How Comfortable Should We Be Listening To Artists Destroy Themselves?

11.29.16 2 weeks ago 14 Comments

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The world has known that Kanye West was scare quotes crazy for a while now. It was a huge part of his draw. It was there in every “unhinged” “rant,” every late-night Twitter tirade and sprinkled liberally throughout his megalomaniacal body of work in this decade. Kanye’s unfiltered craziness was a huge part of his appeal and hugely entertaining. Until it wasn’t.

Kanye checked himself into a Los Angeles hospital for a psychiatric evaluation last Monday and has yet to leave. Suddenly, everything he’s done in the last few years required another look. Every breakdown needed to be re-examined in the light of an actual mental break. And if fans were allowing themselves to be honest, they found evidence everywhere that should make them uncomfortable. Kanye made it plain over and over again that he was going through it. Every reference to Lexapro and distorted Yeezus-era scream suddenly carried more weight. Creating a song out of microphone feedback — the sound of something looping in on itself until it becomes an undesirable and noisy mess — and closing out that song with blown-out shouts, didn’t seem so odd anymore.

As listeners, Kanye’s mental health problems force us to reckon with the fact that we’ve intentionally put aside these warnings in the name of being entertained. When you consider that Yeezy’s no-qualifiers masterpiece MBDTF and possibly the most influential album of this century came out of two of the darkest moments in West’s life — his pariah period after the Taylor Swift incident and the death of his mother, respectively — it was easy for us to make the trade. We were fine with glossing over the obvious imbalances contained within the music as long as it was this good.

But that does raise the question: How comfortable should we be with listening to artists destroy themselves? And how complicit are we as listeners for telling these artists that their best work comes from the periods when they’re mentally unstable?

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