Kanye West's flippant reference to Parkinson's in a recent lyric has had the expected repercussions: it's been condemned as 'cruel' and 'distasteful' by various Parkinson's advocacy groups, generated some controversy in the media, and as a result, more people have probably listened to the song. The lyrics in question suggest that Kanye's very presence makes some 'bitch' shake like she has Parkinson's. Clever, right? Right.
It's one thing to dislike and dismiss a song, a film, or a joke, but when people are directly affected by the subject, the conversation usually turns to what's 'offensive.' Louis CK has made the point on more than one occasion on the Opie and Anthony radio show:
"People think that there's something in the constitution that protects them from being offended. Like there's something wrong with offending people. They actually think it's in the bill of rights, freedom from being offended."
Standup comic Rick Shapiro was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, and he responded publicly to Kanye's lyrics.
He didn't make a statement saying he was offended, or demand some phony apology. Rick's response, in its thoughtfulness and artistry, exposes some of the absurdities we've been quietly living with. He made two videos, as unedited and idiosyncratic as most of his work. As each sentence spills into the next, Rick seizes on whatever captures his attention and riffs on it in his poetic, improvisational style.
"It's time to allow beautiful complexity. And also to yell 'stupid,' so as to push society forward. It's really wonderful to call Kanye West stupid."
And 'stupid' really is the right word. As literary critic and essayist George Steiner put it: "No stupid literature, art or music lasts. Aesthetic creation is intelligent in the highest degree," whether that intelligence is "lodged in the sculptor's hands drumming on a table or in Coleridge's dreams." Rick's criticism of Kanye is his lack of desire for a wider vocabulary. He wonders in one video, "What if Kanye West looked up Nikos Kazantzakis?" What if, indeed.
Rick admires novelist Nikos Kazantzakis' "insatiable appetite" for specifics, for drinking in the details of life. It's an appetite they share, as is evident in Rick's standup and in his book, Unfiltered. Instead of reaching for a lazy reference, perhaps if Kanye thought more carefully about what he was trying to describe, he would find something more compelling, "scream the woman's unheard thoughts."
Confusing Kanye West with R. Kelly, Rick says in the video, "Isn't he supposed to be uninteresting with his piss, instead of uninteresting with his lyrics?" It's a telling moment, in that it's not really a mistake. It's all the same shit, is what he seems to be saying. I spoke to Rick about it, and pointed out the mix-up. He responded: "People make themselves stereotypes. Interchangeable conformity, there's nothing striking."
He extended his criticism to the people who unthinkingly accept this kind of carefully marketed entertainment: "Are they asking to be bored, to be desensitized? ...People keep their eyes on what's the same, but they don't listen to their heart skip a beat when they hear what's different."
Rick doesn't want to silence Kanye West. He himself has said many things some people would want to silence. But his wife and manager, Tracy DeMarzo-Shapiro, with whom Rick started a Parkinson's awareness campaign shortly after being diagnosed, prompted him to say something in return. "It's an unending conversation," Rick said when I asked him how he felt about criticizing another artist for something they said.
That's what Rick is calling for: for people to wake up, to have an impassioned conversation. To yell at the top of their lungs when something is stupid.
"Heated discourse, I miss it. We used to yell in New York, but now it's so upscale, all you hear is the clinking of silverware, in the same restaurant where they used to yell ideas across the restaurant."
What if we stopped taking offense at art just for touching on a particular subject, whether it's a song lyric about Parkinson's, or a rape joke, or whatever else people are mad about this month? What if instead we took offense at all the things that fall short of the creativity and beauty we want to see? At the psychological assault we face at the hands of advertising executives, and the bland fare served up for mass consumption on our screens and over our airwaves (wait, we still use those, right?). What if we all called Kanye West stupid, and read some Kazantzakis?
"People oughtta be shaking on the street who don't have Parkinson's. Their houses are being stolen and the economy is being drained and used and manipulated. Everybody oughtta be shaking."