Now that Kanye West’s My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have both had the pristine shine of newness wear off, I think we can look back on both pieces to accurately judge their impact and what these works say about the artists who created them. On the surface, you couldn’t find two more starkly different contemporary artists than Jonathan Franzen and Kanye West. Franzen writes epically boring but strangely engaging books about the everyday minutia of white, anglo-saxon protestant life in turn of the 21st century America and Kanye West makes neo-classicist, self-aggrandizing Hip-Hop infused with equal parts consciousness, materialism and sexual fantasy. But when you look closer you find these two guys are way more alike than they are different. In today’s post I want to explore both of their latest works and talk a little bit about what makes them so similar and special.
Both Frazen and West are epic douche-bags.
In recent pop culture memory the only person to have more asshole moments than Kanye West is Charlie Sheen. West is as well known for his fits of emotional over saturation as he is for his music. From “George Bush doesn’t care about black peope,” to wigging out on SNL to “I’ma let you finish…” West carries the cross for those of us who sometimes can’t help how gifted we are at finding what we don’t like the most. But don’t sleep on Jonathan Franzen. In the relatively quiet and peaceful world of WASP Lit, Franzen is a bit of an anomaly and definitely a douche bag worthy of toasting. Where West is fond of making hugely generalized, self-important, douchey statements like “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” Franzen instead writes angry, unnecessarily verbose, high brow douchey op-eds in douchey magazines like The New Yorker that basically say “SUV driving miscreant low-thinkers don’t care about the plight of migratory birds!” Where West goes on TV and bugs out because he feels like Matt Lauer is being predatory and insensitive in his questioning, Franzen turns his nose up at being selected to Oprah’s book club and declines an invitation to appear on her show. Doesn’t seem like much of a big deal to most of us, but being selected to Oprah’s book club, as a first time novelist is damn near tantamount to receiving a McArthur Award – so saying “thanks but, no thanks” is a douche move of the highest order.
Franzen and West’s latest works both show they are probably their medium’s most important contemporary artists:
Kanye West’s Twisted Fantasy is, without a doubt his best work to date. It is his most succinct album since The College Dropout yet it still manages to be more seeking and ambitious than anything he’s ever done. It’s more experimental than 808’s and Heartbreak, but more Hip-Hop than Late Registration. It has more pop appeal than Graduation, yet should be as endearing to the neo-backpack movement as The College Dropout. With Twisted Fantasy, West has every base covered. Where West excels most with Dark Fantasy is in melding production with lyrical content and presentation to make his music more than just an auditory experience. You listen to the album and you’re transported to this strangely depressed world, with West as your tour guide, carrying you through the full range of human emotion from self-loving to self-loathing, from social responsibility to selfish indulgence, from God fearing, to sacrilegious; this world West is bringing us though is, above all else, honest.
May the Lord forgive us
May the God’s be with us
In that magic hour I seen good Christians
make rash decisions, Oh she do it,
What happened to Religion?
Oh she lose it
She putting on her make up
She casually allure
Text message break up, the casualty of tour
How she gone wake up and not love me no more
I thought I was the ass hole, I guess it’s rubbing off
Hood phenomenon, the Lebron of rhyme
Hard to be humble when you stuntin on a jumbotron
I’m looking at her like “this what you really want it, huh?”
What we argue anyway, oh I forgot its summertime.
Franzen’s Freedom, as far as I’m concerned, was the best novel of 2010. As a culturally and historically aware descendant of African Slaves who happens to love Hip-Hop and fried chicken, I must admit, it was tough to wrap my mind around the blithely privileged and incomprehensibly trite every day lives of the white folk Franzen builds his novels around. Freedom is the story of the Berglund family (If there’s a whiter name than “Berglund” I’m not aware of it). The thing is, despite the extreme whiteness of the Berglunds, Franzen’s writing is so good, so sharply perceptive that you somehow forget that you have absolutely nothing in common with these characters. What makes most classic literature classic is its ability reach beyond social status, class, race, political affiliation and all the other things we use to divide ourselves and tap into those basic human emotions we all feel so that you are able to relate to the characters through their emotions if not through their surface level lives. What makes Franzen so special, for me, is that he doesn’t do this, and still manages to keep me compelled. The Berglund’s impulses and desires are so far away from that of my own and the everyday happenings of the suburban lives they live are so far removed from what I’m living here in Brooklyn that the humanistic relative connection is never really established. I’m compelled simply because the writing is phenomenal. It’s that good. He writes the sort of sentences and paragraphs that make you put the book down for a minute, think about what you just read, what it means to your life, the world around you, the universe, space, time and all the other unsolved mysteries of human existence. For example:
West and Franzen are both the impetus for the resurgence of previously dormant genres within genres.
Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” (2004) and Franzen’s “The Corrections” (2001) were released at points in history where their respective genres were losing relevance. In Hip-Hop, the backpack movement hadn’t really been relevant in a mainstream sort of way since “Beats, Rhymes and Life”. In 2003 Jay-Z retired and 50 Cent released “Get Rich or Die Trying” which seemed to solidify him as the defacto heir to the throne. Still riding high off of “Get Rich” and the two successful subsequent G-Unit releases, 50 looked poised to take over. Going into 2004 nobody saw Kanye coming. Nobody could have predicted that 7 years later, G-Unit would be irrelevant and every new artist signed to a major label would have a certain “different-ness” that wasn’t really acceptable in Hip-Hop for a long time prior to Kanye’s arrival. In literature in 2001, with the internet bubble in full swing, the concept of the long form WASP novel about nothing was dying. The last boring novel – about the problems white folks have when they don’t really have real problems – to actually crossover and enter the general American consciousness was probably Saul Bellow’s “Humbolt’s Gift”… and that was in the 70’s. With “The Corrections” Franzen lays claim to the genre making it relevant for a new generation of passively angry, repressed, middle American white people who like the idea of hybrid cars but instead drive SUV’s for practical reasons. Since its release, books like Empire Falls and Olive Kitteridge have dropped to much critical and commercial success while exploring – to varying degrees – these same themes of inexplicable unhappiness and discontent in middle class white America.
Kanye West and Jonathan Franzen are two of the most important artists or our time. If you haven’t listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or read Freedom, do yourself a favor and get up on it. Both works are more than worthwhile, even if you’re not particularly interested in the respective genres. It’s interesting to look at the two artists and see how similar two very different artists can be. For those of you who have heard the album or read the book – or done both – please feel free to share your thoughts on both.
Stay low and keep firing.