You would be forgiven for thinking that the world was now an expansive reality show keeping us all entertained. Thanks to the endless deluge of information circulating online, what was once considered news is now part of an increasingly bewildering drama where nothing makes any sense. Our feeds are dominated by celebrities commenting on world affairs in performances of public discourse, and by world leaders distracting the public by commenting on pop culture. Who did Taylor Swift vote for? What did Vice President-elect Mike Pence think of Hamilton? Will Kanye West really run for president? There is no shortage of angles to extrapolate, as if the line between entertainment and real life is determined only by how far we’re willing to twist our imaginations.
The final two shows of Kanye West’s ambitious Saint Pablo Tour presented this idea in maximalist terms. At a concert in San Jose, Kanye ignited a media firestorm after launching into a tirade about this year’s presidential election — itself a bizarre point in our relationship to reality — saying that had he voted, he would have cast his vote for reality television star Donald Trump. A few nights later, in Sacramento, he doubled down on the claim, calling the president-elect’s fact-averse style of communication "futuristic." Kanye then launched into a screed about the alleged politics around Beyoncé’s VMA performance and his estrangement from longtime collaborator Jay Z, before offering up his critique of Hillary Clinton’s approach with middle America. "It’s a new world, Hillary Clinton," he professed. The diatribe lasted all of 17 minutes and was captured from essentially every angle. At the end of the rant, amidst boos from the crowd, Kanye threw his mic down and left the stage. He’d only performed three songs.
A spokesperson for Kanye would later confirm the cancellation of the 21 remaining dates on the tour. Soon after, news emerged that Kanye was admitted to the hospital to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Thirsty for some good drama, the public quickly became fixated on Kanye's support of Trump. The president-elect even acknowledged the rapper during a press conference, saying, “To Kanye West, I love him. In a few years I might have to run against him, so I’ll take that back.” Indeed, the connections to Kanye's famous "announcement" that he'd run for president in 2020 somehow turned his outburst into political news. By the time he was admitted to UCLA Medical Center, Twitter had expended considerable energy deciphering Kanye's political beliefs. There was a camp of people who pointed to the rapper’s wealth as an explanation for his support of Trump, and those who pointed out the dissonance between his earlier, socially conscious music and the president-elect. There were plenty who rebuked the rapper, too, citing his past controversial statements, while at the same time congratulating themselves for not owning a pair of his signature Yeezy sneakers. The frenzied coverage eventually led to the discovery of campaign finance records that showed Kanye had recently donated money to Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The pattern is by now familiar: a famous person makes a comment that inspires controversy and, in turn, sets off a public discussion about a number of serious issues. By the end, nothing is illuminated and someone has probably haphazardly apologized, publicly. It's part of a broader flattening of the worlds of entertainment and news. In the online ecosystem where the two reside — more than 60 percent of adults in the US get their news on social media — everyone competes for attention by appealing to the same core emotions.
Kanye has been a master of this paradigm for the better part of his career. In 2006, when he rebuked George W. Bush on live television, he created one of the first viral political moments of the social media era. Footage of his off-script remarks quickly made their way across platforms like Myspace and Facebook thanks to clips uploaded to YouTube. George W. Bush would later call Kanye's comments the lowest point of his presidency. In 2009, after the infamous Taylor Swift incident, President Barack Obama called Kanye a "jackass" in a conveniently leaked off-the-record conversation. More than just provocations, Kanye has a deft understanding of the way we communicate. With his Yeezus album premiere in 2013, he pushed the boundaries of “experiential marketing,” with his "New Slaves" video projections around the world. In creating an experience for fans to share on their own social channels, Kanye was tapping into an idea that brands now widely replicate.
Despite Kanye's savvy, our connected world has made the public conversation increasingly unpredictable. When Kanye announced his presidential run during an acceptance speech for the MTV Video Vanguard Award last year, he was actually leveling a critique against the media. "You know how many times MTV ran that footage again 'cause it got them more ratings?" he asked, referring to his 2009 controversy with Taylor Swift. "You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me this award 'cause it got them more ratings?" It was in this context, tacked on to the end of a blistering analysis of our celebrity-obsessed culture, that Kanye declared, "and yes, as you probably could have guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020 to run for president."
His self-awareness went unnoticed. Kanye's presidential announcement was carried breathlessly online as commentators compared the braggadocios rapper to then-candidate Donald Trump. The potential drama of Kanye running against Trump, or of first lady Kim Kardashian, or North West in the White House (!), was an irresistable story for our increasingly outlandish relationship with the real world. MTV went so far as to publish a transcript of the speech, calling it "incredible" and adding the flourish, "drop the mic, everyone dead" to the end of it.
While initial reports stated that Kanye was admitted to the hospital for exhaustion, things appear to be more serious. Kanye spent a little over a week in the hospital, and sources told The New York Post that his wife, Kim Kardashian West, was "very worried" about the situation. Insiders told Us Weekly that Kanye had been suffering from increasingly severe bouts of paranoia since Kim was robbed at gunpoint in Paris. Many believe that the robbers attained Kim's location on the ephemeral messaging app Snapchat.
As Kanye declared in the now widely viewed Sacramento rant, "feelings matter" now more than ever. If the world is nothing more than a reality show, all of us sloshing around subsisting on emotions fed to us through keywords, Kanye might have found himself in a role he can't control. One that finds him both emboldened and destroyed by his own mind. Kanye's public image as a genius provocateur is a simplification, one that fits neatly in the same narrative that made him a villain after his Taylor Swift interruption, and a hero for "running" for president. Thanks to the glut of information that social media platforms deliver with overwhelming precision, we are inundated with news that feeds into this fairytale that no one really understands. It's how Trump commands news cycles with absurd tweets, and how Kanye effectively railing against MTV for 15 minutes turned into conversations about a potential presidential run. Every move that celebrities like Kanye make is now a commodity in a marketplace over which no one appears to have any real control.