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The fault in our bipolar stars

 Kanye West for President.

No, wait – I’m sorry – that wasn’t an endorsement, I was just reading aloud, shaking my head and rummaging around the kitchen for more bourbon.

If you’re in Pennsylvania, you don’t need to worry because he won’t be on the ballot. But let’s be clear: if you do, for any reason, feel compelled to throw your vote away in an entirely invisible gesture that seems to say, “I don’t believe things could get any worse than they are right now, so let’s dance!” know that you can always write-in a vote for West, or his wife Kim, or their daughter North

Short aside: While I condemn Kanye and Kim for imposing their dipshit reality-show-gone-awry cooties on their progeny, a not-small part of me is absolutely salivating at the prospect of an autobiography from their first born someday. It would be called North by North West, and she would have no idea why that’s funny.

I am not a rap fan, which will not surprise anyone. Although I knew his name, I first became aware of Kanye West in 2009 when he stormed the stage at the MTV Music Video Awards and ripped the microphone from Taylor Swift’s 19-year-old hands, telling the world that Beyoncé was the real winner. Taylor was  a literal princess of country music beginning her now-legendary crossover into pop superstardom. She was among the most talented singer-songwriters in the building, and among the least controversial figures on the planet. And Kanye thought it was a good idea to run up, uninvited, and ruin her night.


Then-President Barack Obama called him a “jackass,” which is just objective truth. Beyoncé, when she was awarded for Video of the Year later in the show, brought TSwift back onstage to finish her so-rudely-interrupted acceptance speech. 

Now, to be fair, he was a jackass before we all knew he had an actual diagnosis of bipolar disorder. After going public with that information, together with the admission that he disapproved of medication for the illness, he has become an unlikely poster child for mental health awareness. Specifically, people are now aware that he is in poor mental health. 

Once a vocal Donald Trump supporter, Ye (I swear, that’s what he likes to be called, look it up!) mounted a bid to run for the nation’s highest office earlier this year and thus far has gotten on the ballot in a handful of states. He has been rejected from being added in several more, and simply neglected to apply to be on the ballot in the rest. If this sounds random, ill-conceived and poorly executed, well, this is Kanye West we are talking about. 

Said another way, this is the guy who, upon declaring his candidacy:

  • Dissed Harriet Tubman, saying she didn’t help free any slaves, she just got them working for different white people.
  • Mused (via Twitter) about getting divorced and claimed his wife Kim was trying to lock him up.
  • Proposed financial incentives to motivate women not to access legal abortions (“Everybody that has a baby gets a million dollars.”)
  • Threatened to stop doing business with Adidas and Gap if he is not appointed to the boards of those companies.

His most recent tirades prompted his wife to appeal to fans and others alike, saying in part, “He is a brilliant but complicated person who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, and has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder.” 

Well you have to admit that is a lot to take in. If you want to call Kanye a jackass, a clown, a deluded narcissist, or anything other than “challenged,” you need to agree to disregard:

  • His race;
  • His chosen profession as a musician, composer and producer; 
  • His personal and family grief; and
  • His mental illness.

Fair enough, let’s get out the graph paper and check these bad boys out, one at a time.

Race: Kanye West is black. He is a wildly popular and financially successful black American during a moment of unprecedented and growing mainstream awareness of the societal injustices leveled at black Americans since the beginning of time. It would be inappropriate to say these struggles do not apply to him; his success has come in spite of the hurdles he and others faced. But he has overcome these obstacles and prevailed, achieving a top 0.10% degree of success in the constructs that exist for everyone, imperfect as they may be. 

Summary: He gets credit for doing everything he’s done. And while he doesn’t have to wield his success and influence in any particular way, he doesn’t get to escape comment and criticism because he’s a black public figure versus a public figure.

Verdict: Busted.

***

His status as an artist: Art is subjective and uniquely valued in the eye and ear of the consumer. I don’t like rap as a musical genre and I don’t listen to Kanye West. That doesn’t mean I bear ill will toward him based on his music; I don’t know his music. If he has achieved material success then clearly there are plenty of people who do support his artistic vision and voice. Even if he was busking on the streets of Chicago, his music would be unique and unassailable: either you like it, or you don’t. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, art is art. But when you leverage the stage you have ascended based on your art and begin advocating politics and policy – the recording artist’s version of the bully pulpit – you lose your right to claim artistic license. 

Summary: You may be an artist, but that’s not art.

Verdict: Busted.

***


His personal grief
: Kanye West’s mother passed away in 2007, from complications following cosmetic surgery including liposuction and breast reduction. Kanye was 30 years old at the time. My own father passed suddenly and unexpectedly when I was only 25, leaving me with a trunkful of unresolved issues and regrets. So I get it. 

Summary: Loss is hard, but as adults we are called upon to march on and, more important, to do everything in our power to consider these lessons as we parent our own children. The last time I screwed up something important at work (last week, if anyone's interested), it did not occur to me to play the “dead parent” card. 

Verdict: Busted.

***

And finally, his mental illness: This is the real question, isn’t it? I mean, he didn’t choose to be bipolar. The nature of the disease is widely known, the severity somewhat less so. People who suffer from the disorder experience manic highs that can include out-of-control spending, demonstrative outbursts, legendary binges and hyper-promiscuity. Fortunately for Kanye West, these highs can also include explosive creativity that can, in turn, propel a career. On the flip side, sufferers can experience debilitating lows, posing real threats to their families, careers and even their lives.

When Kanye came out of the closet about his illness he staunchly rejected medication, saying the effects of the meds made him different and, in doing so, removed his ability to be an artist – to be true to his vision. Many in the medical field, along with artists similarly afflicted, contradicted this position, citing myriad examples of medication controlling the disease without gutting the artist.

Ultimately, it’s not for me to weigh in on this. I tend to agree with the medical establishment, but who knows? I’ve seen poorly administered psych medication negatively impact people close to me, I know how one bad experience can color your perception and fuel your bias against trying again. His reality is his reality.


But ultimately, saying no to medical intervention – unlike the affliction itself – is a choice. Kanye has complained widely, to the press, to President Trump, to David Letterman, that he is treated unfairly and persecuted because of his illness. He has lobbied for awareness and acceptance of creative souls who are true to their imperfect, un-medicated selves. In his chat with Letterman, West said, “If you want these crazy ideas and these crazy stages, this crazy music and this crazy way of thinking there’s a chance it might come from a crazy person.” 

Fair enough. History is littered with tortured artists. Van Gogh famously cut off his ear, although it was not for love as is often believed. He attributed the act only to “madness” following the announced departure of his friend and colleague, Paul Gauguin, from Paris. The “love” came into play when Vincent “took the ear and wrapped it in newspaper.” He then put a hat on over the damaged ear and went to “a brothel close to the house. There he asked for a [prostitute] named Rachel who he gave the ear to saying ‘Guard this object carefully,’” according to the Van Gogh Gallery

And to be fair, if Kanye had leapt onto the stage at the VMAs, presenting teenage Taylor Swift with his dismembered ear, saying, “This is what I think of your music!” I’m pretty sure the book would have been closed on old Ye pretty damn quick. That would have been the end of his career – or would it? Maybe the outburst would have mobilized enough people closest to him that he would have gotten support in seeking a cocktail to help contain his demons. 

Maybe, maybe not. Of paramount importance, West uses his success and notoriety not to elevate awareness of bipolar disorder and the many people who struggle in its grasp; rather, he uses his bipolar disorder as a crutch to excuse his lack of judgment, lack of impulse control, lack of empathy. He uses it, and his stubborn resistance to accepting help, as a weapon against – first and foremost – his family, and so many others who attract his critical eye. 

Summary: Kanye was born with an illness that has somehow contributed to his fame and success. He assumes this success is cosmic confirmation of his uniqueness and therefore license to lumber through both life and social media unchecked. And he’s right, there’s no law saying he has to risk dumbing down his creative spark to mollify anyone. That said, this path typically leads toward ruin and occasionally martyrdom. 

Maybe that’s a choice, a professional decision. After all, Elvis has been dead for decades and his fame (and record sales) continue unabated. 

But somehow I don’t think so. I think President Kanye would do well to see the big picture, and soon: before he comes upon his own personal Starry Night. 


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