kanye’s not unaware of his public profile. His detractors enjoy vilifying him as a power-mad jerkoff without a care in the world as to what anyone thinks of him, which could not possibly square less with the reality of the situation. The man’s got a wife and child. It clearly matters to him that the average faceless American goes to the default assumption that he’s an asshole. He’s come under large-scale fire quite a bit as of late, even drawing thousands upon thousands of signatures on a petition barring him from Glastonbury (it fell through, obviously). That gets to a guy, even a self-proclaimed earthly god.
And I think if I had to do it all again, what would I have done? Would I have worn a leather shirt? Would I have drank half a bottle of Hennessy and gave the rest of it to the audience? Y’all know y’all drank that bottle, too. If I had a daughter at that time, would I have went onstage and grabbed the mic from someone else’s?
Kanye identifies the symbiosis between himself and the public that’s built him into the perpetual-motion machine of controversy he is. He got fucked up that night, but as he says, we drank the bottle too. He wouldn’t be half as famous as he is if not for the legions of armchair commentators eager to denounce him as the decline of Western civilization. It’s a back-and-forth; Kanye’s only obliging a tacitly stated public need. He asks all of these rhetorical questions, assured in the knowledge that the only thing the public wants more than a mea culpa is a doubling-down on his initial assholery. He ingeniously denies them either outcome. He’s not here to answer questions. He’s here to pose them.
You know, this arena, tomorrow, it’s gonna be a completely different setup, some concert, something like that. This stage will be gone. After that night, the stage was gone, but the effect that it had on people remained.
Kanye gets at a difficult truth here, and one that celebrities are especially loathe to admit during awards telecasts: awards telecasts are a pretty dumb concept. They’re all about politics, pageantry, and glitz, and seldom recognize deserving work. But he recognizes that they still hold the importance that the public projects onto them, which can be just as tangible as an object on a stage. Awards shows only matter insofar as people give a shit about them, and that’s the problem.
The… [long pause] the problem was, the contradiction. The contradiction is, I do fight for artists. But in that fight I somehow was disrespectful to artists.
When Kanye hopped up on stage and wrestled the mic from Taylor Swift’s hands, he thought he was doing something noble. (A viewpoint that quite a few fans still share.) He was righting a wrong, striking a much-needed blow for artistry and musicianship over the politics of popularity. But the ends of his actions didn’t quite square up with his means. In vaunting deserving artists, he had to necessarily designate another group of artists as undeserving, which doesn’t quite square up with his overarching goal. He’s fighting for the artists, but he forgot that that meant all artists.
I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing. I just—I sat at the Grammys and saw Justin Timberlake and Cee-Lo lose. Gnarls Barkley, and the FutureLove [sic] ‘SexyBack’ album—and bro, Justin, I ain’t trying to put you on blast, but I saw that man in tears, bro. You know, and I was thinking like, he deserved to win Album of the Year.
That bit about not knowing how to say the right thing, the perfect thing — that’s the crux of the speech. The viewers at home can practically see the light-bulb of self-awareness flickering on and off above Kanye’s head. He’s always had the purest of intentions, even if sometimes chemical agents can get the better of him. He’s still learning how to express that in terms that the rest of us are capable of understanding. Every time that it might have seemed like Kanye was babbling without any line of reason, he understood exactly what he meant. It’s like he says, first record, track six — “You can’t fathom my love.”
And this small box that we are, as the entertainers of the evening, how could you explain that? Sometimes I feel like, you know, all this shit they run about beefs and all that, sometimes I feel like I died for the artist’s opinion. For the artist to be able to have an opinion after they were successful.
Frankly, it’s surprising that Kanye went this long without comparing himself to Christ. He flexes his terminal martyr complex here, explaining that he had to take the bullet with Taylor Swift to clear a way for celebrities self-determining in the wake of scandal. Kanye calls out the mass media (“shit they run about beefs”) for imposing their own narratives on the lives of those in the spotlight, and claims that he was the first one to talk back. He gave his own statements, and made them strong enough to overshadow any counternarratives pushed by a white-dominated media complex. Kanye had to do it first, and accept the label of ‘asshole’ that accompanied it, so that others could safely follow his example.
I’m not no politician, bro.#
Kanye reminds everyone listening that hey, it’s not exactly his job to not be an asshole in the first place, so what if he is? There are loads of celebrities far more abrasive than Kanye that don’t garner anything close to the pushback that he does, and nobody bats an eye. He’s held to a standard inconsistent with that applied to comparable celebrities.
And look at that. You know how many times MTV ran that footage again, because it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award? Because it got them more ratings? [long pause] Listen to the kids, bro!
This is the point at which Kanye’s speech goes beyond the personal and into the purely political. With this passage, Kanye shifts focus away from himself and onto the craven tactics that MTV employs to capitalize on the pseudo-controversy it shamelessly generates. Nothing aggravates Kanye more than being used as a profit center by corporations (just take a listen to “New Slaves”#), and so he reacts with frustration when MTV peddles the false narratives around Kanye as a product to sell. He’s shining a light on the most shameful aspect of the VMA program, an act nearly unheard-of during awards shows. Chevy Chase was booted from the Oscars for life, and all he did was playfully address his audience as “phonies.” Imagine if he had followed that up with, “Gee, isn’t it wonderful to be gathered here so that a multinational corporation can broadcast a white-dominated group’s ritual of bestowing awards on itself!”
I still don’t understand awards shows. I don’t understand how they get five people who work their entire life, won, sell records, sell concert tickets, to come, stand on a carpet, and for the first time in their life be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser. I don’t understand it, bro. I don’t understand when the biggest album or the biggest video—I don’t understand it, bro.
The sentiment expressed here echoes the complaint that many lodge against criticism as a whole. Breathing, bleeding human beings have poured all of themselves into their work, and some dickhead with a laptop can write it off as “overwrought” or “obvious” in five minutes? Nobody should have the right to delegitimize anyone’s art. But there’s a crucial difference between criticism and awards programs. Criticism aims to hold the artist responsible for his or her work, celebrating work with merit and taking the rest to task. As Kanye notes, conversely, awards shows set out with the express purpose of determining losers. It turns art into a contest to be won, not a question of good art v. bad art, but of approval vs. denial. There’s no room for nuance at awards shows.
I just wanted people to like me more. But fuck it, bro! 2015. I will die for the art, for what I believe in. And the art ain’t always gonna be polite.
This bit functions as a sort of compressed restatement of all that’s come thus far, leading up to the grand finale.
Y’all might be thinking right now, ‘I wonder: Did he smoke something before he came out here?’ The answer is yes, I rolled up a little something. I knocked the edge off.
Like any good politician, Kanye knows how to get out in front of a controversy. Aware that people will grasp at whatever straw available when attempting to invalidate his speech, Kanye full-on admits that he’s a little stogna bologna.#
[long pause] I don’t know what’s gonna happen tonight. I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow, bro. But all I can say to my artists, my fellow artists: Just worry how you feel at the time, man. Just worry about how you feel and don’t never—know what I’m saying? I’m confident. I believe in myself.
This is the language of extreme self-affirmation, the sort of thing chronic depressives repeat to themselves in the mirror every morning in the hopes that one day they’ll wake up and believe it. Kanye’s shoring up his own courage for the bit that comes next, the declarative passage, the real meat of the speech.
We are millennials, bro. This is a new—this is a new mentality. We’re not gonna control our kids with brands. We’re not gonna teach low self-esteem and hate to our kids. We’re gonna teach our kids that they can be something. We’re gonna teach our kids they can stand up for themselves. We’re gonna teach our kids to believe in themselves. If my grandfather were here right now, he would not let me back down. I don’t know what I’m gonna lose after this. It don’t matter, though, because it ain’t about me. It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas, people with ideas, people who believe in truth.
A lot to unpack here. The “it ain’t about me” comment is nearly laughable; of course it’s about him, it’s only ever been about him. But Kanye’s half-right. In this final summation of his weltanschauung, Kanye pinpoints a conduit between the personal and the political. He has carved himself a space in the cultural mainstream, and a big one at that, and he’s decided now it’s time to do something more with it. He’s been disorganized, parceling out his manifesto in pieces via albums, interviews, and tweets. Now, he’s taking charge of his own life and his own voice, which means expressing his ideas in the fullest and most coherent form possible. Kanye’s ideology has heretofore been mediated through a filter, its significance muddled by musicality of fashion. As a politician, Kanye can dispose of all the extraneous stuff and stick to the ideas. It’s all about ideas now.
And yes, as you probably could have guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020 to run for president.
God only knows who could’ve guessed that that was about to happen, but there it is. If America can hold out for five more years, everything’s going to be okay. Kanye’s here.
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