On one of the great issues of the day, Kanye West has long made his position clear: Celebrity lives matter. He’s said that famous people are “treated like blacks were in the ’60s, having no rights.” He’s railed against how it “is OK to treat celebrities like zoo animals.” He’s vowed “to raise the respect level for celebrities so that my daughter can live a more normal life.”
The rapper says his new video, for “Famous,” is “a comment on fame.” It’s basically nine minutes of night-vision camera leering over sleeping naked bodies made to uncannily resemble—ready?— Taylor Swift, Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, Amber Rose, Ray J, Kim Kardashian, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, George W. Bush, and, yes, Kanye West. Watching it, you think of leaked sex tapes and the violation they represent. You think of how celebrities are the foremost victims and beneficiaries of voyeurism. You think of how famous people are, well, people. You think of tattoos and implants and hairpieces and snoring. You think, perhaps most of all, of West’s reputation as a jackass.
It’s up for debate whether the “Famous” video successfully critiques the exploitation of celebrities, but it’s not up for debate that the video partakes in that exploitation. As others have pointed out, West has created the ultimate piece of clickbait, inspiring the online content world to immediately churn out headlines about NSFW Taylor Swift and naked Donald Trump and Chris Brown sleeping next to the pop star he beat up. So West is profiting off his and his peers’ titillation appeal while also bolstering the industry built around that appeal. If this makes for a subversion, it’s one that has the obvious potential to backfire by inspiring more celebrity-impersonator nudity. The best-case scenario would be that viewers get so creeped out by the video that they reform their gawking habits—dubious, right?
Some of the featured celebrities surely are okay with the stunt: Kardashian attended the video premiere with her husband, Rihanna sings the hook on the song, and Chris Brown has responded to it with crying-in-laughter emojis. But it’s likely that some others portrayed in the video didn’t sign off on it—most notably, in the case of West’s most headline-grabbing inclusion, Taylor Swift. West’s camp and Swift’s camp had already been fighting in the press over the song’s lyrics, which mention her dismissively. He says she approved of those lyrics before they were released; she says she didn’t. “Taylor cannot understand why Kanye West, and now Kim Kardashian, will not just leave her alone,” her publicist told GQ for a story published just this month.
After the video premiered, West tweeted then deleted, “Can someone sue me already #I’llwait.” It felt like confirmation that the video is in part a trolling attempt directed not only at the public but at the celebrities themselves. Online, you can find Photoshop jobs and fan art imagining each of these figures naked, but none of those creations have gotten the splash that West has now made. For someone like Swift, having a famous music video prominently feature mock-ups of her breasts represents, at the very least, a PR complication she did not ask for—and at the most, something much uglier. It’s hard to imagine how this jibes with West’s stated mission to advocate for respectful treatment of celebrities.
But it is easy to see how it jibes with West’s own obsessions. Toward the end of the song, after the camera has pulled wide and revealed a tableau resembling Vincent Desiderio’s painting “Sleep,” West suddenly looks up with a hint of a smile. He’s said he has an “addiction” to “the body,” and many of the filthy lyrics from his Life of Pablo album seem determined to demonstrate that even—or especially—in marriage, that addiction remains strong. One song, “Freestyle 4,” might have even been foreshadowing: He imagines himself at a Vogue party where everyone starts having sex with each other. Voyeurism might be one subject of this new clip, but it’s voyeurism that West himself seems to share in.
The credits sequence for the video thanks each of the depicted individuals “for being famous.” One implication is that celebrities don’t get a say in how they’re portrayed, fantasized about, used—their job is to be subjected to stuff like this. He’s probably right about that. But how can he complain about it now?
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