Jimmy Kimmel’s Kanye sketches are really about how scared he is

There are more than enough reasons to make fun of Kanye West. But the two main ways that Jimmy Kimmel has so far chosen to mock Kanye West were telling. First, in a sketch replayed in yesterday’s interview but recorded years ago, he had Josh Groban sing Kanye’s tweets. Second, in the sketch that got Kanye on the show in the first place, Kimmel had children recite West’s Zane Lowe interview.

In both cases, it’s a simple joke: it’s funny to hear Kanye’s words come from someone who wouldn’t be expected to see them. But they’re stupid jokes too. In the Groban sketch we’re supposed to be on Groban’s (and Kimmel’s) side – what kind of person would say those things? – but that’s asking us to be on the side of the old: Groban sings stupid opera-lite, for a living and in this video, and the tweets don’t fit because it’s an old form. It’s the same kind of superiority masking as faux-humility when people claim not to have heard of One Direction, or ask whether the X Factor is still airing.

In the second sketch, Kimmel couldn’t deal with or apparently understand what Kanye was saying – he didn’t know what leather jogging pants were, and he’s proud of his own ignorance – so put those things in the voice of children. But he accidentally shows himself up again: Kimmel’s right to say that Kanye talks like children do; which is to say, it’s too new, and it’s something other. It’s the same joke – and in both cases that joke is on Kimmel himself, completely accidentally and without his knowledge.

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Infantalising a person has two effects. The first is to say that they are stupid, undeveloped, and so on. But the second, almost always unintended, consequence is to say: what you are saying is too new, it is unintelligible and unimportant to me because it is young. Most times someone speaks to (or most usually about) Kanye they they’re doing the former; and every time Kanye has to remind them that it’s almost always the latter.

Probably West said it best in the interview:

People are so so dated and not modern. There’s no way a Kim Kardashian shouldn’t have a star on the Walk of Fame. Its ridiculous old concepts. I’m just gonna give y’all the truth. It’s like…My grandfather loved Ali until he died, and my grandmother hated Ali ’til she passed. So you’re gonna love me or you’re gonna hate me, but I’m gonna be me. (Full transcript here.)

Real learning and innovation requires humility – and here’s where Kanye’s protestations about being in it for everybody else matter – because it requires an acceptance of one’s own imperfection. For whatever reason people are unwilling to do that with Kanye (though more of it in general would be a good thing). This is at least part of the reason why creative people get bullied, I think.

Thinking of a creative person at school, you think of them all the way in the back of class, sketching, or maybe getting beat up. This is reason why I did this, because creatives have been beat up my entire life. And there’s moments where I stood up to drug dealers in Chicago and said, ‘You can’t have my publishing! Come and kill me. Do whatever you’re gonna do. But you’re not gonna bully me. You’re not gonna stop me. Because my mother made me believe in myself!’

(Kanye says of the argument with Kimmel on the phone after the re-enactment skit that the two “kind of took back to high school for a minute”.) Probably the ongoing inability of most in the media to take Kanye seriously is because he’s a rapper, because he’s black, because he has a tendency to be forthright and so on. And you can see the exact moment when this interview – despite Kimmel’s attempts to apologise – becomes this exact same thing again. Kimmel brings out the tiny leather jogging pants, Kanye’s face drops, and it’s immediately clear that Kimmel won’t let this down. The leather jogging pants – what an odd thing to become the locus for this, but really actually an important thing – is something that Kimmel won’t entertain as anything of value. They’ve been forced on Kanye as a sign of his ridiculousness. But the story about them – the reason this keeps coming up – is SO relevant: the mainstream doesn’t want to listen to West’s ideas from Kanye’s mouth, but is more than happy to recycle them after he’s gone. And so it happens again – Kanye’s message and personality has to be shrunk to something very tiny, to avoid admitting that it’s actually bigger than oneself.

And that’s why discussions of Kanye’s ego miss the point. Of course, he talks about himself, and of course at least on the face of it much of that self-description is positive. But he’s far from confident: he’s pushing himself against barriers set by others and (more importantly) himself, and you can see his uncertainty and fragility over and over, in both of the now infamous interviews. As he keeps saying, to compare himself to – among others – Jesus, Michael Jackson, and so on is not simply to say that he is one of the great of all time but also that he isn’t, that it is at once a gesture of similarity and of difference. All aspiration requires that parallel and paradoxical assertion: I’m not those people, but I could be. Kanye’s only mocked for laying that bare.

All too often, though, it’s actually Kanye’s critics and detractors who make the kind of grotesque show of ego that they so often decry West for. Kanye’s ego might be big; but his critics are scared and proud of just how tiny theirs are. Only one of those people is and will ever be a genius.

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