(2016==Yeezy/Theatre&Agenda/Free Art)

I got up at 5am to watch the MSG stream of The Life of Pablo/YZYSZN3 back in February. I watched Kanye come down waving to the cheering hordes of people who surrounded the giant tarps in the centre of the stadium. I watched as Ye and his crew bounced to the new record in front of his fabled laptop, celebrating whatever whack shit they’d created together. I saw Jay Z sitting up the back, frowning and nodding.

The record itself is kinda a mess—from the ‘bleached asshole’ line, to the clipping in Mike Dean’s original mastering, to the ‘I made that bitch famous’ line. It’s messy, but it seems to be intentionally so. The mess is Kanye’s head, his life—his dozens of projects and his struggle with monogamy in the time since 2013 and Yeezus. There are few better portraits in music of a manic-depressive cycle so similar to my own experience of Bipolar II, and I respect The Life of Pablo for that.

There are tracks on here that are more manic and honest all at once than anything I’ve heard or seen or read. This might be hyperbolic to say—perhaps I’m too deep into my Kanye fandom—but TLOP really does feel like a painting more than anything else. And that is what makes it so great.

But as for Kanye West as a person? Performance art/marketing machine/regular guy. That editor’s note in his twitter rant, his disposition in interviews compared to online, his bursting moments of insecurity at the MSG show (he played his video game’s trailer twice when there wasn’t enough applause)—Kanye West is a human, he just doesn’t want to be. He wants to be a symbol, a god maybe, though I think the former is far more likely. He rants about his debt to prove debt is okay, to prove that even he can grovel desperately, and that to be able to do so can be a necessity for success. He tweets inappropriate shit to prove you can speak your mind, not because he believes Bill Cosby is innocent (his diss on his New Years track Facts makes that clear).

He also does and says all these things, of course, so you’ll pay attention to him. This method of shitstirring is his own patented form of marketing—and whether it’s even a remotely decent way of going about things, morally or otherwise? Well, we’ll see. The parallels between The Life of Pablo’s marketing and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is an essay in and of itself.

The album remains my favourite of 2016 thus far.

I’ve been thinking a lot about, like, what is art, man? You know? Smoking durries and joints at fuck knows what hour and giggling at the word ‘juxtaposition’—cause that’s just-your-position, dude. 

The thing is, it’s all art isn’t it—anything that exists within a medium, intentionally created. Maybe. But is Transformers art? Is One Direction art? Is theatre that seemingly exists only to preach to the choir, to bang a drum and say ‘SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT THE WORLD, MAN?’—is that art?

It’s the last one I’ve been struggling with most. The validity of the first two depends on my mood on any given day, but as for art with agenda—art that first and foremost exists to be political—that’s where I find my feelings most complicated. Of course, all art is political and you are always, at the very least, making the decision of whether you’re playing within the castle walls or outside of them. If art yells ‘LOOK AT ME I AM HERE THIS IS WHAT I’M SAYING’ then I’m probably gonna disengage from it. Because you can’t just assume that I care.

I saw a play touring from Sydney called The Culture. It was put on at La Boite on Queensland University of Technology’s Kelvin Grove campus, and it was sponsored by both the student Women’s Collective and the student Queer Collective. The theatre was maybe a third full, and I was there on a complimentary ticket, as were most of my friends. This was the show’s only Brisbane performance.

The play was about the titular culture that exists in Australia around women and queer men, and it wasn’t a bad show. But it wasn’t good either. It just kinda had a single point to it—that shit sucks—and then it proceeded to hit that same nail on the head over and over until it was really just hammering the wood plank itself. The nail was too deeply embedded by the end for anyone to see its shine anymore. 

After the play there was a Q&A, and people were more interested in how long the show took to rehearse than the issues it raised both intentionally and unintentionally. My friend Cinnamon noted after the Q&A was done that the woman recovering from the abusive relationship was still, at the play’s ‘triumphant’ conclusion, only given agency via the strengths and choices and coincidences of men.

Criticism aside, the piece did very little for those in the room. At best, it reaffirmed our feminism. Theatre in particular suffers from what I’ll call ‘reaffirmation bias’—the inevitable way that we seek out and enjoy most easily art that fits our world view rather than challenges it. 

Theatre has such a high barrier of entry on top of everything else that I find it hard to find value in works like this—that exist agenda first, artistry second. Simply, with the difficulties around attending theatre—the often high prices, the cliques, the fact that the scene is predominantly made up of artists seeing other artists’ work—all this on top of reaffirmation bias makes it very difficult for me to find any value at all in Theatre works that are most predominantly trying to tell me to believe something. But maybe I’m just an arsehole.

All that said though, I think I’ve decided to concede that these critiques of mine don’t discount works like The Culture from being art. At worst, it all just amounts to the art being bad.

I’m listening to Beyonce’s Formation on repeat these days.

In the end everyone knew that what had happened was simple. A simple, common mistake. The girl had tried reaching too far in front of herself, stretching out towards a thing she couldn’t reach, begging the world for something it could not give, and now? And now.

Putting a price on art is complicated. On the one hand, its value is not entirely quantifiable, and it could be argued to be pretentious, in some ways, to put a price on your own creative output.

And yet you have to. To survive, you have to. 

There’s a rise recently in the presence of art being released for free, or close to it, particularly in music. 

Miley Cyrus released her record for free, Radiohead have been doing pay-what-you-feel for years, and Chance The Rapper hasn’t put a price on anything other than a concert ticket. Films, too, can be streamed through Netflix and a dozen other services. Apple Music has made the company’s own iTunes Store largely redundant.

Streaming barely earns you a dime, but if your music isn’t available to stream then you’re considered to be hardly on the map. If you can’t be found where everyone goes looking, or where people are getting their hit of Justin Bieber, Kanye West, or the Arctic Monkeys—how can you possibly compete? So artists have little choice but to stream their stuff, and for artists like Taylor Swift or even Radiohead to remove their work from services like Spotify—that’s awesome, and that’s good, but it’s also a choice afforded by preexisting success. An emerging band could not make this choice. 

The the fuels a key conundrum for new artists. To emerge fully, you have to put your energy into your work—and how can you possibly do this effectively if you are simultaneously supporting yourself with hours and hours of retail or cafe work, your verve somewhat drained by the weight of Just Getting By? You can, certainly—I am doing it and will continue to do it—but if the prospect of ever profiting from the art you’re working on so desperately vanishes, you’re gonna run out of energy eventually. And then what?

After all, where are you emerging to, exactly, if there is no money to be made in that place? Sure, art is not about money, but life is about surviving, and to spend your life on your art means you have to survive, one way or another. 

People have less time these days. Less time to meaningfully consume and enjoy and experience work, which is making the passive consumption of media a more prevalent thing. Which is why Audible is so popular now, I guess—again, yet another streaming service that benefits those already prevalent in literature, who can afford big-name readers, who can work their way into being mentioned in podcast sponsorships. It’s tough, this shift, and I don’t quite know what to make of it. The key is to just keep going, I suppose.

Again, I think about what’ll happen when all the jobs are gone in ten years. 

Jonathan O'Brien