The Rhetoric of Kanye West’s VMA Speech

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Disclaimer: Many people have contempt for pop culture, claiming it is nothing but vapid and shallow nonsense. But pop culture is human culture, our culture, plain and simple – and what’s considered vapid in one era may be regarded as high art in the next. And even if pop culture truly is nothing but shallow, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun.

"Kanye 2020" art by McDaniel student Cait Cahalane

“Kanye 2020” art by McDaniel student Cait Cahalane

Before analyzing Kanye West’s VMA speech, let’s have a quick and dirty rundown of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the study of how we use and how we are affected by language. There are three main aspects of rhetoric: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is an appeal to logic: the facts and rationale of an argument. Pathos is an appeal to emotion: the words we say that make others laugh, or cry, or tremble in terror, etc. Ethos is an appeal to ethics: what establishes our credibility and our character.

Speeches are a useful text to analyze rhetorically, so let’s turn our attention to Kanye West. He begins with addressing and thanking Taylor Swift, with whom he had a memorable moment at the 2009 VMAs He says, “You know I think about [the 2009 VMA moment] when I’m in the grocery store with my daughter and I have a really great conversation about fresh juice… and at the end they say, ’Oh, you’re not that bad after all!’” West evokes pathos, making the audience feel sad about how people he meets in the grocery store think West is horrible for a six-year-old incident. Mentioning his daughter also reminds us that he is a father, which further increases our empathy for him. He continues, “And like I think about it sometimes. … It crosses my mind a little bit like when I go to a baseball game and 60,000 people boo me.” His pathos makes us imagine what it must be like to have thousands upon thousands of people – over 30 McDaniels worth of people, to put it in perspective – boo him for, again, something that happened the better part of a decade ago.

kanyegifKanye goes on to ponder what would happen if he got the chance to do it all over again. “[W]hat would I have done? […] Would I have drank half a bottle of Hennessy and gave the rest of it to the audience? Y’all know y’all drank that bottle too! If I had a daughter at that time, would I have went on stage and grabbed the mic from someone else’s?” He continues to utilize pathos by reminding us that we, too, might have gotten drunk and thus made similar mistakes. He refers again to his fatherhood and makes us consider how it has changed him.

He further reflects on the commercial aftermath of the incident, saying, “Look at that. You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? ’Cause it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award ’cause it got them more ratings?” Kanye uses logos, making us think about the increased ratings – and profits – MTV gained from the 2009 debacle – at the expense of Kanye.

West does not use much ethos in his speech – his authority as a popular musician and controversial public figure are already well established. He does evoke it somewhat, however, toward the end of his speech, when he refers to himself as a “fellow artist” to all of the attendees to further establish his credibility.

Kanye ends his speech with more pathos, “It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas. People with ideas. People who believe in truth.” His words make us feel confident and hopeful for the future – especially a future that includes a President West.

–Summer, peer tutor