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Kanye West, Subvertiser: “Power” as Culture Jam


Right after the latest episode of Jersey Shore, Kanye West and director Marco Brambilla’s video/commerical/art project for “Power” premiered in all its epic, underwhelming glory. Basically, “Power” is a less crowded version of Brambilla’s 2008 hotel installation “Civilization,” and like that digital-imagery video collage, “Power” is schticky but awesome. All the “Pop-art” stuff Kanye’s been yammering on about for a few years now? Here’s the apotheosis–for better and worse.

Responses to the video though, have been pretty cold-shouldered. Sean Fennessey–a guy who’s been wrestling with Kanye’s work since the start—thinks the whole thing’s undercooked. Some broad for The Atlantic Monthly called it “a mesmerizing screensaver.”

There’s a bit of a bias against digital art going on here, but the responses also sent me back to undergraduate literature classes, where shiny, grandiose works that wrestled with universals like vanity and the fragility of life got laughed-off in favor of immediate, “what’s it’s like to live at the end of the millennium” type works. Sure this clip is big and ponderous, but it doesn’t shout-out its importance really. It’s sincere and knowing and Kanye’s laughing a bit about the fact that he got this weird-ass thing on television and all over the internet.

Kanye has also been into cultivating memes lately. Whether it’s his blog or award show pranks or outre videos, he makes conversation-stimulating, argument-starting chunks of sound and image to accompany his actually fairly subtle music. He cleverly balances the demands of the music-marketing game of the 2000s with a rarefied, creative spirit. So, he drums-up controversy with a Spike Jonze-directed single-take video that shows his death by shovel and video girl. Or he makes a fairly insane, grabbing from all directions, Neo-classical digital art project and gets it on MTV after the fucking Jersey Shore.

Think about that as the context for “Power.” Is there a more depressing, end-of-days, this-is-why-the-world-hates-us show than Jersey Shore? The Situation and Snooki consumed by their insignificant, bullshit-ass problems (which now hey, include fame!) all scored to soul-less, date-rape rave beats? No one Guido should have all that power.

The context for “Power,” coupled with its message, makes it the kind of take-back-the-night use of one’s fame that has all but disappeared from the pop landscape. Only Lady Gaga tries this hard and she fails way more often. “Power” is basically a culture-jam—rap is pretty much always a culture-jam though—in which Kanye deconstructs MTV commercials and regularly-scheduled programming and the endless, chintzy New Music Cartel stream of shit videos and shit video teasers. “Power” just doesn’t fit anywhere.

You want violence? Here’s the end of the world and dudes with swords and shit. You want video girls? Here’s a chick pouring water on herself like it’s a Nelly video only she’s upside down. You want a “conscious” portrayal of women? Check out those stalwart females to the left and right of Kanye pounding their staffs to the rhythm. And at the center of it is Kanye, wearing a chain nearly weighing him down (wasn’t this the original symbology of chains in rap, a symbol of wealth as well as a tangible reminder of the trappings of all that?), as all the decadence swirls around him, unknowingly about to lose his head. Literally.

West, grew up waiting for the premieres of Michael Jackson videos before The Simpson and wants to–no needs to–make an event video, but he’s got an aggressive, very hip-hop side that makes these videos loaded, and occasionally fraught with meaning. He’s gotta be subversive, but for the first time here, that subversiveness and its intended message aren’t weighed down by the messenger. “Power” is thematically antithetical to the egotism expected from rap but it’s style and construction oppose cheap rewards too.

The self-important slow-motion denies the speedy, histrionic editing of most videos and commercials while also reclaiming a technique that when it is employed, is used to just make, say, Young Jeezy look cool stepping out of a car. By slowing the imagery, you really soak in all the loaded, obvious stuff going on and get smashed over the head with its decadence. Director Brambilla’s technique—shoot a bunch of stunning imagery separately and then slam it all together with the aid of computers—is perfect because it gives the video an unreal, slightly “off” quality that makes it all the more unappealing. If this were staged, somehow shot live, all in one room, there would be human qualities to it, something imperfect, but as it is, each image is made “perfect” and then stacked upon another “perfect” image. It feels strange and just plain off. You get to ponder it and you get pretty creeped out.

The cut to black, a moment before the good stuff happens (Kanye gets decapitated) also seems to be an issue for some. They’re waiting for something to happen, as if the video’s not a big mess of stuff happening. Viewers want the final, epic, shocking moment—whenever I think of videos and a moment like this, I think of the moronic culmination of Jonathan Glazer’s video for UNKLE’s “Rabbit In Your Headlights”–but Kanye and Brambilla don’t give it to you because dude, that’s not the point at all.

The “anti-climactic” ending actually suggests another misread work of bold, capital-A art wrestling with fame and hubris: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). Coppola’s film ends before Marie’s infamous beheading, but the sequence of events is set-up so that her trip to the guillotine is inevitable. Like that movie, “Power” has a little too much love for its subject (in Kanye’s video: himself) to visualize the demise, but it’s also a way to reject cheap thrills. And usually, music videos, MTV, and commercials, are all about cheap thrills.

further reading/viewing:
-“Power,” Paintings, Pomposity: The Uncertain Evolution of Kanye West’s Music Videos” by Sean Fennessey for Sound Of The City
-“Subvertising” on Wikipedia
-“M.I.A. and music’s newest marketing frontier: the guerrilla web itself” by Gardner
-Buy Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man
-“Race & Gender Devolution in ‘Flashing Lights’ Version 2″ by ME

Written by Brandon

August 7th, 2010 at 9:07 am

13 Responses to 'Kanye West, Subvertiser: “Power” as Culture Jam'

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  1. I know this is going to seem like I’m missing the point of the whole thing but the “No one Guido should have all that power” punchline made me laugh. A lot.


    7 Aug 10 at 10:45 pm

  2. Akin-
    Nah man, glad you liked it. I’m not crazy though, right? Like that’s sorta the context for this video, right?


    8 Aug 10 at 3:10 am

  3. It is! That’s what’s nuts.

    Also it’s that you either had a bunch of artsy smart pop critic guys like you catching the end of the Jersey shore or a bunch of Jersey shore loving cheap thrill loving (i mean that is the jersey shore, cheap thrills) 16-24 year olds staring at some super weird pop art buy a guy who’d they’d write off as a weird fag or some shit if they ever had to see is other work. Like, what is the normal cross-section of people who watch Jersey shore and people who look at Brambilla works? Who else does or CAN do that shit?

    And thinking of the song, like its perfect for what he’s saying. It’s apparent that Kanye is kinda nuts so paranoia isn’t that far off of lists that he could be/ probably is. But instead of really crying or freaking out about it. He’s embracing it. He knows he’s on top of the world, but he’s also convinced that pretty much is out to get him. He puts it on the video/screensaver with people trying to decapitate this king/god like figure. But in the song he LOVES it, embraces it. “Screams from the haters, got nice a ring to it/ I guess every super hero needs his theme music.” And like call him crazy but he knows that’s what you think of him already. He’s the 21st century schizoid man. He thinks his god, he’s convinced you’re trying to kill but he don’t care. You’re convinced no one man should have all that Power, but the clocks ticking and he just counts the hours.

    While getting 500k+ people to get his tweets about Persian rugs and making Brandon watch Jersey Shore.

    Now that’s power.


    8 Aug 10 at 1:39 pm

  4. And ALSO, like people call him nuts and fucked and evil and etc. for those horrible thing he did of speaking his mind critically and a completely inappropriate time. But then watch shows like the Jersey shore where women are constantly demeaned (either they made up a new name for fat girls – Grenades – or i’ve been under a rock) and like, one of the main women characters got punched in the face (and it became a fucking internet meme), but then society demonizes kanye for upsetting a blonde chick. My roommate litterally walked out of the living room after Jersey Shore ended because he “likes Kanye’s music but he’s a dick” but was laughing at The Situation all night. I wouldn’t have thought about this shit this much without this write up. Thanks Brandon.


    8 Aug 10 at 1:47 pm

  5. Great post, and the last few lines really hit it home, but I was wondering if you could go further into why you thought the end to “Rabbit in your Headlights” is “moronic”


    9 Aug 10 at 3:23 am

  6. Akin-
    I didn’t even extend it that far, but very good point, ha, just the sorta insane, random hypocrisy of regular-ass people where Kanye’s a shithead, but I don’t know, Snooki ain’t? Huh.

    This was also my first experience with the ‘Jersey Shore’, the only time I’d seen it previously is on Christmas eve at this metal/hardcore night in a Baltimore where it was running without the sound and closed-captioned. Everyone was enthralled nevertheless.

    It just seems so retardedly “powerful”, like “oh man, he stopped walking and the car exploded! Intense!” I don’t know, it just seems very cheap and faux-profound.

  7. Yeah, the faux-profound thing comes across. It’s like the Dark Knight/Watchmen commentary on your comic blog pointed out a few times and something I noticed only after watching TDK like 10 times; at first you’re wowed by the visuals and set-up but then you notice it’s not nearly as deep as it would like you to think.


    9 Aug 10 at 11:34 pm

  8. theres a new kanye trackfeat charlie wilson and beyonce over at nah right. the best moment of it is when he says to charlie wilson, “I’mma let you finish, but I’ve got beyonce on the track..”



    12 Aug 10 at 12:04 am

  9. “The context for “Power,” coupled with its message, makes it the kind of take-back-the-night use of one’s fame that has all but disappeared from the pop landscape. Only Lady Gaga tries this hard and she fails way more often.” – “They’re waiting for something to happen, as if the video’s not a big mess of stuff happening. Viewers want the final, epic, shocking moment—”

    That said it all for me. I thought the track was good, the video was stimulating and *gasp* different. And i love the build up. Like you said, no cheap thrills. As a people we love to see what happens when you cut the head off the snake… but what happens if you don’t? Great post!

    Follow Realizme on YouTube @ /user/RealizmeTV


    13 Aug 10 at 1:14 am

  10. [...] Or rather, he was more of a dick about it. West’s recent works—as in really recent–have been music events first and pop cultural moments second, and that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t conceptual edges to what he’s doing, he just isn’t footnoting the shit out of it to make sure audiences know it’s a big, thumping statement. So, he drops the video for “Power,” an attempt at art with a capital “A” and one that wrestles with age-old themes of vulnerability and hubris, right after an episode of Jersey Shore. [...]

  11. [...] between honest and “honest” and steals the show (because he’s like that), continuing his culture-jamming streak by getting Pusha T up in front of an audience that probably doesn’t know who the hell he is, [...]

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  13. Can you tell me just what the largest snake is, my brother thinks it is really a boa constrictor.

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