Opinion

Sunday 22 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'The last magnificent mad ba*tard'

Kanye West at Coachella
Kanye West at Coachella
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Maybe this is an odd thing for a middle-aged man to say, but in recent years I find myself warming more and more to Kanye West. Then again, maybe it's not odd. Maybe Kanye speaks for the cranky middle-aged man in all of us. Sometimes it feels like, in a world of celebrity and music gone increasingly corporate and sensible, Kanye is the last truly magnificent mad ba*tard out there.

He says as much himself. Kanye, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, recently made the very good point to David Letterman that if we want from our artists, crazy music and crazy ideas, maybe we have to accept that there's a good chance these things will come from a crazy person. Or, as Kanye more pithily and modestly put it on Feedback on The Life of Pablo album, "Name one genius that ain't crazy".

I sometimes think Kanye may be the last true punk. I was too young for punk itself but I guess growing up in the post-punk atmosphere, I will always have at heart a punky sensibility. There is still something buried deep down in those of us who came of age in the 1980s, this terrible instinct to disrupt, to subvert, to mess with everything, to not stay in our lane, to not do what is expected, to cause trouble, to not go with the flow, to make something unexpected happen, to keep things interesting and unpredictable. We grew up in an alternative culture that put the outsider on a pedestal, that fetishised the mad monk, up on the hill, shouting down.

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Of course life and compromise and the need to make a living along with the unstoppable rise of hippy values and lifestyles, have taken the edges off a lot of us. And the alternative cultures we once had to seek out have all become corporatised, sanitised, legitimate lifestyle choices now. Whereas the artists and musicians we grew up with were raging against the machine, now most of them are businesspeople, just another extension of an approved, branded, corporate world.

If any of them do have anything to say it is right-on virtue signalling that they know will go down well with the internet and the liberal media. Truth in popular culture comes second now to box-ticking and having the right narrative and opinions.

Kanye, while you mightn't agree with everything he says, at least seems unshackled from all that. While Mr and Mrs Carter became Obama-endorsed official national treasures, Kanye has found his own niche as a beautiful, dark, twisted anti-hero.

There's the music for starters, which becomes more sprawling in its genius all the time. It is exciting, original, brave and yet often beautiful.

He is that rare artist who makes you wish that this music had exploded into your life while you were still young enough for it to exhilarate you and change your life. At his best it feels like he is changing the game.

Kanye seems to see no boundaries, and is off on a mad journey that is totally his own. And all the time he seems to be trying to strip away more, to get closer to some form of pure truth.

He dreams that his grandchildren will be so free that they will float. And that perhaps is the bottom line: Kanye's narrative is that of a man seeking freedom, freedom from what he is expected to do, from what he is being told to do, freedom from what the media says you should do and be, freedom from what his faux-liberal industry expects of him.

They tell him he can't do fashion and he does it. They tell him he can't wear a Maga hat and consider Trump voters to be legitimate people, and Kanye says no, people are allowed to have different opinions.

Kanye started his own Sunday religious service. Kanye is investigating the healing power of light. Kanye produced five albums with his friends last summer and at least one of them, his collaboration with Cudi, Kids See Ghosts, was genius.

Kanye is also an incredibly articulate and intelligent mental health advocate.

Kanye makes mistakes, but the important thing is he keeps trying. And Kanye, like a true artist, a true shaman, is out there doing this journey so the rest of us don't have to. But we can still enjoy the ride.

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