Saturday, May 12, 2018

Aesthetic Refugee

It used to be that the term "refugee" was limited to those persons fleeing an actual war-zone. Then it was extended to those escaping religious persecution. Other kinds of persecution, such as for being homosexual, were added. Now we seem to be including economic refugees. I want to make the claim of being an aesthetic refugee. Yes, it's true, I am fleeing the horrid cacophony of bad music, which pursues me wherever I go in public. For years I have railed against bad music and have even found entire genres, like "grindcore," to be completely devoid of any aesthetic value. I have said a lot of bad things about rap and hip-hop as well and found the accompanying videos to be an aesthetic horror. But the corollary of the claim that 90% of everything is crap, is that 10% might be good. Well, it has finally happened, I have come across a piece of hip-hop that is really interesting aesthetically! Believe me, no-one is more surprised than me. But I think that part of that whole aesthetic evaluation thing I keep talking about, is that you do need to be objective.

So here we go, I present to you a piece by Kanye West. In the past I have not had anything good to say about his music and that was based on just a few, haphazard listenings so I hasten to apologize. The other day I stumbled across something that made me completely re-evaluate his work. The piece, from his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is titled "Runaway" and I want to present three different versions of it. First of all, the one with the cleaned up lyrics:

In some ways I like the mix the best in this version. Next the "explicit" version so you can hear what he is actually singing:

The odd thing about that version is that the ambient sounds of footsteps are muted, but you can hear the words blurred out in the other version. The best version is the segment found in the full length film, thirty-four minutes long, that has an extended ending with more solos of the dancers.

There are a lot of things I find both remarkable and aesthetically compelling about this work (I mean the song "Runaway," not the whole film, which has lots of CGI). It is refreshingly minimal in that it uses no special effects, no computer generated imagery and no jump-cuts. All the shots are long and have much more weight because of it. The setting is as natural as could be: an empty warehouse with a plain cement floor, just the kind of place this sort of thing would be rehearsed in. All the emphasis is on the music and the dance. Honestly, how many hip-hop videos do you know that feature twenty or so Russian ballerinas? And nothing else except Kanye? The music itself I find particularly compelling. The stark piano at the beginning unites the whole piece. The long end with what sounds like sampled cellos reminds me very strongly of a Baroque passacaglia in its remorseful inevitability. As for the lyrics themselves, I find them particularly striking, not the least for the sarcasm of "Let's have a toast for the douchebags, let's have a toast for the assholes..." and so on. Yes, let's for there are lots of them around.

Remarkable guy, Kanye West. I'm afraid I was completely mislead by his celebrity status and the random hearing of one or two songs that did not impress me. But "Runaway" is a whole other ball game. This is a very impressive piece and I hope you come to enjoy it as well.

But I still hate EDM!


Marc said...

'You're letting your reflexive support for Mr Trump overcome your aversion to Kanye's music.' I haven't listened to the song, I hasten to add, am merely anticipating a potential line of criticism. :-)

Will listen to the West song, since you've praised it. But at the moment I'm trying to get my head around the 'barbershop quartet' at the beginning of Antoni Soler's Magnificat

Bryan Townsend said...

No kidding that Soler opening is strikingly barbershoppy!

We don't actually talk about Trump here as he really doesn't intersect with music much. I did have a look at Kanye West out of curiosity after the Twitter storm recently, but I was mostly prepared to dislike his music as much as the last time I listened to it. But "Runaway" is really nothing much like most hip-hop. I am looking forward to your comments.

Marc said...

I regret not having been back since... the 12th, tsk.

Watched the video, and listened to the two versions of the song, and re-watched the nine minute one just now. While nothing seemed peculiarly awful, apart from the fact that I can now say I've listened to almost an hour of Kanye's work am just not feeling the love; don't get the point of the dancers, the ballerinas, nor do I get the whole Phoenix/Kanye-centered plot, unless we are simply meant to understand that Kanye thinks seriously about serious subjects. But since am so clueless about these things, I did read the Wikipedia pages about West (whose creative genius does also include, so it seems to me, an incredibly sure instinct for self-promotion) and, of more interest, about hip hop; it's a vaguely unsettling experience to realise that an entire musical genre, of which I'm fundamentally ignorant, has developed during my lifetime. But there are a heck of a lot of things I'm 'fundamentally ignorant' of, and I suspect that this isn't going to impel me to spend hours upon hours listening to hip hop in order to relieve my ignorance.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc, for giving it a listen. I'm not sure I get the point of any of it either, but I like that stark piano line and I like the dancing. And I guess I like the idea of putting them together. But that's about it. I am somewhat happy that I have some tiny exposure to, as you say, this entire musical genre that has been developing over the last twenty or thirty years.