Kanye, Louie and the Heartbreak of the Real Life Heel Turn
In wrestling, when a grappler goes from being a hero, or “babyface”, to being a bad guy, it’s called a “Heel Turn.” The heel turn is inherently dramatic. Mankind’s inherent duality, our eternal struggle between good and evil is being dramatized by muscular men in tights for the delight and entertainment of the masses. A wrestler we think we know is going over to the dark side, embracing evil and abandoning his earlier goodness.
At the same time, the heel turn is also totally predictable. It’s been a staple of wrestling for a very long time. Christ, even a pre-scandal Hulk Hogan did a heel turn to become “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan before he was exposed as a racist, sad, Bubba the Love Sponge’s Wife-shtupping bad guy out of the ring.
Heel turns occur all the time in real life as well. Celebrities we think we know turn out to be very, very different in actuality, or, alternately, they turn out to be exactly what we thought they were all along, but much, much worse.
That was certainly the case with two former personal favorites of mine, Kanye West and Louis CK. We always knew that Kanye was an asshole and a crazed narcissist. Post-The College Dropout, that’s always kind of been his brand. It was essential to his persona. But we didn’t just excuse it: we embraced the raging jackassery as evidence of his messy, singular genius.
Kanye may have been erratic, and egomaniacal, and narcissistic to an absurd, comical degree but he made great music and seemed to be on the side of good, more or less. That changed when Kanye began using his huge soapbox to agitate on behalf of Donald Trump.
When Kanye went to the Death Star to meet Darth Vader, I mean, went to Trump Tower to visit Donald Trump his heel turn was complete. As someone who used to identify with Kanye and his narrative on a level I now find deeply embarrassing, I hoped that he was going through a phase, that this was some weird manic episode and he would eventually find his way back and see the error of his ways.
Not only has that not happened, but Kanye has doubled down on his Trump support. It’s a huge, even defining aspect of his persona right now, and possibly permanently. Consequently, you could not pay me money to listen to his new music. The intensely personal connection I used to feel not only to albums like The College Dropout and Common’s Be, which he produced along with Dilla, makes it impossible for me to remove the art from the artist, the dude I used to love, identify with and look up to from the creep gushing about his love for a racist monster when every sane human being in the world is looking at him like, “Dude, what the fuck happened to you?”
I used to listen to “Touch the Sky” before I would send out an important email. That was a core superstition: I was trying to channel some of Kanye’s swagger, his ferocious self-belief, his crazed conviction that the world didn’t just owe him something: it owed him everything.
Now I can’t hear “Touch the Sky” without feeling a surge of anger and sadness over what Kanye used to be, what he used to mean to me, and who he is now. Merely being reminded of Kanye West’s existence is enough to bum me out these days.
The same is true of Louis CK. As with Kanye, I used to identify with CK to an embarrassing degree. A lot of people did. To put things in Rotten Tomatoes terms, the cultural consensus on CK used to be that he was one of our greatest and most important artists and his work ethic and independence made him a hero to fellow comics and creators. Now it seems to be that everyone knew he was an asshole and a creep all along and he was never that good to begin with, a revisionist take that requires an awful lot of convenient amnesia but excuses us from any complicity in CK’s misdeeds.
I can’t say that I never thought CK was that good to begin with because a long online record exists of me praising CK and his various projects. To former super-fans like me, CK’s willingness to expose his soul to reveal harsh truths was borderline heroic. When it came out that the formerly revered truth-teller had most assuredly not been telling the truth about exposing his penis in inappropriate places it cast doubt on his ability to be fundamentally, truly honest about anything. When you let a lie that big linger malevolently in the darkness for that long it can destroy you, your reputation and your art.
Because I used to care so very much about both of these men, I feel deeply disillusioned by their heel turns, by the way they seemed to have gone over to the dark side and embraced what they formerly railed against. Mr. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people ”becomes the highest-profile African-American cheerleader for a disgustingly racist and reprehensible wannabe dictator. A man revered for his unique insight into the human condition and single fatherhood returns to the stage to rant sourly at the trans community and teenage gun control activists.
The disillusionment I feel is nothing compared to what the women CK exposed himself to must have gone through. I cannot imagine how dispiriting it must be to see someone who flagrantly abused his power be held up not just as a talented comedian but as a giant and a genius revolutionizing both the art and business of comedy.
Can Kanye or CK ever come back from their heel turn? I’m not sure they can. The damage has already been done and they both seem to be moving steadily and with woefully misplaced confidence in the wrong direction. Having alienated much of their original fanbases they seem to be cultivating a new one inclined to think they’re either misunderstood or have been treated unfairly.
It’s understandable, if regrettable, that CK would find himself trying to reach the Opie & Anthony crowd of Libertarian/Alt-Right-leaning “Free Speech Warriors” convinced that CK is a martyr of free expression who is being blackballed and crucified for something they ultimately think is no big deal rather than a Progressive audience that sees him as a repellent, hypocritical monster who should spend the rest of his life thinking long and hard about all the horrible things he’s done and not telling jokes onstage in exchange for money.
I have no doubt that CK will find a more receptive audience among people who rage against the sins of “political correctness” and the excesses of identity politics. That could very well allow him to have a career post-scandal because to former fans like me he’s pretty much dead at this point.
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