Sometimes pop culture seems completely prepackaged and professionalized, so when somebody steps out and puts on a display of vulnerability, trust and humility, it takes your breath away.
That’s what Chance the Rapper did Monday on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He debuted a new, untitled song, but which is about the perils of stardom – which is what you’d sing about if you were 24 and you’d blown up so big.
He begins, not completely originally, by implying a contrast between pop stardom and the actual stars spread across the universe, between celebrity success and the vastness of God.
Then he compares his own first-world problems with actual problems (“stone mattresses, thin blankets, really long winters spent in a windbreaker”). But his problems are still real, and they have to do with the strains on his intimate life. (“I’m a rich excuse for a father. You just can’t tour a toddler. She’s turning 2. She don’t need diapers, she just need a papa. … My daughter barely recognizes me when I lose the hat.”)
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The first part of the song is about how success is threatening his relationships (“I think my little cousins want their cousin back. The automatic quarterback who doesn’t rap.”). Then it changes mood with each verse. There’s his love-hate relationship with his own ambition, his ambivalence about his own complacent fans. The chorus is: “The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more. Here it comes, here it comes, ready or not.”
Sometimes that sounds like a hopeful Martin Luther King dream. Sometimes it sounds like an angry warning about final judgment.
If you watch the video from the show, you'll see Chance just sitting on a stool, with his friend Daniel Caesar on guitar and some ordinary-looking backup singers behind him. There’s no superiority here, just an artist humbly baring himself before his audience, trusting them to understand, sympathize and receive his bid for intimacy. There’s always something multilayered when people tell you a story about the ground that they have honestly walked.
It’s interesting to compare Chance’s song with Taylor Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is also about a young star coping with celebrity. The former stands out from the current cultural moment; the latter embodies it. Swift is a phenomenally talented and beautiful songwriter who has lost touch with herself and seems to have been swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era.
The video to that song, which has been watched 478 million times on YouTube so far, contains a string of references to Swift’s various public beefs – with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry and so on. If Donald Trump or his political enemies made a video about their Twitter wars, it would look like this.
The crucial lyric is “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” The world is full of snakes. The only way to survive is through combat. (“I got smarter. I got harder in the nick of time.”)
This is a song for a society without social trust. Everybody is vying for fame and dominance. Swift was a former innocent who was perpetually being turned into a victim, but she’s learned her lesson. The only way not to be a victim is to be venomous. “Look what you made me do!” she barks over and over.
It’s interesting how corporate the video looks and the song sounds. It’s been a long time since the Sex Pistols burst on the scene. The music business has become pretty good at feeding its audience’s teenage angst with fantasy anger.
Swift had defied the normal ingénue-to-sex-temptress career trajectory of Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, but now she’s fitting right in. Spears released a similar song a decade ago called “Piece of Me,” which didn’t take itself so seriously.
The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.
A person has a soul, which is what Chance is worrying about. A brand has a reputation, which is the title of Swift’s next album. A person has private dignity. A brand is a creation for an audience. “I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,” is how Swift puts it.
The second thing you notice is the difference between sincerity and authenticity. In Lionel Trilling’s old distinction, sincerity is what you shoot for in a trusting society. You try to live honestly and straightforwardly into your social roles and relationships. Authenticity is what you shoot for in a distrustful society. You try to liberate your own personality by rebelling against the world around you, by aggressively fighting against the society you find so vicious and corrupt.
Back in the 1950s, sincerity seemed treacly and boring, and authenticity, in the form of, say, Johnny Cash, seemed daring and new. But now rebellious authenticity is the familiar corporate success formula, and sincerity, like Chance the Rapper’s, is practically revolutionary.
The New York Times