Saturday, January 29, 2011

They're Not So Different After All

The assertion made in class last wednesday that the “monsters” of modern day, at least those described Kanye West’s “Monster” are markedly different from prior conceptions of monster initially struck me as a little odd, and perhaps something of an overgeneralization; while there are perhaps even more ways to inflict hurt these days, there are few new tricks to actually being a monster.

In his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye characteristics himself as one who wields tremendous power and influence, and who on occasion abuses them, thereby casting himself as an abomination, and thus a monster. Common threads that run through his work, namely disillusionment, fear, shock and anger continually led me again and again to the image of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.

While an image so often cited that it is now almost beyond cliché, I couldn’t help notice that the languages that Kanye’s lyrics and the Goya’s brushstrokes speak are strikingly similar. Kanye claims that as a monster, his “eyes [are] more red than the devil’s,” while Jay-Z notes that even today’s monsters continue to “Murder murder in black convertibles” and their psyches continue to be terrorized by “fiends scream[ing] in my dream.” Thus, both it is clear that as monsters, terror and grotesqueness are manifest both externally as well as internally.

Despite the gulf of time, it is clear that several commonalities are able to transcend temporal and physical separation. Goya’s monster is easily just as grotesque as evidenced by his matted hair and the blood flowing around his mouth. In my mind, this drew inevitable comparisons to Nicki Minaj’s verse, which promises that “first things first I’ll eat your brains,” once again justifying her actions because after all, “that’s what a muthaf-cking monster do.” A monstrous appetite for destruction is evidently a common thread. Disillusionment is no stranger as well. Saturn’s eyes are flush with terror and horror, as if finally recognizing that despite committing such an aberrant act, his monstrous qualities quell all efforts to control himself, clearly reflecting that he is a monster not only on the outside, but also on the inside.

Sure, these days being a monster has changed slightly. More specifically, it seems like we’ve continued on some sort evolutionary trajectory, or at least one that’s spawned more creative means such as Uzi’s, AK’s, plasma pistols, gravity guns and so on. By using more or less similar imagery and language to conjure terror, it seems what society associates with monsters has been consistent - Goya’s monster and Kanye’s may not be so far removed from each other after all.


  1. Even if Kanye uses monstrous language to describe himself, having fame and power isn't exactly an abomination (though it could turn into that in the right circumstances, I guess). Rare, yes, but not inhuman, uncanny, or even grotesque. Even Marilyn Manson, whose videos were among the first forays into the mainstream shock videos, is not a monster (unless you buy into the midnineties demonization of so-called "satanic" music. The key here is mainstream. For a musician to be monstrous, and this is my opinion, there has to be something at least a little revolting about him or her (think G. G. Allen and the like). Kanye is not revolting in the least: attractive, well-dressed, clever, rich. So he sells some albums and gets hounded by the media. He's charismatic, a trait that only turns monstrous if there's something hideous and wrong that comes to light, something genocidal perhaps.

    Nevertheless, you are right that Kanye is mimicking traditional tropes of monstrosity, and the Goya painting is a good example of torment both outer and inner. And the "Monster" video is a good (and smart) pastiche of monstrous images, painting the rappers as the monsters they would have us believe they are. I will continue enjoying My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but not because I think Kanye and buddies are monsters, but because they offer me a fantasy, in which I'd like to believe.

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  3. It's true that fame and power are not in fact (always) abominations. In fact, now that I've reread what I had to say, I think I should've included a some of the subtler points that I glossed over while writing.

    I'd say that this song, if not the entire album perhaps reflects the lens through which Kanye now views the world in the aftermath of a tumultous period during which his mother died, the criticism over 808's & Heartbreak, as well as the now infamous VMA incident. What I really want to say is that in that time, Kanye had crossed over into a previously untouched realm, one which in contrast to the playful hedonism of his prior works and mindset is dark and monstrous and only now returning to put in full display to the world a portion of the regret and torment he experienced. He seems so incredibly haunted and disturbed by this experiences that it does seem that he finds that abominable...but as you pointed out, that may be too strong a word. What I will say is it is rather strange that while he is so clearly tormented by his wrongs, he still manages to become these very things. Perhaps not quite a monster, but possibly in the process of becoming one... and that's fairly revolting.

  4. That Goya painting looks like it would make great cover art for a Death Metal album. Death metal music features a realistic, almost scientific, outlook on themes such as death and brutality, and its lyrical content and even its rhythms and structure are violent in nature.

    Many death metal bands seem to spend a great deal of time selecting the perfect album art to represent the content of their music. Albums such as Autopsy's 1989 debut Severed Survival ( or their 1992 album Mental Funeral ( feature doom-inspiring scenes of violence and fictional creatures, reflecting the sense of impending doom and destruction created by the slow tempo, Black Sabbath inspired riffing contained within. The Dutch metal outfit Pestilence's 1989 Consuming Impulse ( is a simple yet effective drawing of a man being overwhelmed by a swarm of ants and experiencing a mortal terror similar to those inspired by the screams and aggressive percussion within. Pestilence's 1991 album Testimony of the Ancients ( is not violent at all, featuring instead a device that appears to be of a nature ancient and terrifying, perfectly visualizing the bands newer jazz-influenced style and lyrical content of themes such as a Lovecraftian sense of cosmic doom.

    While Death Metal music is violent and often gory in nature, it is Black Metal musicians who often were involved in violent controversies such as church arson and murder. However, black metal music is often not nearly as violent in lyrical content or musical themes. The music instead explores concepts such as evil and the occult, favoring a mystical or even grandiose atmosphere over sheer violence. Darkthrone's 1994 Transilvanian Hunger ( is minimalist, yet still inspiring terror, just like the stripped down black metal style played within. Emperor's 1994 Debut In the Night Shade Eclipse ( features a cover as epic as the symphonic black metal inside. The covers art for Burzum has always been simplistic yet dark in mood, such as the 1994 Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (

    Both Emperor and Burzum are musical outfits that at one time contained members (or the sole member as in Burzum) that were convicted of violent crimes such as murder or arson. Yet, their music was of an entirely different, and often less violent nature, to that of their Death Metal contemporaries and this difference is mirrored in the album art of their works.

    For a genre with as many connotations to violence and other unpleasant topics as metal is, the musicians often lives that exist in stark contrast to the music they create. The late Chuck Schuldiner of Death was a vegetarian and peace activist.


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