What do you do when the culture is the counter-culture? It’s a question that has bubbled away in the West since the Sixties generation came to adulthood — if, indeed, they ever did.
It’s pertinent because it gets to the heart of one of the oddities of recent decades. From the Sixties onwards, the satire boom, along with a number of related cultural changes, turned power in the democracies around. Where those who rebelled were once the focus of disapprobation, now it was authority itself that faced mockery and exclusion. Each institution, from Parliament to the law, from elderly MPs to elderly judges, found themselves lampooned for being out of touch, and faintly ridiculous.
To be of ‘the establishment’ turned from being a mark of honour and success, into one of embarrassment and failure — at least a failure of imagination. The same turnaround happened in the arts, so that writers who were thought to be of the old establishment were supplanted by younger, edgier, counter-cultural figures.
The fact that the targets were often far from stuffy or establishment figures themselves didn’t matter, any more than did the fact that some of those who supplanted them were hardly as fresh as they were made out to be. But, everywhere, there was a great sweeping away.
And as the generation of politicians and artists doing the lambasting in their turn aged, as everyone must, so a conundrum of a kind developed. It turned out our institutions were run by people who disliked institutions, our governments run by people who presented themselves as outsiders, and our culture dominated by counter-culturalists.
In short, the culture became dominated by people who had formed themselves by being counter-cultural. The phenomenon is closely related to what George Walden observed in The New Elites as the striking fact that, by the turn of the millennium, we had elites that consisted of anti-elitists.
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In such a situation, what are people to rebel against, and how can they rebel — the culture itself being dominated by acts of ‘rebellion’? One response that used to be regarded as a joke answer to this serious question has now had a serious response in the form of Kanye West.
I have written about Mr West before, specifically about the tripwire he nicked last year, when he came out as an admirer of the American political activist Candace Owens… and moved from there to an endorsement of President Donald Trump.
These actions, among others, saw West denounced across much of the media (including in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates), and he became the butt of many jokes on the almost-without-exception-unfunny US comedy shows. But this week, with the release of his new album, West has shown that he is digging in. And in the process he appears to be showing one way out of the counter-culture culture.
West’s latest is album is called Jesus is King, and as those who have already heard the songs and their lyrics will know, none of the sentiment in that title is of the “fnar-fnar” variety that people might expect. The title is not knowing, ironic, arch, nor some in-joke or parody. It appears to be a serious and sincere expression of the artist’s view, and the performances West has already given suggest that the devotional aspect of the album is sincere.
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At least as significant as the content of the album itself are West’s comments in interviews surrounding the release. For instance, this week he appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Instead of “carpool karaoke”, Corden met up with the rapper on a plane and did an “airpool karaoke”. In an interview between songs, West said some things that stood out because they went so much against what might be expected from such a star.
For instance, he observed how much he had got out of his marriage, and at one point said, “People thought it would be uncool to be married. Then I got married and people were like: ‘Oh, that looks cool’.” Corden chimed in, referring to West’s wife: “No one ever thought it would be uncool to marry Kim Kardashian,” to which West responded “It’s more than ‘cool’. It’s more than ‘cool as hell’ or something. It’s heavenly. It’s great. It’s magnificent. And God is using me as a human being.” He then went on a diversion about his tax returns in the last year, before returning to his substantial point by saying “Kanye West works for God”.
Some have claimed that West’s counter-counter-cultural statements have been timed for maximum publicity around his album releases. And some have implied that these statements (which have included criticising abortion) are, therefore, cynical and not genuinely believed in.
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The charge is a relation of the “troll” or “grifter” charges: that he is saying things he doesn’t believe in order to get attention. Yet nothing in his interviews relating to his new album backs that up, for West has allowed himself to get into areas which cannot possibly have any significant net positive or negative effect on album sales and yet which sit very much in what would appear to be his current set of beliefs.
For example, just ahead of the release of Jesus is King, West did an almost two-hour long interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music. The interview is remarkably wide-ranging, but perhaps most interesting is the fact that it reveals how much West has been thinking about what would ordinarily be described as “small-c conservative” issues. In the interview with Lowe West covers an extraordinary range of issues.
He talks about “the best form of each other” we have as being family. And he goes on to a discussion of community and localism, with even a section on the significance of traditional housing and its role in encouraging and embedding a sense of community.
Many criticisms are bound to come Kanye West’s way over this, but what is important in the wider culture is not just a star of West’s mega-wattage saying things like this — it is that West is pointing a way out of the counter-culture.
Fatherless-ness, homelessness, drug dependency, ultra-materialism and indeed atheism have long been packaged in as the assumed attitudes of the era. To varying extents all moved from being counter-cultural (from the Sixties onwards) into being the assumed culture for at least the last two to three decades.
The question was always “what replaces the counter culture?”. And here, at any rate, is one answer. It isn’t an entirely new culture or a counter-counter-culture — but simply the culture that we knew and which we admired and aspired to until not very long ago.
It had its flaws, of course. But it had virtues too. And it will probably be seen as just one of the many ironies of the age that a rapper should have turned out to be one of the first major figures to show a way back to it.