A brief discourse on “effigies”

I had meant to make this post after last Friday’s class, but I was a fool and forgot about it before the weekend began.

The idea of a celebrity as an effigy, a totem or avatar without a deep, intricate personality, is not something revolutionary in our society, as we passively and impartially observe the lives of famous people rise like phoenixes and fall like dominoes; Roach says as much in his novel: “Performers are routinely pressed into service as effigies, their bodies alternately adored and despised but always offered up on the altar of surrogacy” (41). I feel that this schizophrenic state of adoration and alienation is one of the key driving forces in the culture that surrounds the celebrity identity, as they must make sure to be ever-appeasing, lest they incur the wrath of the paparazzi and the general public. I find no better contemporary example of this than the musician, entrepreneur, public figure of Kanye West.

Lampooned by everything from South Park to 30 Rock to Jimmy Fallon, West has built a reputation as a bombastic entertainment figure with a penchant for public fights and outbursts about how great he is as a musical genius; his arrogance is the key to his personality, as even among the rapper community he stands above the rest in that regard. However, West is very personal in his lyricism, as he writes songs lamenting his alienation form his friends, family, and the public in light of his successes, declaring in “Pinocchio Story,” “Do you really have the stamina for everyone who sees you to say, ‘Where’s my camera?’ For everyone who meets you to say, ‘Sign my autograph!’ For everyone who sees you crying to say, ‘You ought a laugh.'” His lyrics also speak to social commentary, opening ‘Jesus Walks’ with the phrase, “We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism, but, most of all, we at war with ourselves.” Yet West is still known primarily for his uncontrolled outbursts of emotion and self-aggrandizement.

Despite his intents, he is not taken as seriously as he should be, and this can best be observed in the now infamous declaration he made while helping to raise money to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. While standing beside Mike Meyers, West spoke personally about his reaction to the news coming out of New Orleans in Katrina’s wake, the portrayal of black citizens just trying to survive as “looters,” and the free reign given to the armed forces to shoot anyone deemed “dangerous,” before avowing, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” In this instance, West is pointing out verifiable issues of status and inequality in American society, but all anyone knows from the event is the soundbite at the end, as West firmly places his foot into his mouth. And for this he has been both adored and despised but the American public, making himself into an effigy of uncontrolled emotion and poor judgement. Not as a man working to bring important issues to light, but simply a petulant fool with poor judgement. Yet in this regard, he is still an effigy, and he is still pressed into that role as a performer, going through the motions to maintain the clout that he does have at this time.

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