I’d never been to The Forum before this past Friday, and I’d also never seen so many people taking selfies prior to a show. The crowd was filling in about an hour before the second screening of Kanye West’s “Famous” video, and thanks to the live streams from the earlier premiere, most of this crowd probably knew what they were getting into. Naked celebrities, or at least their likenesses, on an arena-height screen. It wasn’t a sell-out but it was damn near close, and I was enticed by my longtime fascination/respect of Kanye West and the relatively affordable $25 price point to order a ticket online. $25 for a night out at a new venue with one of the most preeminent artists of our time, after a springtime of near-daily listening to “The Life of Pablo?” Sign me up.
Inside the arena, the movie screen showed a brimming orange sunrise, vibrating with a countdown clock. Somehow it served as a reminder it was Kanye’s own celebrity that drew us here, that we were all here because he had made something epic to show off. Showing up early was a good call, as I was happy to wander The Forum and observe the crowd, united in our infatuation with Yeezy. Looking around the audience filling in, most people had their phone in their hand, snapping and texting proof of their whereabouts to their friends. I had to follow suit. Then, one minute before the video, all heads and phones turned to face the soundboard in the front row of the balcony, where Kanye and his wife Kim, as well as Khloe Kardashian, had entered. We shouted, we waved, they smiled, and then it was time.
The crowd cheered and jeered throughout the video, snapping pics and videos all the while. “Famous” is one of the stronger tracks on “Pablo” and the video’s close-ups emphasized its edginess, while a pause in the song gave way to heavy breathing and snoring before the song’s final, memorable Sister Nancy and Swizz Beatz outro kicks in. The last few moments where the camera zooms out to show the entire bed and all its members, mimicking the painting “Sleep” by Vincent Desiderio, were polished and poised compared to the night vision of the previous shots, a dramatic and glamorous finish to what previously felt voyeuristic. The credits turned into a popularity contest as the names of the pictured celebs flashed one by one: huge cheers from this crowd for Kim K., Caitlynn Jenner, Rihanna, and Ray J, boos for Donald Trump, except for the guy in front of me inexplicably wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap.
Every move Kanye makes is controversial and the “Famous” video proves no different. Particularly his use of Taylor Swift, who I imagine might be considering legal action over the rights to her image as some sort of apex to their ongoing feud. According to unnamed sources, she is horrified — and rightfully so. A lot of people are calling Kanye an asshole for what he did. If I were Taylor, or George W. Bush for that matter, I would be mortified. What gives this artist the right to use my face, my image, in his video without my permission?
Maybe he doesn’t have the right. But maybe that’s exactly why he did it.
Kanye’s move provokes all sorts of questions about the culture of celebrity, its trappings and the secondary influences. We don’t think about people like Taylor Swift and Donald Trump and Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West having to to pump their own gas in their cars, worry about their credit scores, or shuffle around their wallets for their grocery store discount card like the rest of us. But their lives have the added inconvenience of a constant microscope: Taylor can’t post on Instagram without the entire catalog of entertainment magazines and blogs seemingly jumping on it. Donald Trump has propagated his own fame by putting himself in the running for president, which is a position that merits more scrutiny than being a musician , but the end game is the same: reactions from the world to all his thoughts and moves. But how different does that make them, really? They do have bodies, they do have their physical selves, which are made of no more or no less components that rest of us. Flesh. Bone. Muscle. Blood. Breasts. Limbs and lips and eyes.
So what’s the consensus on the privacy of celebrity skin? Are they just like us, or is the fishbowl of fame our twenty-first century culture imposes on a certain few a transformative force? Is a person the same as they were before when their every move will be looked at, criticized, commented on, thought about, copied, hated on or a million other public reactions? How difficult it would be to *not* be conscious of that along the way. But while the limelight has notoriously caused the injuries and illnesses and even deaths of artists or thinkers who found themselves in its equivocal cast, it is still how we define our upper echelon of society.
Kanye knows this. And he wields it. For forty minutes after “Famous” aired at The Forum, he DJed a playlist of some of best tracks from Pablo and otherwise — songs like “Power,” “Streetlights,” “Waves,” and the newest single “Champions.” He bounced his arms, the crowd bounced his arms, he paused the track before a line, the audience shouted it back. Kanye smiled and we smiled. Kanye whispered in Kim’s ear, as she beamed her mysterious and coy smile, and we wondered what they shared.
So many people like to say Kanye isn’t an artist. I vehemently disagree. Art is about creating what it is you want to create, regardless of the reaction from others. Art is about pushing boundaries, either yours or the world’s or both. Art is about staying true to yourself, and no one can accuse Kanye of caving or compromising on any of his creations or values. Yes, he showed a complete lack of respect for the personal space of his fellow celebrities, but that was his choice he made in course of deciding what kind of artist he wants to be. I imagine he’ll suffer the consequences with aplomb.