Daniel Simon watched the VMA’s start to finish. But unlike most of the rest of the Internet, he wants to talk about Kanye.
I have been told for years that I am a music snob. I am a musician who was raised on Miles Davis, John Coltrane, The Beatles, Rush, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead and Phish (to name a few). Hip Hop has also been a huge influence. I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio and in clubs, including as a DJ. To me, the common interest in the artists that made an impact on me was that they were expressing themselves in the only way that they knew how, no matter what kind of rules they were breaking, socially and musically.
At the same time, I am interested in whatever is doing well on the charts. How could you not be interested in something that millions of people all over the world will change their lives for? People in every country are constantly fighting with their parents and being influenced every day (whether they know it or not) by the music that they listen to. It’s unbelievable how many lives that artists touch. The truth is that I love not just the music but the music business as well. I cannot listen to something new without dissecting it piece by piece. What is the method? How is the production? What is the composition, message, marketing and media target, etc?
So, in an effort to “plug in” to mainstream music, I watched the VMA’s from start to finish.
Yes, I saw Miley Cyrus’ performance, but I don’t want to talk about it. It’s true that I am troubled everyday about my young sons and the path that they will take in life. I know how much some artists influenced me. As a result, I feel like I can only try to do things differently than my parents did, so that my kids feel like it is ok to ask me a question about life, instead of learning it from an idiot on TV. I am supposed to be their role model, right?
Instead I want to talk about Kanye. As a fan of Hip Hop, when I heard Jared Leto announce Kanye, I genuinely got excited. This was something that was for me. Then Jared Leto said that Kanye was the Michael Jordan of music, a title that Kanye has deemed for himself. Okay. Fine. I can see that I guess. The guy has crazy producing chops and a great ear. He’s talented. But I don’t understand any of his choices in this performance.
My first reaction was to the Nina Simone sample, which was a cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. All of this material is heavy with commentary on racism, slavery and the rise in the number of lynchings in the United States. It is hard for me to understand how anyone could sample and transform a song with such strong, original meaning. As a result, as the performance continued, I expected him to launch into a verse at any minute, losing the Auto-tune and building a real song. Not only did this never happen, but he stuck with Auto-tune for the entire song. A move like that takes some stones. To call yourself the Michael Jordan of music and then speak through a Vocoder for an entire song is just ballsy. It seems to me that one would want to display their musical talent after giving themselves that name.
But more than lacking a sense of irony, the performance was offensive. The man was spitting on the graves of Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, in the face of Al Green and all of the other amazing black musicians that came before his time. Not to mention Nina Simone and Billy Holiday! How can a person perform a song about racism, slavery, and lynchings, and then use a Vocoder to try and sing? As a recording artist and as a fan of music in general, I was offended. As a musician I was horrified. There’s been plenty of talk about how Miley Cyrus’ performance objectified black women, but in some ways, Kanye’s performance was just as offensive.
I believe that true art must be genuine. When I played in a live Hip Hop band for close to seven years performing in and around NYC, the rappers in my group or that I worked with in my studio had to be actually doing the things that they wanted to rap about. If not, I became disinterested and the project would fall by the wayside. I am sure that this was harmful for my career in the industry. But it’s not an unreasonable position.
When Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” it was an expression of pain. When Nina Simone sings “Since I Fell For You”, you can’t help but feel sad or love sick. But I can’t help wondering what we’re supposed to feel or think when Kanye “sings” a song through Auto-tune. I need to understand why he chose to cheat on music for an entire song. It’s true that most Top-40 songs avoid difficult subjects, but they can still express emotion.
Maybe I’m old, but as I watched Kanye, I thought about other, better songs: “Sexual Healing”, by Marvin Gaye, “So What”, by Miles Davis, “Giant Steps”, by John Coltrane, “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. And, of course, “Strange Fruit”, with Nina Simone or Billie Holiday.
I even thought of “Man in The Mirror”, which is both catchy and expressive. Where are you when we need you, Michael Jackson?