Thirty-six-plus hours after Kanye West made his spur-of-the-moment decision to run onstage at MTV’s Video Music Awards and interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, the Internet isn’t close to done freaking out. I’ve seen this firsthand here on the Music Mix: All I have to do is mention the words “Kanye” and “Taylor” in a headline to watch the strongly-worded comments piling on West roll in. At this point, it seems like some members of the public are far more outraged than either Swift or West was at the awards ceremony in question. What’s going on here?
It’s worth taking a step back to review exactly what has happened since Sunday night. The story began, of course, when Kanye West did something obnoxious. I said as much at the time: Grabbing the mic from another artist the way Kanye did was rude and unprofessional, no question about it. Not violent, not out-of-control — just very impolite.
By the end of the night, Beyonce, whom Kanye’s outburst was meant to defend in the first place, had graciously invited Swift back on stage to finish her thwarted acceptance speech. That could have been the end of the story, but the public seemed to want something more. So Kanye apologized, sort of, on his official blog before the night was through. When the world reacted with a near-universal “that’s all you’ve got?!”, Kanye followed up with a more heartfelt mea culpa on his blog yesterday afternoon. Then he sat down for an interview with Jay Leno, who extracted yet another apology, stopping along the way to gratuitously use the memory of West’s late mother against him. Finally, this morning, Kanye called Taylor Swift while she was on The View to apologize personally. She accepted and told an interviewer that things were “definitely” cool between them now.
Yet I’m still seeing people online wishing for Kanye’s career to be over, or worse. What’s motivating such extreme rhetoric? One factor that’s been cited again and again is age: West is 32 years old, while Swift is 19. It’s certainly not nice for an adult to treat a teenager the way that he did. We should remember, however, that Taylor Swift is not a helpless child. She is a very talented artist of voting age, one who has been working successfully in the music industry for years now. Indeed, while she seemed justifiably stunned by Kanye’s VMAs outburst at first, she collected herself enough to perform “You Belong With Me” a few minutes later, like any other pro would do. Today on The View, she smiled and joked about Kanye’s haircut. These are not the actions of someone whose life has been wrecked, or even of someone whose feelings have been seriously hurt.
Then there’s the other context underlying this story: namely, race. I want to make it 100 percent clear that I am absolutely not accusing everyone who’s criticized Kanye’s VMAs conduct of having racist motivations. That would be ridiculous, not to mention hypocritical. But racism is a undeniable part of this controversy. Not just from the Twitterers and blog commenters whose first instinct has been to spew truly vile racial slurs in Kanye’s direction. (Blogger Harry Allen has compiled some of the most disgusting examples; warning, lots of NSFW language.)
I’m talking, too, about all the characterizations of Taylor Swift as a victim of some awful crime. When a black man speaks rudely in the presence of a younger white woman — and that’s all Kanye really did — and it gets described as an “attack” or a “violation” or an “assault,” you bet that’s playing into centuries of racist tropes. When a black man does something impolite, making no reference whatsoever to race, and he immediately gets crucified for “hating white people” or “reverse racism,” that itself is a form of racism. Here’s a question for those who use this line: VMAs host Russell Brand made some pretty gross jokes about Katy Perry and Lady Gaga during the broadcast. Does he hate white people, too?
It’s fine to say that Kanye West is a narcissist or a baby or (thank you, Mr. President) a jackass. Hey, he’s a celebrity, and celebrities are frequently all of those things. That’s one of the reasons we watch awards shows like the VMAs at all — when a famous person goes off-script, it’s often entertaining. Sometimes that kind of behavior rings a sour note, as Kanye’s moment of improv on Sunday shows. If that changes your opinion of him for the worse, that’s fair enough. But if you inflate this relatively minor transgression into a four-alarm scandal of the type described in the previous paragraph, then maybe it’s worth considering whether you’re the one crossing a line.
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Photo credit: West: Adam Bielawski/PR Photos; Swift: Sylvain Gaboury/PR Photos