Today, Slate posts “an all-access, totally non-exclusive interview with the would-be king of hip-hop,” Kanye West. The conceit is as follows: though the rapper stopped giving many interviews in the aftermath of his mother’s death, in 2007, he’s lately been on “a new-media-heavy promo offensive, in which his words go straight from his mouth to the public record.” The writer, SOTC pal Jonah Weiner, doesn’t “get to ask any questions,” but he does get “a constantly updating record of West’s thoughts, whereabouts, cravings, jokes, meals, flirtations, bon mots, and on and on.” This unprecedented arrangement is the result of the fact that Weiner and West have never met. Instead, to write his story, Weiner raided West’s Twitter account, his Ustream, YouTube, radio interviews, and other accounts of West’s life in the public domain, then used the tricks and rhythms he honed as a Blender reporter to approximate an old-fashioned magazine profile. And thus, as Maura Johnston put it earlier this morning, “the writearound enters the social-media age.”
Or something. Weiner’s point, which he inserts relatively early on, to let readers in on the joke:
In the face of a mountainous info dump like West’s, isn’t the basic work of profiling–building from the raw material of everything someone says and does toward a more focused sense of who they are–as relevant as ever?
Well, that’s one way to put it. The idea is that in an era where artists have innumerable ways to communicate with their public–think, for instance, of the never ending stream of videos the rapper Lil B posts to YouTube at all hours of the day and night–wouldn’t be great if we still had the old gatekeepers around, to filter out the noise and tell us what it all means? Of course, one could just as easily draw the opposite conclusion. As another smart critic, Sean Fennessey, wrote when confronted with the admittedly amazing sight of Kanye baring his soul on Ustream a few weeks back: “UStream is why rap magazines died.”
Once, music magazines devoted thousands upon thousands of words in a quest to capture something that was actually quite basic: what it felt like to be around a genuinely famous, successful, and creative person. Not for nothing does Chuck Eddy’s legendary 1987 Beastie Boys profile in Creem begin with this anecdote:
At 32 minutes past two the morning of 16 January 1987, two Beastie Boys broke into my West Hollywood hotel room and dumped a wastebasket of extremely wet water on my head, my bed, the carpeting and my Converse All-Stars. (I’d stupidly left the chain-lock unsecured, and I suppose they bribed the night clerk into giving them a key.) Earlier that evening, after Pee-Wee Herman had visited their dressing room and before they appeared on Joan Rivers’ show, the Beasties were tossing parsley at me, dropping ice cubes in my hair, and “dissin'” (graffiti-artist lingo for “saying bad things about”) my brown socks and flannel shirt. I interpreted all of this to mean that they did not like me.
The Beastie Boys were never going to pour water on the rest of the millions and millions of people who’d bought Licensed to Ill. This, in part, is why Creem purchased Eddy a plane ticket and sent him all the way from Philadelphia to Los Angeles: so that the rest of the country would know what it was like to hang out with (and be teased by) three impossibly rowdy guys who were the subject of much public interest at the time.
And though artist profiles in Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender, this publication, and elsewhere have always made sure to have purely critical sections, in which the writer reflects on the import of what they’re witnessing–Eddy will later put on a clinic on how to do just that in the above piece, and Weiner obligingly does something similar in his West mock-profile–ultimately, most us bought these magazines, and read them, in order to find out what these guys were like.
Now, of course, we know. Or know as much as the writers do, anyway. Kanye West is no more or less mediated, selective, and calculating in what he presents to Twitter than he would be with a writer in the room. In fact, these days, he’s probably more honest without the writer in the room. As Weiner quotes him as saying (on YouTube, natch):
This is my problem with interviews, you know? What if you did music, and someone else could come in and change your words around and then release it to the radio? And you ain’t even get a chance to listen to it before they dropped it to radio? That’s how interviews are! You say what you say and then you get paraphrased. I wanna get approval over the shit.”
And there’s the rub. Artists don’t need magazines like Slate to convey their words to the public anymore; these days, they’d rather do it themselves, and the technology is at point where they can. Where Weiner and Slate see a stream of information desperate in need to the mediation of a professional, West sees an opportunity to skip the middleman. And if the toppling fortunes of Vibe, Blender, and the rest of the publications now resting in the music mag graveyard are any indication, it’s the latter scenario that fans would actually prefer.
Whether a professional journalist can in fact bring useful context to “the raw material of everything someone says” and move from that toward “a more focused sense of who they are” is in some ways irrelevant. (Usually, we can, though a lot of good it’s done us lately.) Artists make their living off of how they present themselves, and now that they’ve gained extra lanes to do that work in, why would they ever give them up? And on the flipside, consumers have voted: ask Weiner what all those Lil Wayne profiles he wrote did for the long-term prospects of Blender. (A magazine which we adored, by the way, as we adored the old incarnation of Vibe, etc.–this is not schadenfreude talking.) The fact is, artists can reach their public now more directly than ever before, and they neither need nor want anyone else’s help in doing so. Slate may have intended to write an entirely new kind of profile. But what it looks like from here is a eulogy.