Kanye West and Richard Wagner

In watching Kanye’s newest, 35 minute video “Runaway”, I couldn’t help from being struck by an obvious connection: Kanye West is our generation’s Richard Wagner.

Here are 8 Reasons Why That’s the Truth:

1. Intense cult of self. Wagner fancied himself the savior of German culture and identity in a predominantly effeminate world. His writings portray an artist intensely struggling with his own sense of mastery. Wagner really was a big dickhead. Kanye’s twitter is pretty much the equivalent of Wagner’s correspondence with Franz Liszt, and when Wagner proclaimed, “God save me from all of these Napoleons!”, Kanye sang, “Let’s have a toast to the scumbags, everyone of them that I know.”

A Scholar and a Gentleman

2. Both use a synthesis of art forms and technology to create a dilettantish composite piece of genius. Wagner brought together mythology and opera, with music used as narrative and technical innovations raising the bar of live performance in leaps and bounds (ascendancy to Valhalla is kind of a big deal, technically speaking, you guys). Kanye is doing exactly the same thing. He’s bringing together hip-hop, electro, auto-tuning, film, the internet, ballet, pyrotechnics, as well as a huge variety of other musical forms (spoken word, whatever it is that Justin Vernon is, Mozart, etc.). Both Wagner and Kanye betray a sense of dilettantism; Wagner’s prose, poetry, and intellectual treatise were less than stellar. They are often confusing, misguided, and deeply convoluted. Likewise, Kanye’s individual enterprises aren’t bad but they also aren’t deeply impacting. Both artists need to merge all of their faulty expertise into one product in order to excel.

Gettin money

3. 35 minutes on the internet is basically the 21st century equivalent of 4 nights of opera.

4. The focus on the occult and intrigue of the night; the sensual and exquisite. Kanye’s interest in the power of mythic symbolism is distinctly Wagnerian. One mustn’t be intensely well-versed in all of the obvious Judeo-Christian, Grecian, and scientific myths to understand the emotional and cognitive connections in the piece. Not only is there a plethora of traditional mythic symbolism, but cultural mythology (the cult of Michael Jackson in the beginning) works in much the same way. Kanye is combining traditional mythic structures with cultural signifiers of the past 50 years (the guy wears a doo-wop suite). This is as revolutionary as Wagner’s use of traditional Germanic and Nordic myth in operatic context. Not only that, but Wagner, like most of the 19th century Romantics, was interested in the beauty of the night. He had a massive hang up for exquisite and foreign things; luxurious fabrics, feathers, gold and silver. Orientalism was at its high point and there was a mysterious sensuality to most serious art works. There is a definite cultural parallel in today's world. One only has to look at any number of photo-based tumblrs (example, example, example, example) to see this self-serious obsession with the dark and occult. This is twee and juvenile yet intensely attractive at the same time. Kanye has captured this feel perfectly in his strange, Bergman-like festivities, the perfectly selected color palette, and the frequent returns to the forest. It's that inborn, bourgeois preoccupation with something distinctly alien to our culture, that return to nature, that pagan construct, and it's ever-present in the work of both artist.

Early form of shutter shades

5. The creation of a mythical story within a single piece. As I’ve stated above, one mustn’t be totally knowledgeable about the allusions in the piece for it to work. The whole of “Runaway” is created in its own plane, on its own time, from the beginning of “time” (Kanye’s life begins with the muse’s landing on Earth) to its logical end with the bird woman returning to the stars (Twilight of the Gods anyone?).

6. There’s no way the phoenix isn’t directly related to the concept of a Valkyrie. I mean, come on. She’s even wearing a metal corset at the end. All she needs is a horned helmet and a spear.

7. Each artists’ eclectic oeuvre. Wagner went from being a celebrated traditionalist in the opera to being a revolutionary. He worked on a variety of projects, always singularly focused on creating something worthwhile, even to the detriment of a consistent and solid career (until after his 40’s, at least). Kanye has been everywhere and back. From The College Dropout, he’s been on top in the rap game. He’s been both in the public’s favor and decidedly out of it, all the time creating new and intriguing things. “Runaway” shows a concerted effort to focus and perfect his new, culturally intangible art.

8. The one thing that Kanye is lacking is a political base as intensely invested as Wagner’s. That might be a good thing, however. Kanye’s politics are certainly obvious and innocuous, while Wagner’s politics were, in the end, used for decidedly nefarious purposes. Where the two diverge on matters of politics through art, they are certainly on the same page when it comes to politics OF art. They are both dedicated to the use of art as a cultural informant, with the power to change and influence people the world over. Kanye’s politics of art alone work here in a positive way; who would have thought the guy who wrote “Stuck my dick inside of life until that bitch came” would lend legitimacy to hip-hop and the youtube video?

Truth. One Love.


barry said...

On a seperate note, how do you feel about kanye's relationship with Bon iver and the art to come between these to forces if any?

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