Not since John met Yoko has an artistic collaboration been greeted with as much disapproval as the collaboration between Paul McCartney and Kanye West. And the same people who disapproved 47 years ago are disapproving now.
Reaction in social media revealed disappointment in McCartney’s decision to work with West and, more significantly, demonstrated how first generation Beatle fans, boomers all, somehow see themselves as guardians of the Beatle legacy. Paul has worked with many artists post-Beatles, but none were perceived as legacy-busting.
A few said things like, “Kudos to Paul for not resting on his laurels and wanting to expand his artistic horizons,” but many more were critical. One said the collaboration proves he’s “jumped the shark;” one even raised the possibility of early dementia. The song itself was somewhat beside the point; it was the collaboration itself that triggered the brouhaha.
As the author of Beatleness, a study of Beatle fandom, I found the reaction interesting. As a fan, I wasn’t sure what to make of the collaboration. Like many of the naysayers, I knew only four things about Kanye West: He accused President Bush of not caring about black people after Hurricane Katrina (not an unreasonable proposition, all things considered), he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 Grammys (for which President Obama called him a “jackass”), and he’s married to a woman who epitomizes modern celebrity. Not surprising, then, that the self-appointed protectors of the legacy would deem Kanye — “the blowhard,” “the narcissist,” “the lightweight” — not worthy of Sir Paul’s attention. And while racism is not tolerated in the Beatle fan community, some of the comments, though veiled in dislike of Kanye’s genre, did seem to have that aroma.
Interesting, too, is how smug Beatle fans — myself included, I admit — were quick to believe that Kanye’s fans didn’t know who Paul McCartney was and to decry millennials’ lack of cultural literacy. But shouldn’t cultural literacy be a generational two-way street? It seems to me that any Beatle fan opining about the collaboration and Paul’s legacy should know more about Kanye than what they’ve picked up from tabloid headlines. So, coming out from under my rock, I’ve been learning about Kanye West.
Like someone under 50 deciding it’s time to really take a close listen to the Beatles because they’re considered great by another generation, I’ve embarked on a sort of Kanye West tutorial, exploring the body of work of an engaging artist with compelling sounds who has evolved throughout his career. Because it’s much harder to approach the Beatles with virgin ears than it is Kanye, I started with zero familiarity, meandering through tracks and albums, checking the dates to piece together the chronology. And, like newbie Beatle fans, I’m hearing beautiful melodies, intriguing instrumentation, and clever, insightful words. And I’m watching interviews to get to…