Material World

Kanye West’s song All Falls Down discusses inequality and materialism in America. His lyrics shed light on how societal pressure, class division, and racial issues drive his own materialism:

“ Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious

That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches

Rollie’s and Pasha’s done drove me crazy

I can’t even pronounce nothin’, pass that Ver-say-see!

Then I spent four hundred bucks on this

Just to be like, “Nigga, you ain’t up on this.”

And I can’t even go to the grocery store

Without some Ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team”

He observes the same in others as well:

“ We’ll buy a lot of clothes, but we don’t really need ’em

Things we buy to cover up what’s inside

‘Cause they made us hate ourself and love they wealth

That’s why shorty’s hollerin’, “Where the ballers at?” 

For the hip hop illiterate, ‘shorty’ refers to women and ‘ballers’ refers to someone (almost always male) who shows off their wealth. West is clear that the “them” influences the “us” by flaunting money and luxuries and loosely defines two classes in doing so. He recognizes how the upper class influences the desires of the lower class as we (meaning Americans) see wealth as the strongest, if not the only, mark of success. From the first quote he admits that he too is susceptible to this influence and is willing to spend money to just flaunt. Kanye West may or may not be an Alexis de Tocqueville fan, but he certainly recognizes the “hypocrisy of luxury” in our democracy.

“All Falls Down” was released in 2004 and written a few years before that. The success West has earned, the changes in his artistry, and his expansion into other creative endeavors gives us an interesting contrast with the message of this song. West has become the “elite” that he points at in “All Falls Down” , but that’s another post for another day.

“In What Spirits the Americans Cultivate the Arts” Alexis de Tocqueville focuses on comparing the role of production and fine arts in aristocracies compared to democracies, how class impacts perception of value, and materialism. Tocqueville believes that democratic people value utility over aesthetic, stating “They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful”. Makes sense. Only aristocrats have the privilege to afford (and appreciate) things whose only purpose is to be gazed upon, and aristocrats don’t survive into democratic ages.

Fortunately, de Tocqueville does not leave his interpretation of artistic appreciation or how people determine value there. He believed that democracies would not have a permanent upper class to determine the value of goods for the lower classes. Luxuries and taste would evolve and differ over time and from person to person. In a democracy money is not stagnant, with all opportunities and occupations available any man is able to become wealthy through the free markets. Sounds familiar. In aristocracies, occupation and class are linked. A son inherits not just a trade from a father but the status that comes with it. With class gone, occupations are available for anyone to pursue. Since its inception America has been the land of opportunity, and we determine how well one has taken advantage of that opportunity by how much money they have made.  The free market spurs competition, and the winner is the one who makes the most money. De Tocqueville writes that democracies require “the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities”. With all opportunities to achieve wealth available, and wealth changing hands through the free markets, the same or similar luxuries are held in regard by everyone but not everyone can obtain them. What they can obtain is less than perfect goods that satisfy their wants.

According to De Tocqueville, less than perfect goods serve two roles. The first being that more demand exists, thus more money can be made. The second being that a democratic society values wealth so much, that “everyone hopes to appear what he is not, and makes great exertions to succeed in this object”.  De Tocqueville does not explicitly call this ‘materialism’ or ‘greed’ instead writing that “the hypocrisy of luxury belongs more particularly to the ages of democracy”. In de Tocqueville’s eyes, Americans who cannot be rich at least want to look rich.

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