Roland Barthes, Kanye West and the Rebirth of the Author

In 1967 Roland Barthes announced the death of the author in his essay of the same name, like Nietzsche had once announced the death of God. Barthes believed that the moment a work of art is sent out into the world, leaving the caring hands of its author,  meaning springs from its interaction with the observer. The artist’s life, the context of the work, or their intentions, should not be invoked in its interpretation. Even when an artist can’t help but gush over the hidden meanings, the shrouded depths of their work, it should be treated as no more valuable than a random onlooker’s snide remarks. The art in the time of Barthes’ thinking fit this belief well, painters did not pull their work out of museums to alter it, and with it, their meanings, and writers certainly did not break into your house to make a few final edits in the book lying comfortably under your nightlight.

With the digitalization of the world this changed. Nothing that can be altered as easily as a computer file is ever really finished. The first few noticeable online cracks in the concept of a finished work perhaps came with the incessant tweeting of Harry Potter author J.K Rowling. Yes, authors have commented on their works in the past, they have put down theories about, or interpretations of their work, but never have they reached an audience as global as Rowling’s hollow attempts to make her books more inclusive did. Yes, she tweeted, of course Dumbledore had intense sexual relationships with men, and, obviously, Hermione is actually black, despite neither of these things being remotely present in the books. But even these half-hearted attempts to seem more modern by an author that has revealed herself to be far from it, could simply be ignored and Barthes’ ideals could be maintained. The true first deathblow to his theory, the first artwork that truly is a “living breathing changing creative expression”, as Kanye West called it himself, is the 2016 album The Life of Pablo. The first version of the album was released on February 14, with the first alteration coming on March 13. The change, a single lyric, was small, but it was the first subtle heartbeat of a newborn creature. The next day the song ‘Wolves’ was not only audibly changed, but it was broken into two tracks, with ‘Frank’s Track’ now being a new addition on the album. Kanye announced the change a full month before it came to pass in the now infamous tweet “Ima fix wolves”. Every single track was altered over the course of three months as the project breathed, stumbled, and matured.

The argument could be made that these changes, largely improvements in mixes and sound quality, smaller compositional modifications and subtle tweaks in vocal pitching can hardly amount to significant changes in the possible interpretations of the album. This all changed with the final change: on June fourteen a completely new track was added, the new final song of the album: ‘Saint Pablo’. ‘Saint Pablo’ is one of West’s greatest tracks, switching effortlessly between the hilariously braggadocious and the disarmingly sincere, between aggressively abrasive and hauntingly beautiful. The previous song that had ended the album, ‘Fade’, was bouncy, vigorous and sexual, while this new track was brooding, slow and ominous. The hedonistic tales of excess and debauchery that permeate the album were suddenly much harder to be interpreted as simple fun, as anything but a poorly working veil sloppily draped over profound insecurities and oceans of sadness. The album’s bleak ending forces the listener into a whole new interpretation of the work, three full months after the art piece was first sent into the world. The author had forcefully rolled the stone from the entrance of their tomb and had risen again, fittingly through an album described by its creator as “a gospel album, with a whole lot of cursing on it”.

The Life of Pablo is a success story in this new world of the rebirthed authors. It grew from a good album to one of West’s best. I have not met anybody, either on- or offline, that prefers the initial version to the latest. After Kanye’s venture into uncompromising Christianity in Jesus is King, he made Donda, named after his late mother. The lengthy album explored family, love, loss, faith and perseverance through twenty-three tracks, not counting the four remixes that follow the closing track. This album also underwent changes that completely altered any possible interpretation of the work: a few audio changes; a very justified removal of Chris Brown from the album, whose long history of abuse clashed with everything the album stood for; and with the deluxe version came the addition of new tracks like ‘Never Abandon Your Family’, ‘Life of the Party’ and ‘Up from the Ashes’; but maybe most importantly, the entire order of the album was changed, and multiple remix-tracks, which has previously felt like an afterthought for those especially interested, were suddenly thrusted into the middle of the project, making multiple tracks appear twice in the run of the album. This last change made the album cripplingly disorienting and left it feeling disjointed and messy. It seemed as if Kanye had pressed ‘shuffle’ on his own album and decided the randomized result would be the new version of his album.

Avant fans of Kanye reacted to this in a unique way, upon perceiving his callousness to the track-order they started making their own version with whatever order they liked themselves, cherry picking the added tracks and remixes they adored and leaving out the ones they didn’t. Not only had the author been reborn, the art’s observer, or listener in this instance, had taken back their agency through digital means. The author changed the meaning of his art after it had been sent into the world and the witness responded by doing the exact same. The interpretation of Donda came not from a link between art and author, as Barthes critiqued, or a link between art and observer, as he pleaded for, but an intermingling, connecting of all three forces present in any perceived art piece. Is this the future of art? Art, artist and witness working together as a holy trinity of sorts endlessly reinterpreting everchanging online art pieces? The only real answer I’ve been able to find is: what else could it be?

Written by Arthur Mulder

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