The technical definition of “Millennial” depends on who’s technically defining it, but rare are the generational experts who would say the 38-year-old Kanye West deserves the label that usually applies to people born sometime after 1980. Do you think he cares? Eleven minutes into West accepting the Video Vanguard Award at Sunday night’s VMAs, he placed himself into the same cohort as Justin Bieber: “We are Millennials, bro. This is a new—this is a new mentality.”
The “we” appears to be any and all artists who don’t censor themselves at awards shows; the “bro” is, despite appearances, a gender-neutral everylistener, the 2015 version of Charlotte Brontë’s “reader.” As for what he means, exactly, by Millennial, the opening line to Pew’s 2010 survey on the matter is instructional: “Generations, like people, have personalities, and Millennials … have begun to forge theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change.”
It’s all too easy to line up West’s attributes with those listed above. He’s not just confident; he says he’s a god. He’s not just self-expressive; he receives lifetime achievement awards in self-expression. Liberal? Ask George W. Bush about what he thinks was the worst moment of his presidency. Upbeat? Well, despite his distaste for smiling, West was giggling and dancing in Miley Cyrus’s audience. And as far as open to change—just compare his outfit at the 2008 American Music Awards to the one he wore on Sunday.
West’s kinship with artists who are more traditionally thought of as Millennials is also easy to see. In hip-hop, he’s credited with allowing for a new kind of authenticity—emotionally vulnerable, swaggering but not necessarily street—and on VMAs night, younger emcees like Big Sean and Vic Mensa were seen expressing their gratitude for him; Chance the Rapper tweeted, “Kanye West taught me to be fearless.” Outside of rap, he’s been an influence too. To pick one example from MTV’s stage: Taylor Swift’s vertically integrated brand management owes something to West’s total image control, as does the way she politicizes her personal life, claiming her friends as feminist symbols much as he talks about his marriage as a symbol of racial progress.
And, crucially, like Millennials in many a survey, West is both upbeat about his personal potential even as he’s open-eyed about structural obstacles facing both his progress and humanity’s. Technology and a mysteriously rooted sense of competence have instilled a can-do attitude that doesn’t quite jibe with other peoples’ perception of reality; of course he can conquer the fashion industry in spite of establishment skepticism toward him and his lack of experience, just like of course kids now are optimistic about the future despite living paycheck to paycheck.
Best of all, West asserting himself as a Millennial messes with some of the rhetoric surrounding generational labels—the one-size-fits-all condemnations and celebrations of a hugely diverse group of people who have little in common other than age. Earlier this year, in an Aeon magazine article called “Against Generations,” Rebecca Onion wrote that “Overly schematized and ridiculously reductive, generation theory is a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history. It encourages us to focus on vague ‘generational personalities,’ rather than looking at the confusing diversity of social life.” In unmooring personality from age bracket, West asks us to see Millennial as a state of mind, one that some young people subscribe to and some people don’t. Listen to the kids, bro, no matter when they were born.
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