A Lyrical Reflection: Cancel Culture

By: Brittany Hofferber

Ah 2020 – Never has there been a time where people are so deeply interconnected without even seeing each other. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and all the other social media platforms foster an environment of both self-expression and rapid judgement of others. Although a lot of good has come from this technological advancement- catalyzing social and political movements, increasing connections between friends and family far away, and uplifting stories from remote parts of the world, the veil of an online identity that one can hide behind also has some downsides. The rise of a new age of hate found in “Cancel Culture” is one such flaw. The idea of “cancelling someone” can be distilled down to an almost science-like social pattern. A famous figure says something slightly offensive or missteps in their highly publicized life. A public reaction ensues, keyboard warriors from all over attack the figure’s words and personal livelihoods, eventually calling for that person to be “cancelled.” In other words, to be completely shunned from society- a modern-day scarlet letter (with or without adultery).

         There might be no better example of cancel culture than the consistent backlash Kanye West faces for his, albeit, controversial decision-making. A quick google search of “Kanye West” will propagate hundreds of posts attacking his latest endeavors and a slew of pieces entitled some rendition of “Kanye West is Officially Cancelled.” In response to many of these incidents, Kanye West drops his eighth studio album Ye in 2018 shedding light on the unwavering hate and public demonization by highlighting his own experiences struggling with mental health.

“I think about killing myself, and I, I love myself way more than I love you. The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. I think this is the part where I’m supposed to say something good. To compensate it so it doesn’t come off bad but sometimes I think really bad things.” – Kanye West, I Thought About Killing You

In the opening tack on Ye, Kanye West delivers in both rap and spoken word his uncensored thoughts of suicide and homicide. Amongst the dark thoughts he so swiftly gets judged for are also beautiful thoughts that go unnoticed, undocumented. Struggling with his bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts very publicly, Yeezy sets the purpose of the album as a tribute devoted to mental health.

Yeezy, Yeezy trollin’ OD, huh? Turn TMZ to Smack DVD, huh?…Thinkin’ what if that happened to me too, then I’m on E! News, shit got menacin’, frightenin’, find help, sometimes I scare myself, myself” – Kanye West, Yikes

West then goes on in the second piece of his album titled Yikes discussing his battle with opioid addiction after being hospitalized in November of 2016 causing him to cancel his Saint Pablo Tour. Amongst the chaos that erupted after his public hospitalization, fans and news sources across the world were quick to attack West yet again, labeling his actions during this difficult time unsurprisingly as “bizarre incidents” and promoting the viral hashtag “#KanyelsOverParty”.

After confessing his truth throughout the lyrical content of the album, Kanye’s first initial track best encapsulates his overall commentary on the public reaction to his struggles: “I think this is the part where I’m supposed to say something good, to compensate it so it doesn’t come off bad, but sometimes I think really bad things.” In other words, I interpret these lyrics as an honest plea for understanding. Juxtaposed next to the heavy themes of death in I Thought About Killing You, I cannot help but feel empathy for Yeezy’s struggle dealing with his mental health issues so publicly. We do not extend the same sympathies we have for the ones we love to those we deem famous, in many cases, dehumanizing the figure to a personal target for hate. Although Ye was dropped in 2018, the issues West faces with media continue to occur- most recently with his 2020 presidential run.

Kanye West is not the only public figure whose name is constantly being thrown around. Whether it is through comments on her romantic life, her newfound political voice, her drama with Kim Kardashian (oh the irony) or pretty much anything else Taylor Swift does, Swift has undergone her own fair share of mass public shaming with millions of people calling for her to be “cancelled.”

In response to many of these attacks, Taylor Swift in her 2020 album Folklore writes a piece titled Mad Woman discussing the issues women face for speaking out against something, someone or even just by voicing their opinion. In the chorus, Swift’s lyrics go:

“And there’s nothing like a mad woman, what a shame she went mad, no one likes a mad woman, you made her like that, and you’ll poke that bear ‘til her claws come out, and you find something to wrap your noose round, and there’s nothing like a mad woman.” – Taylor Swift, Mad Women

Although more specifically about Taylor’s experience being bullied by Scooter Braun, a famous American record executive most notably tied to his work with Justin Bieber, Mad Woman provides a great example of the gaslighting women experience by society (both men and women) when standing up against their aggressors. Even if you dare to fight back, you are quickly labelled “emotional” and “crazy,” an all too common experience for a demographic that is expected to be passive acceptors of violence. More generally, we anticipate those we “cancel” on social media platforms, especially women, to take what is being thrown at them with silence, to surrender. When (not surprisingly) these public figures try to defend themselves, a vicious cycle of screen-said, she-said, he-said begins, perpetuating the hate that is due in part to an unwillingness to compromise and approach one another with empathy.

In a similar manner, the Black Lives Matter movement saw its own amount of “cancellations” and social media wars. A movement traced back to 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot and killed Travyon Martin, the Black Lives Matters movement is a powerful social call for the recognition of the indisputable injustices that black people face on a day-to-day basis in the United States (Buchanan et al., 2020). Protests peaked on June 6th 2020 when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 places across the United States in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others (Buchanan et al., 2020). Although this movement proved to increase awareness and call to educate one another, social media again became a place of open hostility as back-and forth debates about “how to correctly support the movement” ensued. Despite the well-intended efforts of many, trends like “Blackout Tuesday” couldn’t help but feel like surface-level pleas from a population in fear of being “cancelled.” To not post or post the wrong photo would be an indication of your stance on the subject, leading many to hate and tear down each other for their perceived social crimes. 

Written on June 4th 2020, J. Cole dropped a single “Snow on Tha Bluff” in an effort to express his views on this very matter. Calling out the very phenomenon sweeping social media platforms, Cole raps about an anonymous figure mad at the world, expressing frustration and talking as if they are above others on social media. Although I recommend listening to the song in its entirety as the meaning is hard to simplify into a simple quote, Cole’s main point can be distilled in the following lyrics:

“And the frustration that fills her words seems to come from the fact that most people don’t see just ‘cause you woke and im not, that s**t ain’t no reason to talk like you better than me. How you gon’ lead? When you attackin’ the very same n****s that really do need the s***t that you sayin’? Instead of conveying you holier, come help get us up to speed.” – J Cole, Snow on Tha Bluff.

The response to Cole’s song was swift and brutal with fans across social media attacking him and his lyrics. Most notably, Rolling Stone comes out with a piece about the song ridiculing J. Cole’s call for open discussion, the author ending his version of a diss track with, “someone needs to hold Cole’s hand through the revolution.” Although Cole’s piece itself is not entirely on cancel culture as a whole, both the lyrical content and the reaction to his track further exemplifies the consistent need many have to put down others instead of helping educate one another and, as Cole says, “understanding the time and love and patience that’s needed to grow.” Although I fully recognized the privileged position I am in and in no way claim to understand fully the interworking of the Black Lives Matter movement, I find his commentary on the newfound human phenomenon of virtual hate and “cancelling” others for expressing their opinions to be an overarching issue we face as a modern society. Rather than being so quick to put down a black artist speaking his truth like the Rolling Stone’s author so happily did, we would be better off listening to the lyrics for what it is- a honest perspective.  

We are all experiencing, processing and reacting to what is going on in the world differently and must lend a helping hand, a listening ear to support one another rather than tear each other down. So quickly do we demonize public figures for their voices, without considering the mental health issues they might face or injustices they might deal with based on uncontrollable factors like skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender. Even writing this piece, I am fearful of the backlash I might receive, “the cancel culture” reigning down on me in my own efforts to reflect on this past year. But to be silent, to accept the culture for what it is, to hide from a challenge and to not try to understand and grapple with difficult topics because they make me uncomfortable would be almost as detrimental as the hate itself. Progress will never occur if we don’t create spaces for open and honest communication. To understand one’s perspective as only a small part of a much greater human experience requires empathy for all, including public figures. So as this year comes to an end, I ask of myself and of you to reflect on how you have treated others in the past and how you can take active steps to be an empathetic listener.

I Thought About Killing You, Ye By Kanye West

Yikes, Ye by Kanye West

Mad Woman, Folklore by Taylor Swift

Snow On Tha Bluff by J. Cole

Reference List:

Buchanan, Larry, et al. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html

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