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Kanye Being Kanye

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So Kanye pulled another boner at the VMAs.

If you've been living under a rock, he borrowed the mic from Taylor Swift during her VMA acceptance speech and offered an impromptu tribute to Beyonce.

I think a lot of people from outside the hip-hop world see Kanye West as an impudent superstar. A bratty kid who's had everything handed to him and just wants everything to go his way. And I think there's truth in that. He certainly seems like he has a hard time putting the significance of MTV awards in their relative place, to begin with.

I don't want to defend what Kanye did. It was a real dick move. And it was made worse by the fact that Taylor Swift is a very legit artist and a very young woman. And she's dead right that she was striking a remarkable blow for country music, which clearly means nothing to Kanye West. Awful, I agree.

That said, there's something in the tone of the anti-Kanye sentiment that always strikes me as wrong-headed.

Kanye West really is a groundbreaking artist, and he has had as hard a road to the top of the music industry as anyone in hip-hop. This is a guy who literally spent ten years trying to get signed as a rapper -- in an industry where you're pretty much done if you haven't been signed by 21. He learned how to make beats, and became one of the top five producers in hip-hop, producing monstrous hits for Jay-Z and others, and he still couldn't get a record deal. Even Jay-Z admits that when he and Dame Dash signed Kanye to Roc-a-Fella, it was because they knew that he would take his beats elsewhere if they didn't. It was like that time the Rangers let Jose Canseco pitch.

Only when Jose Canseco pitched, he hurt his arm and looked like an asshole. When Kanye rapped, he changed the industry.

Kanye was an artist on Roc-A-Fella, a label that had its finger on the pulse of hip-hop music, and was signing (great) MCs like Freeway and Beanie Siegel and Camron and even M.O.P. who were grittier than gritty. Meanwhile, Kanye is wearing Polo and a backpack and writing lyrics that sound more like De La Soul than Kool G Rap. The odds were not on Kanye's side.

In fact, even after Roc-A-Fella signed Kanye as an MC, they figured they could let his career die on the vine from benign neglect. Kanye talked Talib Kweli into giving him an opening spot on Kweli's tour, and then West put out a mixtape on his own dime. Then Kanye got in a car accident and nearly died. When he was in recovery, he recorded a song about the accident while his jaw was wired shut. The Roc didn't want to give him any support, so he made his own video, with his own money, for a song that he didn't have the money to clear the sample for, and that song became a hit.

Since his first album blew up (on merit), Kanye has been absolutely dogged in his pursuit of the next artistic plateau. Some of his efforts have been more successful than others (I wasn't that into "808s and Heartbreak"), but he's never rested on his laurels. And he's also always regarded video as not just a compliment to his work, but an essential part of it. He's hired people with singular visions like Michel Gondry and Zach Galifianakis to make videos with and for him, and he's himself conceived of some of the most artistically ambitious videos ever made by a hip-hop artist. Before Kanye, this was essentially not done by a mainstream rapper.

Throughout all of this, West has occasionally had a bizarre and unpalatable outburst like this. But what's fascinating to me about his outbursts is that they're always about merit. Wrong or right, he seems to care so passionately about popular art that he can't help but speak out. There were times when it was about him thinking he should have won, but there was also this time -- when he thought Beyonce deserved credit. Or the time Kanye won and promptly handed his award to one of the few hip-hop artists who've matched his creativity and fearlessness, Outkast. Not as a tribute, but because he thought they had earned it more than him.

After I wrote a few notes about the events on twitter, I got a lot of feedback. Mostly negative. And largely reasonable. So I want to clarify.

It was a horrible thing to do to steal attention from Taylor Swift. It was f*cked up, even. Seems like Kanye knows that.

I think these outbursts are manifestations of the same pig-headed passion that drove Kanye to insist he could rap for all those years. The same passion that made him abandon the soul samples after they made him the hottest producer in hip-hop. The same passion that led him to let Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham dress up in weird farmer outfits and make him a video on a farm.

My friend Tom Scharpling wrote on twitter "I love him, but at this point the guy is a bully who needs to get punched in the stomach by a nerd high school-style."

And I don't know if I disagree.

But I think Kanye's flaw isn't his enormous ego. He's never been afraid to give credit to others, and he's never claimed, for example, to be the greatest MC (he's not), despite a hip-hop culture that encourages such claims (and a broader culture that takes them too literally).

I think this is the problem: Kanye doesn't understand that despite the fact that he is still the same guy, the same passionate, music-loving, speak-until-someone-listens scrapper, the change in the context in which he lives has changed who he is in a very real way. He's confusing signifier and signified. He's not the nerd anymore, he's the bully. When he stands up for what he believes in, he's not sticking it to the man, he's stepping on the little guy.

So I agree with Amy Malkoff, who tweeted to me that he seems to lack foresight or understanding of what his antics do to others. And I agree with Tom Scharpling when he writes, "Then he should start his own awards show. Oh, and WHY DO I CARE ABOUT THIS? THE MTV AWARDS ARE NOT REAL AWARDS!"

I hope Kanye can grow as a man, and think about who he is now, and what he means now. For himself, and for all the people who he inspired to be themselves and create art that expresses their experience rather than to play a role someone else wrote for them.

And I hope he never stops caring. Because his art is too important.

Also: that Beyonce video was amazing.

Also also: "Pyoo! Pyoo! Pyoo!" = line of the year

Also also also: I wrote this in one go without even re-reading it, so my apologies. Now that you made the mistake of reading it.

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The New Yorker: Fiction"

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When we think of short stories, we think of two settings. The first is junior high English class, in which we endured period after tedious period forced to decipher layer upon alleged layer of symbol and metaphor. What does the key mean? Uh... What does it mean when the wife raises the blinds? Er... What point is the author making by having the protagonist squint knowingly into the sunlight? Urm... Given state-mandated years of that treatment, it's no wonder that even some literarily-minded students come up hating the things and the entire canon they form.

The second setting, the New Yorker, remains — at least to your Podthinker's mind — perhaps the last mainstream provider of a steady stream of short-form fiction. This may just be the bias talking, but doesn't the medium of podcasting constitute a pretty promising lifeline for the long-suffering short story as well? After all, people seem to enjoy hearing august personages read things out loud, and podcasting has become the most accesible means to distribute such experiences. These people specifically seem to like hearing stories, of which the magazine has direct access to an enormous archive containing some of the 20th century's finest, most important examples of the form. And as far as august personages go, hey, it's the New Yorker, the (usually) nonlethal bug zapper of the august personage.

Needless to say, then, that the intersection of the New Yorker's fiction section and podcasting [iTunes] [XML] merits a serious listen. Those listening for nothing more than a quality-controlled feed of brief audio fictions could hardly do better than this (though it must be said that they should prepare themselves for a once-a-month drip feed). The mix includes well-known classics along with oddball entries from the back pages and newish, relatively cutting-edge material as well. Think John Cheever [MP3] alongside Veronica Geng [MP3] alongside Max Fun favorite George Saunders [MP3].

But there's a bonus! Reading these high-stature authors are not hourly-rate "voice talent" but other high-stature authors like Tobias Wolff [MP3], Joyce Carol Oates [MP3] and Jonathan Lethem [MP3]. Not only does each author read the story of their choice, they discuss it before and after with the host of the day, and not in an crammng-for-the-in-class-essay-on-the-key-blinds-and-squint-symbolism way, either. Being writers of fiction themselves, they know well just how much and exactly in what way one can discuss a story before seeming ridiculous. And above all, they realize to a person that pure enthusiasm for the piece of work, not brute decoding power applied to it, matters most.

The New Yorker's fiction podcast, like the New Yorker itself, whips up a reliably solid serving of content on a regular basis; time spent with what they put out never feels like time wasted. A thin release schedule and distinct lack of experiment and surprise may be the price one pays for those advantages, but this project still explores a rich possibility in podcasting, and if the New Yorker doesn't quite want to push its boundaries, at least it very professionally lights the way for other podcasters to do so. Beats diagramming sentences.

Vital stats:
Format: short story read-aloud, plus discussion
Running since: May 2007
Duration: 10m-40m
Frequency: monthly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions or threats for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Jay-Z f. Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind

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Fantastic performance of one of my favorite songs on a record I really like.

Can't touch this, though.

The Sound of Young America Live! Live! on the web!

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So excited to announce that The Sound of Young America Live! program in New York will be streaming live on the web!

Our show, which features Andrew WK, Scott Adsit, Rik Cordero, Nellie McKay and Kumail Nanjiani is sold out, but you can catch the live webstream at wnyc.org or thegreenespace.org.

Watch! Tell a friend! Tweet it on Friday! Yeah! Woo! Exciting!

Put This On on Twitter

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You may have heard that Adam Lisagor (Lonely Sandwich of You Look Nice Today) and I are working on a web series about men's style called "Put This On." We hope it'll appeal both to people who already love men's style, and to those who are just ready to dress like a grownup.

We're launching the website soon, but in the meantime, we're tweeting @PutThisOn, so subscribe now. We start working on the pilot at the end of the month!

Kevin Allison of The State and RISK! Show: The Text Of Young America

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Kevin Allison is a comedy writer/performer best known for his role as a member of The State. In August, Allison launched his new project RISK! A weekly live storytelling event described as “the Moth, only edgier.” And later this month (September) there will be a podcast version of the show on Breakthru Radio and iTunes. Allison spoke to me about taking a chance, putting it all out there, and bringing people together.

Chris Bowman: It’s been a pretty big summer for you. First, after much anticipation, The State was released on DVD, and now RISK! How long have you been planning this project?

Kevin Allison: Gosh, you know. It’s so funny. I did a show last November called F*** Up. It was five characters and each one told a story. That’s what I’ve been doing for years and years whenever I perform as a solo artist. I’ve done a few one-man shows, and you know what? I think it was just getting really old. I hadn’t realized I was yearning to do something different. So F*** Up was characters all based on me, different aspects of my personality. And I found myself really struggling to connect with the audience. I was playing it too big, then I tried to play it down but I just felt like I wasn’t quite connecting. Then I did it in San Francisco at SF Sketchfest, and a lot of the guys from The State were there and again I felt like “Gosh, this isn’t quite working for me.” I was walking away from the show with Michael Ian Black and I said, “Well, what do you think?” (Laughs) Because he could tell that I wasn’t too thrilled with how the show had gone. He said, “You know, I really feel like you just want to speak as yourself to the audience.” And I was like, “You’re absolutely right.” I’d wanted to do that for a long time. So within weeks I just started going up places, telling my own stories and immediately the connection was palpable. I was getting big reactions and people were approaching me after saying, “Gosh, I just loved that.” But I was on to something. This story telling thing is booming in New York right now. And I noticed something. Anytime someone would go out on a limb, where they were revealing something a little bit more serious and profound than you’d see at your normal comedy show the audience would respond that much more. The audience was like, “I appreciate that you’re laying it all out there with this one.” And so I thought well why don’t I just put a show together where that’s the entire theme. Tell personal stories and in some way or another try to push yourself to do something on stage that you’ve never quite done before.

For more from Kevin Allsion and why stories of misfortune can be good for you, click Read More

RIP Larry Gelbart

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A true genius of comedy.

Kasper Hauser: Wedding Emergencies Unit Two

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Guests: 
Kasper Hauser

Kasper Hauser guide you through solutions to two wedding crises: Drunk Priest and Forgotten Rings.

Gary Hustwit, Director of the Design Documentary "Objectified": Interview on The Sound of Young America

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Show: 
Bullseye
Guests: 
Gary Hustwit

Gary Hustwit is a documentary filmmaker. His first film, "Helvetica," focused on the history of the iconic font. His newest, "Objectified," is about the process of consumer design. It's currently touring theaters, and will run on PBS this fall.

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Hitler Gets Rejected From College

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I remember this day well. I mean... when it happened to me, not Hitler.

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