Kelefa Sanneh (left) Kanye West
There is something a little eerie about Kelefa Sanneh’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times. It’s called Kanye West’s Argument With Himself and it notes a tension in Mr. West’s current work:
But since Mr. West excels at both rhyming and composing, watching him in the studio is like watching a man have a long discussion – sometimes an argument – with himself.
The eerie part is that this essay is accompanied by what the Times calls an "audio slide show" in which Mr. Sanneh gives a voice-over account of the same subject matter.
Sanneh and West are, both of them, mixing their media. Actually, it’s a meta mixing of the media: one mixing to illuminate how the other mixes.
To be sure, there is a simultaneity and a complementarity to West’s work that Sanneh does not have or need. (We cannot hear West’s music without his lyrics. We can read Sanneh’s article without looking at the slide show.)
Indeed, while Sanneh and West appear to engage in roughly similar projects, there is no evidence of "discussion" and/or the "argument" in Sanneh’s case.
This won’t last long. Let’s review.
1) I am prepared to bet a tidy sum that Sanneh wrote his essay and then, at the prompting of the Times, he banged off the audio slide show.
2) It’s clear that the Times is desparate for on-line content for which it can charge. So the motive here is clear. Left to its own devices, I expect, the Times would continue to ignore the contradiction of talking about music without ever playing any of it.
3) But now that the Times has insisted on audio slide show, something interesting happens: it can’t go home again. I don’t care how patronizing, opportunistic or experimental the audio show was as a gesture. It so improves the journalistic function of a piece, that no one will suffer grey text again.
4) Thus do organizations back into the future. All the Times meant to do was "jazz up a couple of stories in the Sunday paper," and now consumers take it for granted. As long as you refuse to contemplate what Sanneh’s calls the "discussion," the "argument," you may perservere as the Times, a grandly logocentric magazine that is still a little distrustful of color photographs. And, who knows, the Times may have been naive enough to think that they could add slide shows and sound as a discretionary, occasional, fully optional gesture. Hah! Ladies and gentlemen, you have joined the"discussion" in more sense than one. The optional is now obligatory. One little experiment and you are no longer a "newspaper."
5) It’s interesting to see what the discussion might, if joined, look like in Sanneh’s case. He is in point of fact, not nearly so gifted a "voice over" as he is a writer, but this is no doubt partly because he is such a very good writer. (I mean, so good it’s really irritating.)
6) But the discussion is there, even if neglected. Sanneh is more candid, more vivid, more opinionated in the spoken word than the written one. The Times wanted something summary and reductive. They got something different.
7) And this is where things get really interesting. As it stands, the slide show is entirely post hoc. But eventually, and much sooner than it would like, the Times will have be asking Sanneh to do the two together, and then an argument will occur. Sanneh will be viewing every story from two quite difference points of view. Two distinct voices will be competing in his head. This is where, potentially, Sanneh becomes West, and the Times becomes…not the Times at all.
Let the discussion begin.
Sanneh, Kelefa. 2005. Kanye West’s Argument With Himself. New York Times. July 24, 2005. here.