There are countless gems in Kanye West’s New York Times interview from yesterday, but one that’s been mostly overlooked is his explanation of why he hasn’t appeared on recent episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the E! reality show about his girlfriend Kim and her family:
On “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” there’s a really affectionate scene where you go and help Kim sort through her clothes.
That was from a place of love. It’s hard when people read things in a lot of different ways. You know, the amount of backlash I got from it is when I decided to not be on the show anymore. And it’s not that I have an issue with the show; I just have an issue with the amount of backlash that I get. Because I just see like, an amazing person that I’m in love with that I want to help.
The interview’s been widely mocked, but most of what he says is only ridiculous if you don’t think Kanye West is a genius, and Kanye West is a genius, so it’s not ridiculous. Genius artists get to say things like “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things” because that is an accurate statement. (The other stuff is ridiculous — saying that his ego “only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness,” for instance — but likely intentionally so; people don’t seem to realize Kanye West has a great sense of humor, maybe because people don’t listen to Kanye’s music very closely.)
This bit in particular is really sweet — as is the scene the interviewer mentions — but Kanye’s decision not to be on the show after that says a lot about the nature of reality shows. (If the promos of the new season are any indication, it looks like Kim’s pulling back, too; we mostly see the Jenner daughters, pushed inexorably into the limelight by their dear sweet ma.) It’s not as if Kanye is a particularly private person. He’s fine with details of his life being known to the public. It’s just that he wants to control what details and how they’re presented. You saw this with Beyoncé’s recent HBO documentary, too: over and over, she focused on controlling her self-presentation, making sure that in those few moments she was visible to the public (at concerts, in interviews), she gave no opening for, as Kanye puts it, “backlash.” When blogs posted less-than-flattering pictures of her Super Bowl appearance, she tried to get them taken down.
And that’s the difference between Kanye and Kim as public figures: Kanye gets to decide how his life story is told, whereas Kim’s is entirely in the hands of her show’s producers and the writers of celebrity magazines. This tends to happen when actually-famous people are incidentally involved with a reality show. Clint Eastwood was barely seen on the reality show about his wife, and Kelsey Grammer’s absence from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills season featuring his then-wife Camille was due to the fact that he was no longer treating her as his wife. What you give up by being on a reality show is not your life, because you always own your life. Instead, you lose the ability to decide how other people perceive your life, and if you’re powerful enough to get your life story out there some other way, you’re not going to give that up. As disingenuous as ex-post-facto complaints of deceptive editing can sound in the mouths of reality stars, there’s no question that reality shows have an interest in making their stars look bad.
That power differential is troubling when you consider that the vast majority of documentary-style reality shows are about members of groups who have traditionally been prevented from telling their own stories: women (the aforementioned Housewives and Kardashians), minorities (Basketball Wives, Flipping Out), blue-color workers (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch), and other cultural outsiders (Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo). Though the shows make it seem like their subjects are the ones in control, these people’s lives are still being filtered through those with the power to produce media content. While almost every reality star is wealthy enough to have the shows be about more than “I got up, I went to work, I came home, I fell asleep,” they still represent the cultural background of people like them. Kanye is so good at making really, really, really great music that he gets to tell his life story through, without other people getting in the way.
The best solution, it seems, would be to have reality shows be more like Kanye’s albums. Someone with a story to tell would collaborate with talented technicians to craft a product both entertaining to the public and true to the person’s own experience. But our weird expectations for reality shows make that unlikely. As much as we decry the unreality of the whole thing, without that exploitation we’d just think of them as hour-long vlogs. It’s worth considering, though, that if the best anyone on a reality show can ever do is to willingly stop doing reality shows, then there might be something fundamentally flawed about the form.