Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Kanye West, ‘Stronger’ (#500)

Aaaaaaaand right off the bat, we’ve got Exhibit A on why this blog is called the Opposite of Cool, and why I was so relucant to write on music in the first place.  If I were a judge, and this a legal case, I’d be obliged to recuse myself.

Because this song…I don’t get it. 

And not getting it — not getting Kanye West, for fuck’s sake, who’s practically the poster child for modern pop celebrity — makes me question my qualifications for writing on pretty much anything recorded in this century. 

It’s not that I dislike ‘Stronger’ so much as I just don’t get it.  It doesn’t register with me.  I don’t feel awe, nostalgia, revulsion, anger, or admiration listening to it; just a vague dissociative bemusement.  It’s a story from an unfamiliar tradition told in a language I don’t understand.  I don’t have an in with this material.  I don’t know what I’d connect it to, if indeed it connects to anything other than Kanye West’s obsession with Kanye West.

What I’m running into here, I think, is the ubiquitous narrative of celebrity.  Most notable musicians have a celebrity narrative — a weird mix of legend, gossip, history, and trivia — that’s woven in and through their actual art, and it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to separate story from output.  I’ve never had anyone speak to me about Jay Z’s music without telling me Jay Z’s origin story — you get the sense that what Jay Z actually recorded is almost beside the point — the same way almost no one will (or can) tell you about Hank Williams’ songs without including details about his unhealthy habits and untimely death.

Where Kanye West comes into this is that I’m realizing, listening to ‘Stronger’, that I have neither investment in, nor familiarity with, this particular celebrity narrative.  (Right or wrong, for better or for worse, when I think of Kanye West, I think Kim Kardashian and MAGA hats and George Bush not caring about black people.)  And that’s an issue here, because looking at the lyrics of the song and watching the video, my sense of it is that ‘Stronger’ is specifically about Kanye’s celebrity narrative; what was then (2007) the latest chapter in the Ongoing Saga of Kanye West, Celebrity.

I guess you had to be there.

Michael Strum: “There are things about Mr. West that I really like: his Chicago pride, his ear for production. He might have the best ear for a hook that I’ve encountered in this century. His Daft Punk renaissance here is skillfully envisioned and executed. Lyrically, there’s some fun and creativity, and also a couple of things that veer into ‘offensive at best’ territory. There’s good and also some bad, which seems, fitting, but it’s entertaining, and more interesting for the imperfections and opportunities. In that way, a highly appropriate opening number!”

Rolling Stone: Explaining the tighter, broader-reaching songs on his third album, Graduation, Kanye West said, “I applied a lot of the things I learned on tour [in 2006] with U2 and the Rolling Stones, about songs that rock stadiums. And they worked!” West found the inspiration for his most grandiose statement to date from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which he sampled and reshaped. West is a big fan of the French duo: “These guys really stick with the whole not-showing-their-faces thing. Just amazing discipline — that’s straight martial-arts status.”

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