Of course it’s offensive. To recognize that about the video that Kanye West released last week for his self-portrait in song, “Monster,” is to acknowledge its intent without seeing the fullness of its effect. The video was directed by Jake Nava, who is celebrated for making commercials that market glamour brands (Armani, L’Oreal) with sexy celebrities (Jessica Alba, Maria Sharapova), as well as music videos that market sexy female musicians (Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Shakira) like the glamour brands they are. “Monster,” a track from West’s sensational album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which I put on my list of the ten best albums of 2010, is, as music, a disturbingly irresistible meta-statement of West’s monstrous ego. “I crossed the line,” West chants in the climax of the song, “I’ll let God decide.” What did he do, exactly? We can only imagine, because we know West to be unfettered, rich and powerful, and to have been driven mad by his love for himself.
Nava, an artist of lesser means, is limited by his consumerist skill with pop-visual references. (It was Nava who took a Gwen Verdon dance routine from a forgotten TV-show clip and made the “Single Ladies” video for Beyoncé.) He fills the “Monster” video with taboo images inspired by vintage drive-in movies, the Twilight films, and horror comics. A key scene in the video, in which West is shown holding the head of a decapitated woman by her hair, is modeled on the cover of a horror comic of the early 1950s. (For examples of comic art in this genre, see the slide show I made for TNR.com a couple of years ago.) Nava renders the grim hedonism and misogyny of his images with the blasé gloss of cosmetic ads.
It would be a misreading of this work, I think, to take Nava’s manner of glamorizing horrors such as strangulation and necrophilia—yes, in one scene, West is shown lowering the head of the corpse of a young woman onto his crotch—as a means of artful distancing. The opulent decadence of the video’s VIP-room dreamscape is not a fantasy to Kanye West; it’s his reality.
What’s most frightening about “Monster” is not its entwining of glitz and violence and sex, but Kanye West’s passivity in the midst of it all. His presence in the video is almost spectral. He glides through the nightmare images in “Monster” inertly, disengaged. Such is the power he exudes: a genuinely monstrous power to command the doing of exotic and horrible things without judgment, nor even interest. In the video of “Monster,” Kanye West crosses no lines, but lords over lingeried minions who do, and he assumes a privilege greater than God’s: the privilege to decide nothing.