The Aggregate: Kanye West, and the Rise of Juuling
Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some of the biggest stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.
Ta-Nehisi Coates Takes Shot at Yeezus
The Atlantic – Ta-Nehisi Cotes, “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye”
Ta-Nehisi Coates was the first reason (now of many) I fell in love with The Atlantic. His work in this latest article, “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” which ran on May 7, 2018, only solidifies my appreciation of his work. Coates is a storyteller, and here he takes us to the deep corners of his youthful mind, reminiscing about the mystified career of Michael Jackson (who he references in the excerpt below) from the perspective of a young African American. He uses powerful anecdotes of African American celebrities in popular culture to unpack the barrage of controversial (dare I say distasteful) statements, tweets, and interviews from Kanye West since his recent return to social media.
“And he had always been dying—dying to be white. That was what my mother said, that you could see the dying all over his face, the decaying, the thinning, that he was disappearing into something white, desiccating into something white, erasing himself, so that we would forget that he had once been Africa beautiful and Africa brown, and we would forget his pharaoh’s nose, forget his vast eyes, his dazzling smile, and Michael Jackson was but the extreme of what felt in those post-disco years to be a trend […]
He hailed Trump, as a “brother,” a fellow bearer of “dragon energy,” and impugned those who objected as suppressors of “unpopular questions,” “thought police” whose tactics were “based on fear.”It was Trump, West argued, not Obama, who gave him hope that a black boy from the South Side of Chicago could be president. “Remember like when I said I was gonna run for president?,” Kanye said in an interview with the radio host Charlamagne Tha God. ‘I had people close to me, friends of mine, making jokes, making memes, talking shit. Now it’s like, oh, that was proven that that could have happened.'”
If any of this is new information to you, welcome to the delusional reality that Kanye West now occupies. Kanye West has openly endorsed Donald Trump, and his isolationist, ‘genius’ approach echoes that of Trump; the both of them parading around as someone who has been chronically misjudged and misunderstood, and made their fortune anyhow. Coates argues that this isolation, in the case of Kanye, comes with a special breed of ignorance that has the potential to damage communities that already suffer from discrimination and oppression.
“West might plead ignorance—“I don’t have all the answers that a celebrity is supposed to have,” he told Charlamagne [tha God in an interview]. But no citizen claiming such a large portion of the public square as West can be granted reprieve. […] The planks of Trumpism are clear […] The pain of these policies is not equally distributed. Indeed the rule of Donald Trump is predicated on the infliction of maximum misery on West’s most ardent parishioners, the portions of America, the muck, that made the god Kanye possible.”
This analogy unsurprisingly bears an uncanny resemblance to the rise and ensuing leadership of Donald Trump, who has turned back on campaign promises that earned him some of his most loyal supporters. But in Kanye’s case, the consequences of dismissing his supporters are more significant than any campaign promise or piece of health care legislation could ever be. As Coates continues, he points to exactly what it is about Kanye’s celebrity status that makes his position unique.
“There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity. But for black artists who rise to the heights of Jackson and West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions. Kurt Cobain’s death was a great tragedy for his legions of fans. Tupac’s was a tragedy for an entire people. When brilliant black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone.”
Kanye West’s apparent desire to separate himself from the reality of being a Black man in America comes at a cost. Those who echo Trump’s hateful rhetoric now have Kanye West’s Twitter feed and TMZ interview to lean into as evidence for their bigoted claims. The burden of representation is far greater, as Coates points out, for artists of color and the communities they (inherently) represent.
“West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant […] It is often easier to choose the path of self-destruction when you don’t consider who you are taking along for the ride, to die drunk in the street if you experience the deprivation as your own, and not the deprivation of family, friends, and community.”
With these two sentences, Coates has articulated the implicit responsibility that artists accept when they step into the limelight. The kind of social responsibility tied to celebrity is not one to be taken lightly, and as we have begun to see with Kanye West, which has proven to be very dangerous for entire groups of people when mishandled. Ta-Nehisi Coates has once again shed much-needed light on the newest version of a dark, brooding Kanye West that has been revealed with his latest reemergence into the public eye. This is a powerful essay that indeed seeks to speak truth to power, and urges Kanye West to more fully embrace the culture that exalted him to his ‘god-like’ status in the first place.
Juuling Becomes the New Vape for the Digital Age
The New Yorker –Jai Tolentino, “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul”
I am fairly certain that the droves of high school and college-aged kids who have hopped on the Juul bandwagon don’t give their newly acquired, nicotine-induced reflexes nearly as much thought as Jai Tolentino does here, in her piece, “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul,” which ran in the May 14th edition of The New Yorker. Her article examines the steady growth and equally increasing fascination with these flashdrive lookalikes among younger generations, and how vaping, which was a concept initially marketed to adults who were trying to quit smoking, has taken on a life of its own for those of us born after 1995.
“I took another hit, and another. Each one was a white spike of nothing: a pop, a flavored coolness, as if the idea of a cucumber had just vanished inside my mouth. As I pulled out of the parking lot, my scalp tingled […]
Young people have taken a technology that was supposed to help grownups stop smoking and invented a new kind of bad habit, one that they have molded in their own image. The potential public-health benefit of the e-cigarette is being eclipsed by the unsettling prospect of a generation of children who may really love to vape.”
The same generation who made us aware of the problematic nature Tide Pods is now invested in creating a cultural panic around their newfound form of stress relief. Tolentino highlights the “meme-ready nature” of Juuling, and argues that something so ingrained in social media is inevitably ingrained in the consciousness of a generation who invest so much time in their digital lives. There are entire social ecosystems built around Juuling, especially at high schools, where age restrictions make in-store or online purchases of Juul pods not an option for those under 21. While there is undoubtedly unrest from parents and pediatricians across the country who are being confronted with the pervasive reality of Juuling— especially in more affluent communities— this is just an updated version of the debate on just about any trend being perpetuated by younger generations to the dismay of their elders. Juul and other e-cigarette spin-offs have taken strides to course correct their market appeal (with some urging from the F.D.A.), and stick to the narrative of helping adults quit smoking cigarettes.
“Last year, Juul added a small gray bar to its packaging that reads “The alternative for adult smokers.” The company had considered a bigger, more aggressive statement, but executives were afraid that it would make the product seem edgy, like a parental-advisory warning on a CD cover. […] In April, the company said that it would spend thirty million dollars to combat underage Juuling, and announced its support for state and federal legislation that would raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases to twenty-one. The company is also developing a “mindfulness curriculum” for high-school students. This will almost certainly be useless, as life in America today is unstable for reasons that go beyond nicotine products. Gould mentioned that the company had thought about producing a P.S.A. ‘Oh, no,’ I said. ‘Definitely don’t do that. It’ll become a meme.'”
Is there really any way to convince a child something is bad for them because an adult says so? History would like to suggest otherwise, and while the steps being taken are undoubtedly in the right direction, I am unsure that any kind of discipline will provide a fruitful outcome. Much like everything else these days, Juuling is a trend. While Juul does indeed hail from the American epidemic of nicotine addiction and a multibillion dollar lung cancer-inducing industry, I am not so sure the lasting effects of Juuling will be any less harmful than the social media platforms in which they are being promoted and even distributed. Juuling may be a more subverted form of self-destruction, but that remains to be seen.
“I liked cigarettes because they were gross and terrible for me—a way of confronting everyday stresses in a manner that seemed suitably destructive and illogical. The Juul, despite all the teenage Instagram feeds I’ve seen, feels clinical, sensible, virtuous. I didn’t like it—or, at least, I didn’t need it. I took an ostentatious farewell pull, coughed like a twelve-year-old, and, wreathed with cucumber-scented vapor, gave it away.”