Kanye West and the New Politics of Shock

The rapper’s controversial album rollout illustrates exactly how much our cultural conversation

about morality has changed.

The scene would have been surreal even absent its plentiful cultural baggage: Three men clad head

to toe in black, donning ski masks and face paint, lurking on the front steps of a nondescript mid-

century home that just happened to have been dropped into the middle of an NFL stadium,

surrounded by 40,000 rapt fans.

A photo illustration of Kanye West, rapper DaBaby, former President Donald Trump and Marilyn Manson

The maestro of this spectacle was Kanye West, arguably the modern era’s most accomplished provocateur. And although he was at the head of the porch-loitering troika as they premiered West’s long-awaited new album “Donda,” it was the other two who invited his most recent in an unbroken decade-plus of controversies: West flanked himself with collaborators DaBaby, the chart-topping rapper currently doing a penance tour for making flagrantly homophobic public comments, and Marilyn Manson, the Y2K-era shock rocker who was dropped by his record label this year after multiple women accused him of sexual assault and abuse.

Over the course of his nearly 20 years at the forefront of the popular culture, West has pushed buttons and earned the opprobrium of everyone from George W. Bush to Taylor Swift. He’s remade himself as a fashion designer, and dabbled in presidential politics both as a candidate himself and as a supporter of Donald Trump. His ability — or maybe just his willingness — to court controversy is a key part of his business model.
In this, the “Donda” event earned him yet another banner week. The Daily Beast’s blunt-force headline was representative: “Kanye West Brings Out a Homophobe and an Accused Rapist at DONDA Chicago Show.” Some critics called for Apple Music, which livestreamed the event, to be held “accountable.” British outlet the Independent refused to rate the record due to Manson’s involvement. (None of which, of course, prevented the album from racking up astounding streaming numbersfor its debut on August 29.)

In 2021, “Kanye West courts backlash” might be uncomfortably close to “dog bites man.” But this round of censure was telling not just of the man himself, but American cultural politics writ large. For West’s critics, the sins of DaBaby and Manson, serious as they might be, become almost secondary to West’s giving them — quite literally, in this case — a “platform.” By refusing to shun such figures, West has re-invented himself as a sort of impresario for the cancelled. And in placing himself next to Manson particularly, once the bête noire of mainstream American morality in his own right, West has illustrated exactly how much our cultural conversation about it has changed.

As maybe heavy metal’s last iconic public figure in the late 1990s, Manson’s combination of adolescent rage, provocative androgyny and Satanic shadowboxing earned him widespread protest from religious groups, the wary prohibition of concerned parents across middle America and even blame for the Columbine massacre. Today, such things register as kitsch — if they register at all.

In 2021, the quickest way to gin up outrage isn’t to invoke taboo spiritual forces; it’s to flout liberal social norms in the manner in which West has become so skilled — whether through these most recent antics or his embrace of Donald Trump, whom he reportedly also invited to the event. (No word on whether the former president was asked to lay down a verse himself.)

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