Since the release of his first album in 2004, Kanye West has been one of pop music’s most dynamic yet divisive figures; his artistic triumphs and commercial successes are matched only by his outsized ego and inability to self-censor. In 2010, the story was the same. He self-released solid new material to his 1.7 million Twitter followers and his new album garnered perfect reviews from influential critics, but he was also rebuked by George W. Bush in the former President’s memoir, and he botched an interview that he was professionally coached for on the Today Show.
By now, Kanye’s ups and downs have been sufficiently documented. Instead of grasping for a new angle, I interviewed some of my teenage middle school students to see what they thought of Kanye’s tumultuous year.
Most students instantly fixated on his debacle at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video. Some students tried to be earnest while their peers were more plain-spoken:
Ryder: Kanye West is a jerk. No offense to him, but he’s a jerk, and he knows it. He makes bad decisions and he doesn’t really know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad. When he stood up in front of Taylor Swift, he should have known better…
Savannah: He’s a butt!
Ryder: Yeah, he’s a butt.
Jackson: I hate him because at the [VMA awards] he interrupted Taylor Swift, and that was pretty rude of him, even though I don’t like Taylor Swift, but still. His music is pretty good… it’s alright, but he’s…
Connor: He’s an ass.
They also found other things to critique about Kanye:
Reed: He’s an egomaniac.
Bailey: South Park made fun of him. Who hasn’t bitched on Kanye?
Sophie: I hate his hair.
Drew: He’s a drunk. Why do you think he wears sunglasses all the time?
Amanda: Kanye sounds like “Kenya.”
Surprised by the vehemence of my students’ feelings about Kanye the Person, I turned the conversation to questions about Kanye the Musician.
Miles: Is he a rapper? I don’t really listen to rap.
Connor: He is stupid, I doubt he even got through high school.
Me: But do you listen to his music?
Connor: Oh yeah!
Ryder: Some of his music is okay, it doesn’t really affect the way I like him, or anything, but what he’s done is really bad.
Eva: He has a big ego but I think that makes his music better. That’s okay as long as I don’t have to know him personally.
These responses showed that you don’t have to be a writer or music critic to conflate Kanye’s personality with his craft. Had any of the students heard about Kanye’s new album?
Mason: My Dark Twisted Purple-and-a-Half Fantasy.
Connor: That’s what it’s called? I told you he’s stupid!
Eva: Yeah, it got five stars in Rolling Stone!
Hannah: I’ve got a burrito!
As modern American teenagers, I figured my students are permanently connected to all channels of social media (kids these days!). So I asked if they ever read Kanye’s Twitter.
Graham: Twitter is old news.
Connor: I don’t do Twitter.
Mason: Nobody has a Twitter. But don’t say “I don’t do Twitter,” because that makes you sound like an old person who doesn’t even have an email.
Me: Kanye has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, so some people must be using it.
Mason: I want to follow Taylor Swift on Titter. I mean Twitter.
Altogether, my students seemed almost totally unaware of the travails that Kanye West confronted in 2010. Does this mean they are more out of touch with celebrities than I thought? Less connected to social and entertainment media than most adults assume? Unable to see West’s tragic trajectory, which I found self-evident? Hardly. In fixating on the traits that led West to ignite the VMA spectacle of last year, my students pointed toward a truth about this particular artist: Kanye West’s audacity and egotism feed the flame of his artistry, but they also overwhelm and overshadow him. As such, the Kanye we saw in 2010 is the same Kanye we’ve known every year since he became a star.