Ed#457: Way out West

2 May 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#457: Way out West

Beethoven? A rude slob. Hemingway? Sexist pig. Madonna? Rhymes with prima donna. Dylan? Wilfully obscure. Greer? Yes, she’s Our Germaine, but it often seems like she’s auditioning for the role of everyone’s eccentric aunty.

We could fill this entire space with the names of well-known creative people who are (or were) not the most pleasant company. The multi-talented Kanye West waltzes into such a list. As Clem Bastow makes clear in her cover story (starting on p14) the hip-hop performer and producer is noted as much for his widely publicised breaches of decorum (such as once upstaging That Nice Taylor Swift at an awards show) as his music, for which he has received no fewer than 21 Grammys. Despite all those gongs, Bastow argues that his notoriety has worked against West receiving appropriate recognition as a creative artist. Our cover poses the question: Cool or Fool? (I confess we also toyed with a word that is only one consonant away from ‘Fool’.) But perhaps it doesn’t even need to be a question. It is entirely possible that West is both cool and a fool, simultaneously.

You could make a case, in fact, that talent often goes hand-in-hand with, shall we say, an unusual temperament. The same qualities required for success at the highest level of most pursuits – a singleness of purpose that verges on selfishness, a readiness to break the mould and do things differently, plus an unswerving commitment to excellence – are not necessarily attractive personality traits. The partners of noted creative people often have a rather tough time. Exhibit A: Mrs Charles Dickens. Exhibit B: Mrs Leo Tolstoy. Exhibit C: the (most recent) former Mr Madonna.

Kanye West is primarily a musician; a better musician than John McEnroe, who, not content with being the world’s top tennis player (during the 1980s) also rather fancied himself as a guitar player. McEnroe became infamous for his on-court tantrums, one of which led to him being thrown out of the 1990 Australian Open tournament. By today’s relatively sedate standards of play, McEnroe’s behaviour now seems embarrassing. But in many ways it came with the package: McEnroe had sublime touch with a tennis racquet, yet little respect or regard for court etiquette. Kevin Pietersen is a similar case study. No English cricketer in recent times has scored as many runs or been involved in so many controversies as the South African–born batsman. After England’s recent disastrous Ashes series in Australia, Pietersen was told his services were no longer required by England – even though he wasn’t the poorest performer in a losing team. Far from it. But the buzzwords in team sport today are ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ – words seldom seen in the same sentence as ‘KP’ (as he is known). So England has sacrificed a proven run-scorer in the interest of a more settled side. Like Pietersen, Kanye West is a flawed genius. What they do, they do well; the problem is, they’re also guilty of a lot of dumb stuff.

In the end, though, talent trumps flaws. Beethoven’s cantankerousness does not detract from his music. Similarly, you can admire a Hemingway story without endorsing his macho nonsense. Here at Big Issue Mission Control, I find myself surrounded by many who insist that Kanye West is seriously cool. They may be right. They might even have forgiven him for hooking up with a Kardashian.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#457 of The Big Issue magazine.