By Brett Yates
At the dawn of the New Year, just moments after the ball dropped in Times Square, Kanye West unexpectedly gifted the world with a new song called “Only One”—and the world paid attention. The song was noteworthy for two reasons: 1) according to the accompanying (non-satirical) press release, Kanye had spontaneously crossed over to the spirit realm in order to compose the song’s lyrics, which channel the voice of his deceased mother . . . who, in Kanye’s imagination, is far less interested in letting us know what heaven is really like than she is in telling Kanye how great he is; and 2) the song features keyboard work and backup vocals by Paul McCartney.
Paul McCartney, as you surely know, is a British singer-songwriter who initially gained recognition as a member of the Beatles—a 1960s quartet of Liverpudlian boys who played “rock and roll,” an African-American musical genre characterized by “a blues rhythm with an accentuated backbeat” and “electric guitars,” according to Wikipedia.
Paul McCartney is 72 years old. Kanye West is 35 years younger than McCartney and rose to fame as a record producer and rapper within the African-American musical genre “hip-hop,” which, according to Wikipedia, is characterized by a “synthesized beat” and “rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.” West is black; McCartney is white. All of these discrepancies have given their musical alliance a measure of interest.
This is not to say that joint efforts between popular musicians of varying ages, races, and styles are altogether uncommon. Cross-generational collaborations, in particular, are an established trope within pop music. Some of these partnerships—for example, that of Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, or Jack White and Loretta Lynn—have helped both the younger star and the elder statesman reach new artistic heights. Somewhat more often, the result is an ill-conceived one-off novelty song that, aiming for the impossible commercial ideal of “music that parents and their kids can enjoy together,” lands somewhere within the awkward territory that Bing Crosby and David Bowie—each of them utterly disoriented and palpably contemptuous of the other—memorably inhabited for the bizarre and dispiriting 1982 single “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.”
More recent examples include “Dirty Love” by Kesha (featuring Iggy Pop) and “m.A.A.d. city” by Kendrick Lamar (featuring MC Eiht). David Byrne and St. Vincent made an album together in 2012; Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett did the same in 2014. Works of this kind are usually interpreted as efforts by the older musician to “return to relevance” or attempts by the younger musician to “establish authenticity” by way of a legend’s co-sign. Either way, it’s an act of charity by one party or the other—the current pop star who, sitting on top of the world, helps out a broken-down performer whose music he probably ripped off at some point; or the timeless musical hero, kind enough to lend a degree of artistic legitimacy to a Top 40 flavor of the month.
Prior to the Kanye song, McCartney already had a history of participating in duets with younger, black pop stars, specifically Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, with whom he created a total of five songs, most famously “Ebony and Ivory” (with Wonder) and “The Girl Is Mine” (with Jackson). It should go without saying that these are two of the worst songs ever written: the former a syrupy paean to racial harmony with a simplistic central metaphor; the latter a sort of jaunty musical rom-com depicting a love triangle containing 40-year-old McCartney, 24-year-old Jackson, and an unnamed, totally implausible, nonexistent woman who somehow has earned the dueling transatlantic affections of these two disparate musical giants (one of whom, McCartney, was already married at the time).
It should also go without saying that, in his cross-generational and interracial collaborations, McCartney is never perceived as the recipient of charity; he—as part of the rock group that Western civilization has, by unofficial popular vote, elected the greatest musical act of the 20th century—is always the giver of it.
Whether he’s reviving the corpse of a forgotten rockabilly pioneer (Carl Perkins) or ushering a young Motown star into the disco-hating mainstream, Paul—the famously compassionate, philanthropic liberal, mellowed by cannabis and meditation—is happy to lend his high-profile seal of approval to a talented niche artist, thereby (as he demonstrates his artistic authority) inadvertently reinforcing the cultural hierarchy according to which even Michael Jackson will never be as “great” as the Beatles. Working with Kanye West—on a song wherein McCartney’s presence, though completely undetectable, is the main reason people are talking about it—may be his most generous act of condescension yet, as he lets music fans less eager than he to embrace diversity (musical or otherwise) know that this rapper deserves some respect, too.
It hasn’t worked, of course: McCartney’s followers evidently have such contempt for West that, when a handful of his fans made some good-natured Twitter jokes in which they puzzled over the identity of this “new,” “unknown” artist (McCartney) whom Kanye had “discovered,” the older folks chose to ignore their blatantly jocular tone and lambaste the hip-hoppers for their cultural ignorance. Even legitimate news agencies reported upon the Tweets as though they were serious—because news agencies are owned by the sort of people who like the Beatles, not the sort of people who like Kanye West: implying that Kanye fans are idiots was just too irresistible.
Not having heard of Paul McCartney is, apparently, unthinkable: that assumption was the very basis of the humorous Tweets about which his fans became so upset. But what if Kanye’s fans really hadn’t known who McCartney was? Well—what would it matter? Like Kanye, Paul is just an entertainer, and his brand of entertainment appeals to a certain subset of the human population—a group of people, who, contrary to what they might think, do not own the right to determine the artistic curriculum for every human being on the planet.