Kanye and the conveyor belt of outrage

At yesterday’s Emmys, Toni Collette won, Simon Baker didn’t, and a galaxy of stars made broadly identical speeches thanking their colleagues, their families and their deities. Was I the only person wondering whether the event might have been a little more entertaining if Kanye West had taken to the stage?

“I’mma letcha finish, Toni,” he might have said. “But Tina Fey gave one of the best portrayals of a disturbed person when she played Sarah Palin. Of all time!”

West’s stunt at the MTV Video Music Awards last week, when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to talk up Beyoncé’s video, was the subject of jokes throughout last night’s awards, of course. And the reason is simple. In an entertainment industry that’s generally all about plastic platitudes, West did something truly unexpected. I can’t imagine doing anything that foolishly arrogant – nobody can, except perhaps Souja Boy. It was the most fascinating moment at an awards ceremony since that fateful Logies night when Steve Irwin’s snake bit Tim Webster.

But the public reacted as though Kanye derailed the Middle East peace process instead of an award for a music video. Even President Obama called him a “jackass”, perhaps not realising that on MTV that word is a compliment. And that guru of decorum Pink, for instance, described him as the “the biggest piece of shit on earth”, which strikes me as rather unfair to Robert Mugabe.

Kanye didn’t realise it – he didn’t realise much, by all appearances – but he was grabbing not only the microphone, but the mantle previously held by Serena Williams as Celebrity Villain of the Week. It’s an award that now carries a familiar timeline. When an entertainer does something shocking, Twitter explodes and bloggers put in the boot. News websites give the story saturation coverage, and traditional media join the party as well. A global jury of anyone with an internet connection reviews the evidence on YouTube, and a worldwide avalanche of Schadenfreude-laced hostility is unleashed upon the star. They apologise, but this is quickly rejected as insincere, and so they disappear to the wilderness to atone.

I’ve always enjoyed playing stacks-on-a-celebrity, but having been consigned to the doghouse this year with my colleagues from The Chaser has made me wonder. Our Make A Realistic Wish Foundation sketch was undoubtedly an error of judgement – a comedy show should make people laugh, not wince. And if you dish it out as much as we do, then you should be able to take it.

But it was surreal to see the Prime Minister taking time out from a press conference about the resignation of his Defence Minister to condemn a comedy sketch. A talkback host offered a bounty for our home addresses, and one of the reasons the ABC suspended the programme was its genuine fear that a studio record would endanger its staff. Even Guy Sebastian wrote on Twitter that he wanted to punch us, although to be fair that cheered us up.

Our scandal blew over – within a few days, the media were picking on Jodi Gordon instead – and fortunately viewers gave us another chance. But since that experience, I’ve noticed how our increasingly frenetic news websites, cable networks and blogs require fresh meat to keep people interested. Because as any Alan Jones listener knows, outrage can be entertaining. And so an endless conveyer belt of entertainers is thrown to the lions, and we watch with perverse fascination as they’re gnawed.

Perhaps in a time of moral relativism and economic uncertainty, it’s comforting to band together and condemn people. We humans have always enjoyed forming an angry mob. But the sudden intensity of our anger seems to have heightened at the same time as its targets have become more irrelevant. Rather than being enraged about Darfur or Guantanamo or climate change, we reserve our harshest condemnation for entertainers who spoil other entertainers’ thankyou speeches.

Kyle Sandilands has been through this wringer twice recently, and while I’m hardly a fan, I can’t help noticing that his audience loved his abrasiveness until he misdirected it. It seems hypocritical to worship Kanye and Kyle for their rapping and ranting, and then react with shock and horror when their overswollen egos carry them across what is always a somewhat arbitrary line.

Of course stars should be reprimanded when they get it wrong, but the flames of public condemnation are threatening to engulf their targets. And if they do, we’ll all be the poorer, because a world where shows like Idol contain only the Marcias of this world is a duller one – as its ratings have demonstrated. More soberingly, I was sad to read that Kanye’s friends are concerned about the potential for suicide. Such is the ease with which celebrities drop from universal adulation to evisceration.

Ultimately, like Picasso, the excellence of Kanye’s art can’t be divorced from his monstrous narcissism. If he didn’t believe in himself so unshakably, he wouldn’t have dropped out of college to become a music producer in the first place. And that would have been a far greater tragedy than a moment of rudeness at an awards show.

This piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, but reported as defending Kyle Sandilands because the subs cut a crucial sentence. They also cut my favorite joke, probably because it was just plain unnecessary. So, for posterity, this is the original version.

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