Sure, Kanye West was rude and obnoxious when he snatched the microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hands and took center stage at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 13 to contest the best female video award Swift had just won. But West wasn’t that out of line, since rude, obnoxious antics have long been the norm at awards shows.
That’s the opinion of a number of pop music writers who witnessed both the awards ceremony and the public’s ensuing reaction. The awards show is long been a vehicle for outrageous behavior by celebrities ranging from Motley Crue’s Vince Neil to comedian Andrew Dice Clay to Eminem, as this article on MTV’s Web site notes. What separated West’s behavior from theirs, several writers said, is that he chose to upstage a younger performer who seemed somewhat vulnerable.
“I think he did it to the wrong person,” said Nekesa Mumbi Moody, pop music editor for the Associated Press. “Taylor Swift didn’t just laugh it off. You could tell she was genuinely excited to get the award, and then genuinely hurt.”
Former Spin editor and Vibe magazine co-founder Alan Light said West’s stage crashing was similar to an antic by the late Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard back in 1998, when ODB interrupted a speech by Shawn Colvin. But the paradigm of pop has changed since then, Light said.
“With Wu-Tang, there was a little bit of a sense of speaking truth to power,” he said. “There was the hip hop attitude of ‘We’re just gonna talk about what’s real.’ But nowadays when urban artists are such mainstream pop stars, it’s kind of hard to feel like this is the voice of the underdog.
“And the fact that this was a 19-year-old girl who was standing up there who he grabbed the mic from — there’s just a different sort of resonance to that,” Light said.
Detroit Free Press music writer Susan Whitall said she thinks West provoked a negative reaction because his impoliteness came on the heels of similar incidents.
“A couple of peculiar circumstances helped extend the life of this, like the fact that his was the third in a string of public meltdowns along with Joe Wilson and Serena Williams,” Whitall said, referring to the South Carolina congressman who yelled “You lie!” at President Barack Obama and the tennis star who railed against a U.S. Open line judge over a foot fault call.
During the punk rock era, Whitall served as editor of the now-legendary Creem magazine and witnessed the Sex Pistols pushing the limits of what was socially acceptable on television. But, she said, that band’s antics were entertaining, while West’s felt “uncomfortable.”
Reaction or overreaction?
That said, the reaction that followed West’s outburst was almost as over-the-top as what the rapper did. Pop singer Pink called West “the biggest piece of s--t on Earth” on Twitter, according to Gigwise, while Mandy Standtmiller of the New York Post said that West has worn out his welcome in the pop world. Perez Hilton couldn’t find enough negative things to say between his blog and an interview with Pop Eater.
The massive negative response was disproportionate to the actual incident, according to Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, who blogged about the incident.
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“It was (almost four months ago) MTV staged Sacha Baron Cohen landing in Eminem’s face and let the speculation swirl for a day before they said that it was staged,” Boyd said. “This is an outrageous awards show. It’s not the Academy Awards, which is something people think of as potentially being very classy.
“This is not having tea and crumpets with the queen,” Boyd said. “People are acting as though it’s is some formal situation where a certain type of behavior is unacceptable and that’s not in keeping with the tradition of this show. If we were to go back over every VMA awards show, I’m sure each year we could find something provocative or outrageous.”
Light believes the combination of YouTube and the social media sites Twitter and Facebook stoked the fires of shock and outrage: “Had this happened a few years ago, some people would have seen it, while others would have seen it in reruns. So it would have been part rumor and part reality, not full saturation from all sides.”
Video: Kanye West to Jay Leno: ‘It was rude’ Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards said he was surprised by how West’s actions created reverberations beyond the world of music. “I knew people would be angry and definitely thought this was going to be a huge moment in the music world,” he said. “But I did not think that it would transcend the music blogosphere and become part of the national dialogue on decorum and get (West) compared to Rep. Joe Wilson.”
Raymond Roker, co-founder of URB magazine, said that West’s actions were less reprehensible than those of Britain’s Prince Harry, who jokingly donned a Nazi costume four years ago. Roker also said actor Hugh Grant’s 1995 arrest for lewd conduct was more serious than West’s breach of etiquette — yet TV host Jay Leno seemed far harsher on West than on Grant. “I think Leno’s question about would Kanye’s mother have approved of his behavior was a cheap shot. I didn’t think that was appropriate or justifiable.”
Yet he said several of his Facebook friends were still furious. “People were saying ‘I’m not down with this guy’s music anymore. I’m not supporting him.’ Just on my Facebook page alone there were a few people who were like ‘This is it!’”
Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times said West’s actions might have angered people since it “parallels what happens in the sports world” when athletes argue with officials.
“In a way what Kanye did was kind of like disputing a call,” Powers said. “He felt that the wrong video had won, and he jumped up and protested. It seems a little strange to draw the parallel that an awards ceremony is anything like a tennis match or a baseball game, but it seems Kanye was treating it like it was a sports match.”
The ‘R’ word
The Internet has also provided a forum for racist comments, which both Boyd and the African-American culture Web site the Grio noted. Boyd says he believes the sustained reaction to the incident is an “unconscious attempt” by some get “the embarrassment of Joe Wilson off the news” and West a scapegoat for the country’s shame over that incident.
“In a lot of ways, it’s serving to counter the embarrassment that some people may have experienced with Wilson’s outburst and the racial dynamics that have taken place all summer in regard to the president and the town hall meetings,” Boyd says.
Veteran rock critic and bestselling author Dave Marsh says via e-mail that the public’s reaction to West “has everything to do with race and almost nothing to do with music, let alone decorum.” Marsh notes that during the Parents Music Resource Center’s hearings in the 1980s on the censorship of rock music, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider verbally assailed then-Senator Al Gore with far less fanfare.
“Kanye became a national issue because it’s a black man and a white woman. Remind you of anyone’s nipples ?” Marsh notes.
Former Rolling Stone writer and PopKrazy culture blogger Robert A. Hull thinks West’s rudeness to Swift touched a nerve because it played into the country’s history of anxiety about African-American men insulting the “honor” of Southern women.
“Because I’m a Southern man from Memphis, I saw it that way,” Hull explains. “She’s somewhat of a county singer and she won legitimately. Out comes this black guy and it’s an offensive act and not appropriate. She’s a white country chick and he’s a strong, forceful black male. Deep down, every American citizen has a response to those kinds of images.”
Roker says he observed people pulling back their criticism when “a feeling emerged from certain quarters that this was just another excuse for hating rap or hating the black guy.
“The race stuff starts coming out, which is an unfortunate trend in everything that seems to be going on,” Roker says. “And on the heels of the Serena incident and Joe Wilson, it plays to a lot of Red State/Blue State stuff.”
Despite the tense national conversation, Moody says she doesn’t think West will suffer much fallout from the incident in the long term: “He makes great music and is an amazing entertainer,” she says. “He’s shown his contrition. And hopefully if it lasts I think people will be forgiving.
“After the interview on ‘The Jay Leno Show,’ I think people are like ‘OK.’ I don’t think people want to crucify him for this. He’s apologized three times now.”
The entire chain of events might have turned out different, Marsh notes, had Swift set aside her manners and given West, well, a swift kick. “Swift should have kicked Kanye, hard, and taken the damned mic back,” Marsh opines. “What was he gonna do, assault her? I don’t think so.”
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