As far as years go in the pop cultural zeitgeist, 2016 was generally viewed as fairly awful. Beloved celebrities died; a now-hated celebrity took presidential office. These lows were personified in one of pop culture’s most zeitgeist-defining celebrity couples: Kanye and Kim Kardashian West.
Although they each enjoyed milestones, together they also faced instabilities such as feuding with Taylor Swift, Kim’s robbery, and Kanye’s mental breakdown. With these events occurring under public scrutiny, their social media and creative prowess has allowed them self-representation during these trying times. While the trailer for the upcoming Keeping Up with the Kardashians season indicates a Kardashian interpretation of these events, Kanye’s video for “Wolves” depicts, and even predicts the bittersweet, ups and downs of their lives.
“Wolves” doubly serves as a music video and a campaign video for fashion house Balmain, currently under the artistic direction of Olivier Rousteing. Rousteing is a young, openly gay person of colour whose meteoric rise at first shocked the traditional fashion elite. Like Rousteing, Kim and Kanye have had to defiantly overcome their “ethnic” and “low-brow” status in an industry traditionally rooted in white-European and “highbrow” sensibilities. Yet, the couple has effectively leveraged their talents and collective mass following into a crossover trade-off with the fashion world. As such, Vogue has branded Kim and Kanye “#WORLDSMOSTTALKEDABOUTCOUPLE”, and decorated them as the best-dressed couple, donning Balmain, at the 2016 MET Gala.
The “Wolves” video frames Kim and Kanye as each both mogul and muse in an industry that profits from their status and, yet, has been known to deny it. While pop culture and fashion imagery tend to be objectify its subjects, rendering them into intangible symbols of luxury, beauty, and youth, the stark selection and framing in “Wolves” guides the eye toward their deep outward gazes steeped with tears, by proxy toward their personhood.
Notably, Kim’s iconographic thousand-yard stare as hands graze her face and body projects such poignancy in her sheer magnitude and yet vulnerability at the hands of society. Meanwhile Kanye raps, “You tried to play nice, everybody just took advantage,” and continues to compare them and to Mary and Joseph, stating a need to cover their children “in lambswool,” as the family is now “surrounded by the wolves.”
It is chilling to consider that only a few months later, Kim was robbed at gunpoint during Paris fashion week, and Kanye subsequently experienced a mental breakdown for which he was forcibly hospitalized and has since lost all memory of the experience. One can’t help but to wonder to what extent he was sensing the oncoming peaks and troughs, prompting him to pen these lyrics and contextualize them in this video.
In its totality, “Wolves” servers as a subversive act of self-depiction, presenting us with a potent rumination on the yin and yang’s of culture: “high” and “low”, personal and public, artistic and commercial, and even secular and religious. In ruminating on these contrasting forces, then regurgitating them in his own image, Kanye frames for us the power and vulnerabilities of celebrity life, altogether both beautiful and dangerous.