“Rap is the new rock’n’roll. We the rock stars. And I’m the biggest of all of them.”
Self-awareness is not the strongest of Kanye West’s many suits. But with that line, from an interview in 2013, he both anticipated and nailed what lies behind the controversy over his Glastonbury headlining slot on Saturday night. (There were petitions against it, and endless fulminations on the internet.) “Controversial”, in today’s usage, typically serves as a euphemism for what follows when a terrible idea is forcibly instituted, or a delusional grievance is loudly voiced. In this case, it was very much the latter.
Kanye is the outstanding record-making talent of the 21st century so far. In an era when radical invention has otherwise withered in the pop mainstream, he is the one major commercial artist who, as a performer or a producer, has consistently taken risks with new ideas. He has also dragged the rest of rap and R&B along with him: it is unlikely, for instance, that Beyoncé’s recent dark and experimental work would have sounded as it did but for his example.
The revulsion at his headlining Glastonbury is the latest manifestation of a reactionary tendency in music fandom that is older than rock’n’roll itself. It manifested itself first in segregated American touring circuits, radio stations and charts; later in the hateful “Disco Sucks” campaign of the late 1970s, which sought, with dispiriting success, to demonise the music of blacks, Latinos and gays and reinstitute white rock as the template for a notional authenticity; and, for as long as I’ve been writing about pop in Britain, in a sullen and joyless fixation upon the idea of what is and isn’t “real” music. (“Real”, as a rule, being white and guitar-based; “not real” being produced electronically and often by black people.)
“It’s just not English/British music. It’s just not our bag,” complained one of the BBC’s pre-show vox pops, a man who evidently hadn’t noticed that two of Kanye’s albums, including his latest, have topped the charts here (another two peaked at numbers two and three.) The segment editor drolly followed this up with another chap who offered this gnomic summary of the entire fuss: “It’s slight racism, to be honest.”
On top of this, Kanye is also a world-class wind-up merchant. “You need one stage for him and one stage for his ego,” smirked a smug young woman with a cut-glass accent, evidently delighted with this bon mot. It tells us something of our age that she and so many others would gripe about a pop star being a flaming narcissist. That’s supposed to be the first item in the job description! No wonder pop stardom is now infested with so many vaguely amiable dullards. Kanye is vainglorious, boorish, outrageous, frequently insufferable—but dull? Hardly.
Which isn’t to say nothing in his set was dull. But it took a while. The first 45 minutes or so were an act of quite astonishing bravado. One man, apparently dressed as the world’s most fashionable plasterer, all alone in a blazing box of light and smoke, with only that infamous ego and a microphone to satisfy a crowd over 100,000 strong, and millions more watching on live television. Has any Glastonbury headliner ever flown solo and by the seat of his expensively spattered pants for so long? It took extraordinary cojones, especially when you consider that, although he is a brilliant rapper in the studio, he is not a great live MC. His voice doesn’t have the heft and authority to carry all before it like, say, Eminem’s or Chuck D’s.
The BBC’s long-shot camera angle, showing waving banners silhouetted against white spotlights illuminating a solitary figure, inevitably called to mind the stagings of Leni Riefenstahl. And while the oft-made analogies between giant pop concerts and the Nuremberg rallies are spurious—apart from anything else, audiences are not that stupid or suggestible—this was, aptly, a triumph of Kanye’s will. Yet again, he pushed his ambition and imagination beyond the limits of his own capacity.
Notably, the energy died when the lights dimmed to reveal his hitherto invisible, black-clad fellow performers, including the indie-folk artist Justin Vernon (better known from Bon Iver). The tempo fell away, Kanye stopped rapping and started talking (only Lady Gaga is more notorious for giving tedious speeches when she should be performing), and the set sagged like a threadbare hammock. It rose again for a spine-tingling run of “No Church in the Wild”, “Jesus Walks” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, then seemed to disintegrate into anti-climax, as Kanye slouched off muttering something about his dressing room. All across social media, his detractors gleefully hooted at this characteristic meltdown.
A bluff, of course. Moments later he was soaring above the crowd in a cherry-picker, blasting through “Touch the Sky” and “All of the Lights”. However it may have looked from the crowd, it was magnificent television. Kanye West is the star who’s never a bore even when he’s boring. The people who profess to hate him can’t tear their eyes away. The joke is emphatically on them, and on their apoplectic, blimpish indignation.
At the conclusion of a set by turns fascinating, baffling, infuriating, indulgent, exhilarating and embarrassing—in other words, archetypal Kanye West—he raved, “You are now watching the greatest living rock star on the planet,” a claim greeted with widespread mockery. But if he isn’t, who is?