The Hairpin kindly obliges and provides a lengthy discussion of Kanye filled with variations on the mistake I noted a few days ago: assuming that any 'I' statement on Yeezus must be a reflection of Kanye West's own personal thoughts, and cannot be in any way fictive. It's odd that this mistake is made in hip-hop, where embellishment and creative narrative reconstruction are frequently deployed, and West himself has demonstrated he understands this distinction, and occasionally performs it. If there used to be two voices going on in West's songs, and one of them appears to have dropped out, it seems obvious  (to a critic) that the remaining voice must be his real one, and not a fictional creation.

One might be tempted to lay this at the feet of cultural misunderstanding or, were one more provocative, the unwillingness to believe West is capable of such creativity. The roots are deeper and more pervasive than that: the audience of music critics are a group no longer possessing the ability to understand narrative, because contemporary alternative and indie music no longer embraces narrative at all.

Think of any major indie music group since the turn of the century. How many deploy a song whose purpose, primarily or even in part, is to tell a story involving characters and events? The White Stripes, The Strokes, Interpol, Radiohead (Jody Rosen took all kinds of flack for suggesting Thom Yorke surrendered some actual songwriting ability to drone nonsense phrases, which appears to me to be a factual description of what happened), Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend--none of them do it notably, and none of them do it centrally. There was once a long and venerable tradition of this--Dylan, Springsteen, Patti Smith--but a few days of thinking have come up with no example more contemporary than "Jeremy." It's not part of the cultural lexicon, and so no one knows what to do with it.

The only two genres where lyrical narrative are considered essential are also generally considered the two most juvenile genres of music--country and hip-hop. The ability to tell a story is one of the central skills for an MC: "I Gave You Power," "I Got a Story to Tell," "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" and many, many others. But no one listening to Chuck D rapping from a first-person perspective is going to think he's narrating an actual event from his own life, nor is it his point to get you to believe that. The problem is not with the musician, it's with the listener.

Relatedly, but without much evidence, I would argue that this is connected to the decline of the short story and the rise of the pseudo-truthful essay. Short stories are all about narrative compression, having to do more with less, and are analogous to song lyrics which require the same technique. Instead, we have essays at various levels of truthiness which are nevertheless to be flatly understood as having been written by their 'authors.'

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