Recently there was a humorous item floating around the Internet warning anyone who had received an email something along the lines of:
"Warning: If you get sent an email containing an attachment that says it is a recording of Kanye West singing Bohemian Rhapsody, do not open it. It is Kanye West singing Bohemian Rhapsody."
On the surface I, like many, had a (more than) little chuckle at this. However when one explores the context of it, or any similar humour for that matter, at its heart it highlights the perceived assumption that one entity could exist or be regarded equally against another. Just insert the name of a current US Republican presidential candidate for example, change the context to ethical financial management or gender equality and immediately you have another variation. The heart of the humour lies in the perceived question that, on what planet would Kanye West ever be regarded as worthy to sing such a track? Except for that fact that the joke isn't about Bohemian Rhapsody at all, it's about the performance and the man, which is clearly measured against Freddie Mercury.
On any scale of measurement Bohemian Rhapsody is an iconic piece of music and a recording production tour de force. One only has to remember Freddie Mercury's Live Aid performance at Wembley in 1985. Even if you weren't a fan of Queen there wasn't a single person in the world that day who would deny they had seen something very special. Freddie's performance in 1985 is consistently voted as one of the most iconic rock performances in all of television history.
But am I right in assuming that only a truly great performer should ever sing Bohemian Rhapsody? Is the core of the humour above an inference that Kanye West is not in that category? Now wait a second, Weird Al Yankovic also sang it. People in karaoke bars the world over have belted out countless renditions of it. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey have done an admirable job, I've done it. OK, moving on now, nothing more to see here.
Now I'm really confused. You could argue, according to Kanye West's legion of die-hard fans that he actually did a reasonable job of it. Any art form is subjective in nature, I think we can agree on that and so I will leave that aspect of the discussion where it is. On a deeply personal level however, Weird Al has taken me to places Kanye West could only dream of and you can interpret that in any way you like.
So let's get down to it and be prepared for some contentious statements. At the moment Kanye West considered delivering his version of Bohemian Rhapsody he did so on the basis that he perceived his status as being more than worthy of doing such a thing and no doubt his many fans would agree, despite that consideration being in the context of a Glastonbury crowd amid the contentious backdrop of a petition and a cancelled set. That aside, I have to give him some due benefit of the doubt here.
Despite what you may think of his many 'musical genius' statements in recent times if the man considers himself worthy then he should be given the opportunity to prove it. I am not a fan of Mr West personally but we have a saying in my country: 'Hand a man a spanner and let's see what he does with it..'. Kanye West deserved no less than that. As for what occurred subsequently you can interpret that until your head hurts, but that's not really the point.
I fundamentally believe however that a large part of the reaction he did receive was less about what he perceived his status to be but more about what the changing world around him perceives. At the very heart of that is a social shift with regard to how the rest of us regard our most successful artists today. When Band Aid recorded 'Do They Know It's Christmas' in 1984, David Bowie was originally slated to deliver the opening lines but was unable to do so. Bob Geldof however sought Mr Bowie's endorsement, which took the form of a pre-recorded video message to introduce the song for first time on television. In Bob's words: 'If Bowie says it's cool, then it's cool...'.
That was then at a time when our most successful and well regarded artists were very much seen as icons, Mercury and Bowie chief amongst them and rather significantly regarded as such by even those that were not fans. Go much further back in time and consider how The Beatles were regarded, they were far bigger than icons, they were considered almost omnipotent. The reaction to Kanye West was quite unprecedented by comparison and something I cannot recall as happening to anyone else. For an artist arguably as influential in many circles as many before him, one wonders what has changed.
What has changed of course is the music industry environment. It has shifted from a single monolithic beast into a chaotic and fragmented battleground with many more participants fighting for ever decreasing slices of the pie. We now live in a world where there are no longer any contemporary icons. The key fundamental change has been in the music industry itself and it is no longer about commanding the whole pie of musical endeavour, influence or success but rather how big or small the slice will be. Contentiously I would suggest that slice is no longer big enough for anyone to achieve the status of icon. The best you will get is 'successful' or 'influential'. At worst you are a mere 'celebrity'.
Now of course it is an extremely valid argument to say that why should a few artists command such status but rather give many more the opportunity to succeed at their own level in a more democratised environment, which no doubt the Internet has created. The only issue with that of course, is that the very same environment sets the level for you, not the other way around. Further it could also be argued that the monolithic record companies of old would protect their current rosters at the exclusion of all others. Some would reinforce that argument by suggesting that if you are good enough you will succeed. The fallacy of a meritocracy being unfortunately, that while ten people will work equally as hard and be equally as talented, there is still only room for one winner.
So is where we are now a good thing? To be honest with you I am not sure. There is an argument to suggest that there is no problem with idolising anyone if they warrant it. The issue we have however is that the current fragmentation of the music industry will simply no longer allow anyone deserving to be idolised. Perhaps Kanye West should have been born in an earlier era where his efforts would be deserving of such a title. Today, he never can be and to be fair to him, that's not entirely his fault. There is also the counter argument that says that we may never see the likes of Freddie Mercury again, but the truth is the environment no longer exists where they can thrive.
Just don't click on that attachment...
Lagrange Audio is an independent blogger, suburban muso and a little bit of a synth enthusiast. Any opinions expressed by Lagrange Audio may or may not reflect current sonicstate.com editorial opinions.
With Ventris Dual Reverb, Arturia Keystep and Lab4Music Sipario