Kanye West—where to start? One of the most famous and most acclaimed musical artists of our generation, legendary rapper, and most recently… meme? It would not be controversial to claim that these last few years have not been good for his career or public image and reputation. Not only has his musical career faltered, but he has also made himself a target of relentless mockery. It is difficult to trace this kind of mockery to the beginning—was it his famous “imma let you finish” back in 2009, was it his initial run for president in 2016, or has it been his most recent public follies and reckless gaffes?
It would be impossible to examine every Kanye-related meme on the internet. The production of Kanye parodies has escalated exponentially over the last five years. So, for this analysis I will be looking at the famous “blank stare” meme and Kanye presidential campaign-related memes.
The “blank stare” meme originated from a viral video posted on The Ellen Show’s instagram account on May 18th, 2016. It features a close-up of Kanye staring straight into the camera. It is clear that Kanye was under the impression that it was a photo being taken of him, rather than a video. The video is only a couple of seconds long, but throughout the clip his eyes widen in an amusing manner. The post received more than 2.7 million views and was reported in BuzzFeed and other small online news outlets shortly afterwards. However, it was not until 2019 that the video became a meme. It all started in January 2019 when users on iFunny called Avuelix and Jepsi photoshopped clips of the video into a screen grab of a FaceTime call with the “staring hamster.” A few months later, user ThreeEyesBluePatrick posted the earliest viral GIF of the video with a caption. From there, the circulation of this GIF with various captions exploded across iFunny and quickly got to Twitter and Instagram. This kind of content continued to gain popularity into 2020.
The production of these memes contributed to the adoption of Kanye’s new public persona, which has become the target of ridicule and jokes in popular culture and the media. This mockery reached a new level when he announced in 2016, and again in 2020, his bid for the presidency of the United States. Though few people took the announcement seriously, there were just enough people who did. Kanye West was quickly pronounced irresponsible and out of control, as many people raised concerns about the nonchalance and pageantry that had become of the U.S. presidential campaign (especially as Donald Trump gained popularity in 2016). At the same time, memes about a Kanye presidency, as well as the prospect of a West-Kardashian White House, blew up. From which users these memes originated is unknown, but they gained significant steam on Instagram and, particularly, Twitter. The reproduction of Kanye content has become especially popular on meme accounts on instagram, and has significantly undermined his career as a musical artist. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine if the recent decline of his musical career made him into more of a meme or if his becoming a meme contributed to the decline of his career.
But why did Kanye West presidency memes explode? A combination of anxiety and hilarity probably resulted in most of the content generated on Twitter. Additionally, with time, everything Kanye West released on the internet, from tweets to instagram posts, became a meme. This raises the question: was it Kanye himself that made Kanye West memes so funny, or was it the creators, or was it both? Kanye’s recent public gaffes, ignorance, and outlandish statements, together with the creativity of online users combined to create one of the most popular kinds of memes of the late 2010s. Perhaps Kanye memes are exactly what the internet needed for the times we live in.