Kanye West's Vanguard Award acceptance speech at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards wasn't the greatest acceptance speech ever. Like the man delivering it, it had a tendency to ramble, and it leapt all over the place, across six or seven different themes.
But as with everything West does, there was a naked emotionality to the speech, a throbbing heart that the sloppiness seemed almost to exist to hide. The speech was filled with brilliant, off-the-cuff asides and turns of phrase. (My favorite: "If I had a daughter at that time, would I have went on stage and grabbed the mic from someone else's?," a neat bit of mirroring that turns the question back on both the asker and anyone who's ever accused him.) And underneath everything, there was a kind of internal structure that made sense once you learned how to tap into it.
The speech was roundly seen (mostly on social media) as just more blathering from a man who's known for his blathering. But if you actually sit down and read the thing (or transcribe it, as I did), there's a lot to it. West might have been nervous, and his delivery might have been swallowed up by the crowd. But he really had thought through a surprisingly complex speech about the ways artists are turned into zero-sum competitors in a world where they shouldn't be.
(As to whether he's running for president, I have my doubts.)
Let's take a look at the speech's five major themes and how they build on and dovetail with each other.
1) "Listen to the kids"
If West's speech has a motif, it's this — okay, this or the word "bro," which he dropped often. He says "Listen to the kids" at the top of the speech and roughly in the middle (when he begins to elaborate upon it). Had he wrapped back around to it again at the end, I suspect the unity of the whole thing would have stood out more to people. Instead, it felt like a weird non sequitur.
But it's the key to understanding what he's up to — not uncommon for a repeated phrase in a speech. West's speech pivots off the fact that he was introduced by Taylor Swift, the woman he famously interrupted at a VMA ceremony six years earlier (something both he and Swift made mention of), and at its heart is the conflict between divisiveness and unity. West paints himself as someone who longs for unity, but is so passionate that he can't help but sow divisiveness.
So when he wants to be divisive, he turns to the kids — not just his own daughter (whom he mentions), but also the entire millennial generation. He counts himself as a member of that generation, but with a 1977 birth date, he'd more often be classified as Generation X.
West paints millennials as the realization of generational progress, the ultimate result of hopes for an end to corporate influence, to easy black-and-white issues. West believes millennials have somehow escaped these influences — despite all evidence to the contrary — and that we should not mock millennials for being aimless, but rather look to them as examples of how to live. They will be the ones to pass along to their children the self-esteem their own parents only began to instill in them. And from that, something else might flower.
Does all of this make sense? Not really. West seems to view millennials not as individuals but as a collective filled with virtue. And there's certainly some suggestion that those in said generation are more earnest than their immediate predecessor generations. As the entire center of West's speech, it leaves a bit to be desired. As a chance to rally his most likely fan base, it's pretty canny.
2) The impossibility of artistic achievement
Much of the confusion over what West was trying to say stemmed from the middle section of his speech, in which he talked at length about why he hates award shows. But look at this as a digression on his main theme, and his intentions become clearer. This is again about the difficulty of achieving unity in the face of a world that would divide us — and nothing is more threatened by that than art.
West perhaps digressed more on this topic than was necessary (points two through four on this list are all about this theme, even if indirectly), but the artists he talked about — intriguingly, never himself — were all figures at the top of their games, people who can sell out concerts and make mega-selling albums. And West was intent on pointing out the pinnacle of that achievement, then contrasting it with the ways these artists are constantly dragged down from that pinnacle.
Late in this section, West tells artists to just worry about what they feel, to keep from being distracted from the difficult task of creating something of artistic worth. If division is the enemy, and unity is what we hope for, then art is maybe the way to bridge the gap between the two.
3) It is possible to care too much
When West talks about himself in this speech — at least directly — it's to mourn the perception the world has of him as some sort of bitter, grumpy scofflaw, who stomps on Taylor Swift's good time and introduces more division into the world. (The most heartbreaking section is when he intones, "I just wanted people to like me more!") Can you see how this is sort of brilliant? Throughout the speech, West paints himself continually as the thing most in need of fixing.
Even sharper here is his pivot. The reason he's so in need of fixing is precisely because he so longs for artistic beauty and the unity it might create. He only interrupts Taylor Swift because he really believes in the pure wonder of art and is so sad at the thought of his fellow artists having to lose. His beef, see, is less with Taylor than it is with the whole system. If he had his way, everybody would be a winner.
This is why West talks so fervently about award shows. They exist entirely to divide, not unite, and they exist to make people who have created great works of artistic ambition feel terrible about themselves. West simultaneously believes in these awards (insofar as he believes they really do honor great work) and thinks they're bullshit (insofar as they create losers).
The trick, then, is to accept that the awards can be both things, to transcend those concerns and accept that winning or losing is beside the point. Creating something brilliant and beautiful is more important than who wins the trophy — and West needs to remind himself of that as surely as he reminds his audience.
Though West's intentions of running for president surely can't be that serious, there's something masterful in the way he leans directly into his greatest weakness and tries to argue that it comes from his greatest strength. Plenty of politicians could learn from that.
4) The media exists only to put us in conflict
West picks a target of politicians for the center of his speech, where he attempts to pinpoint a villain for all of the division he sees around him.
"You know how many times MTV ran that footage again, because it got them more ratings?" he asks, referring to the footage of when he interrupted Swift in 2009. "You know how many times they announced Taylor was gonna give me the award, because it got them more ratings?" Tellingly, he follows this with a repetition of, "Listen to the kids, bro." If the millennials are a force for unity, the media — specifically MTV in this instance — is the opposite, seeking only to create "beef."
MTV, of course, loves West biting the hand that feeds, because it makes for spellbinding television. But by pivoting within the speech to place himself in opposition to said media, West also places himself in the role of noble crusader who will fight against the media that seeks to tear things apart.
5) Nothing lasts. Except art, maybe.
West's work has always roiled with the sense of ephemerality, the belief that nothing is permanent. Particularly in his later albums, death hovers over many of the best tracks, and there's a deep sense of loss in even some of his poppier hits.
The reasons for this are legion — many stemming from the death of his beloved mother — but these ghosts haunted his speech, as well. In perhaps the best section, he ruminated on the fact that the VMAs themselves were a one-time thing, a performance that was evaporating even as it was happening. "You know, this arena tomorrow, it's gonna be a completely different setup," he said. "Some concert, something like that. This stage will be gone. After that night, the stage is gone, but the effect that it had on people remains."
Life is just a series of way stations, a bunch of marking points on a timeline that begins and ends in the same places for all of us. West is haunted by this in his work, and in his speech. But the fact that the memory of the stage lingers in the minds of those who were there to see it is a kind of comfort.
The central theme of West's speech involves the world rolling from division to unity, and it involves art's role as a vehicle in doing so. But what makes art so pure to West is the simple fact that it can't last. Eventually it gets you where you needed to go, and you leave it behind.
But in West's mind, some piece of it sticks with you, even still, a remnant of a person you were, who needed that song or that album so very much at one point in time. The stage is dismantled. The song is forever.