Almost Famous analysis

Almost Famous: A Nietzschean Lesson In Honesty

Penny Lane is already Dionysian, so she stays the same.

Penny Lane is already Dionysian, so she stays the same.

Song of the day: “Fever Dog” by Stillwater

For someone who held a “movie club” on Friday nights in high school because he didn’t roll with the partying crowd, I’ve become a surprisingly TV-focused guy over the past year. Movies take a lot more effort to watch since they aren’t packaged in convenient 23 or 41 minute chapters, and because my lack of a 9-to-5 job means that I essentially work seven days a week, I can rarely justify taking two or more hours out of my day to sit and consume visual culture. Sometimes, though, a life situation calls for a particularly special movie. In July, as I languished in Lake Tahoe without a clear passion or plan for the future, that movie was The Graduate. And last night, nearly two months into my career as a music journalist, that movie was Almost Famous.

What better movie for a music journalist to watch than one that tells the story of a fifteen-year-old writer who hits the road with one of his favorite bands? What better life could I imagine for myself than getting to experience every aspect of that band’s tour, from crazy parties in Topeka and Los Angeles to legendary performances in Cleveland and New York City, and having the chance to pick their brains about their songs and their lives? When I read that Cameron Crowe wrote Almost Famous as a semi-autobiographical tale, and that William Miller’s experiences are based on his own, I couldn’t help but feel more than a little jealous. The early 1970s were different times–before the blogosphere democratized the Internet, mega-amplified the supply of writers, and made it damn near impossible for people well out of high school to become paid contributors to any magazine, let alone Rolling Stone. Then again, reading about Crowe’s life and success in both journalism and screenwriting gave me another inspiring figure in my chase for the Dionysian.

I started watching Almost Famous around midnight, not expecting that it would run well over two and a half hours. But of all the late nights I’ve had over the past several years because I couldn’t shut off a screen, this was probably the most worthy. Not only did I take away some great lessons in journalism, but Nietzsche and his philosophy made their inevitable entry to my thoughts as the movie progressed.

Almost Famous is, first and foremost, a movie about truth. Literally so, as the first lines read:

Elaine: You want to be Atticus Finch. Oh, that makes me feel so good.

William: I like him.

Elaine: Why?

William: Well, he’s honest.

William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has been raised by his über-helicopter Elaine (Frances McDormand), who puts today’s “tiger moms” to shame, and early on in the film we find out that she’s lied to him about his age.  “Adolescence is a marketing tool,” she quips, defending her actions as her rebellious daughter Anita (a young and characteristically deadpan Zooey Deschanel) takes the opportunity to attack her. Elaine is a walking contradiction throughout much of the film: the college professor who flaunts her intelligence as proof that she is always right, yet is blinded by her own dogmatic views of the world and incapable of acknowledging her children’s ability to think independently and make their own decisions. Nominally in the pursuit of “truth” in her chosen profession, she’s willing to lie to her son to suit her own pathological need for his love and devotion. And when Elaine’s parenting tactics fail, she can’t accept the reality of her failure. “She’ll be back,” she remarks as Anita leaves home to become a stewardess. Even in the face of her daughter’s clear joie de vivre, Elaine remains convinced that her system of morals is correct and will prevail.

Of course, this thinking violates Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictums against any type of permanently held valuations. Nietzsche’s thought system is unique among philosophers in that it’s more of an anti-system, an encouragement to the constant creation and destruction of values and the free expression of life energy unfettered by preexisting people, beliefs, or experiences. Elaine can’t even grasp any sort of life that deviates from what her books and studies have taught her, as is evident in her consistent check-ins with William as he travels the country with Stillwater. She freaks the music world out with her intensity and feverish worry about 1) keeping William safe and 2) keeping his morals intact. The Stillwater tour isn’t a place where traditional morality has any sort of place, and she knows this–it’s a “Valhalla of decadence.”

How incredible it is, then, that Frances McDormand makes us feel for Elaine when she walks out of her classroom, and that in the end she actually welcomes the man who killed her son’s story into her house. I’ve always admired McDormand for her work in Fargo, but this performance I found more powerful.

On the whole, the guys in Stillwater aren’t particularly more thoughtful than any other early ’70s rock band. We do get to see Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) offer up a paraphrasing of Freud’s three-part psyche (or Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian):

On the whole, I’d say most of the fuck-ups in the world come from the brain and not the instincts. My whole thing is to try and make my brain go away but I can’t, except on-stage. The brain, I think, should be a softening influence on the instincts but the instincts should drive. Trying to reconcile the brain with urges that come out of millions of years ago. The way the brain interprets these instincts is… a heavy trip. Usually I’m brain and Russell is instincts. But on the days when we’re both instinct, that’s when we’ve made the music people know best, because… it’s the best.

But even though Bebe has identified this truism that Nietzsche first pointed out in The Birth of Tragedy, he utterly fails to overcome his brain and submit to the music. As a result, he comes across as a pretty petty guy, jealous of Hammond’s fame and skill and worried that he’s going to be left behind. Rather than trying to let the band’s stage relationship define their personal relationship, he puts things the other way around and as a result there’s tangible friction throughout the tour. William, the ever-present and omniscient observer, picks up on this natural struggle that accompanies any band’s growing fame–examples of intra-band rivalries abound, from The Beatles to Van Halen to Duran Duran, and they need to be overcome if the group is to survive.

The way to overcome these difficulties jives with Nietzsche’s approach to friendship: that friends exist to challenge and encourage one another in the process of self-overcoming. In the context of a band, which exists based on the Dionysian art form of music–throughout the movie, we see Stillwater spontaneously breaking into song, most notably Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”–the self-overcoming happens when the members fully immerse themselves in the emotions that come from their songs and the settings that contribute to their performance. I think Nietzsche would have loved various aspects of the rock star life Stillwater leads on the road, particularly the complete loss of self that Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) experiences after he drinks LSD-laced beer at a party in Topeka. But he would have criticized the aspects of that lifestyle that lead to the members’ self-dishonesty: the ego-driven infighting, the concern with money that Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) expertly exposes within them after their Cleveland show, and above all their all-consuming desire to look “cool.”

Russell Hammond epitomizes “cool,” from his soft, sensual eyes and his expert guitaristy to his casual galavanting at various parties and easy deferrals of William’s interview requests. And his “cool” factor has attracted the adoration of Almost Famous‘ most enduring character, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson in her breakout role). Penny lives in a world of fantasy, consistently talking about the “real world” and desire to move to Morocco once she retires from the groupie life. She possesses an imagination and a romance that can’t help but inspire everyone she encounters; she’s the personification of rock and roll’s glorious escapism, Hammond’s on-the-road girlfriend who far exceeds his other flings and William’s goddess of music, which is his religion. The only trouble with Penny Lane is that she’s incapable of grasping reality.

Penny: Why are you yelling at me?

William: I thought we were going to Morocco! There’s no Morocco. There’s never been a Morocco. There’s not even a Penny Lane. I don’t even know your real name.

Penny: If I ever met a guy in the real world, who looked at me the way you just looked at me…

William: When and where does the real world occur? I am…really confused here.  All these rules and all these saying…and nicknames…

Penny: Honey, you’re too sweet for rock and roll.

This happens just before William reveals that Hammond has sold Penny to Humble Pie for “fifty dollars and a case of beer,” a truth that finally begins to crack her. Imagination is vital to a fulfilling life, but untempered by a grounding in the “real world,” it inevitably causes a terrifying and crushing nihilism. Who is Penny Lane? She fancies herself the spirit of rock and roll, the greatest fan in the world (which she is)…but in the end she’s being called “that groupie” by Bebe when the band thinks they’re about to die in a plane crash. As much as Hammond realizes he needs her presence to be inspired–in their phone reconciliation, he tells her, “I’m never as good as when you’re there, and I can see myself, the way you look at me…and I’m sorry”–she needs him to allow for her flight from the pressures of time, obligations, and anything else “normal” people face on a daily basis. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes about achieving the balance between the infinite and the finite as a necessary aspect of reconciling the self with itself and creating harmony. Penny, though doesn’t have a finite self. She has no conception of the requirement for life’s energy to be put into form–Nietzsche’s definition of the Apollonian–outside of an assumed name. The result is heartbreak when her romance comes to an end and, with it, the miracle of the Stillwater tour.

It’s left to William to be the voice of truth who reconciles the band and Penny with themselves, putting them in touch with authenticity and enabling their self-overcoming. At the beginning of his assignment with the band, he’s given a simple directive by Hammond: “Just make us look cool.” And he’s more than willing to oblige, since he’s a huge fan of Stillwater. But he’s too astute not to notice the internal differences threatening to tear the band apart, and his love for Penny, his rock and roll angel, is too strong for him to just let the band off easy when they show their true apathy towards her on their plane ride from hell. So begins a struggle within the young writer; he loves the band, and he loves being friends with them, but that friendship is predicated on pandering to the image they want to uphold in the piece he writes about them for Rolling Stone. And even though he’s honest with Hammond and the others in private conversation, exposing the truth of what happened on their tour to the public would likely spell the end of his relationship with Stillwater. In need of advice at the eleventh hour as he’s finishing his feature, he calls Lester Bangs (a typically perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman), who offers him the best tips on friendship and rock journalism I’ve ever heard:

See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong. They make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool…I know you think these guys are your friends. But if you want to be a real friend to them–be honest and unmerciful.

In writing and in life, it’s tough to be honest and unmerciful. I’m friends with people because I like them and they like me, and saying anything that could be hurtful is not something I ever like to do. This truth rings especially strong in my journalistic exploits, where I’m always wary of the effect that a negative review will have on my ability to access bands and get better stories. Being called “The Enemy,” a moniker that Stillwater imposes on William (first jokingly, then endearingly, then finally sincerely after they read his brutally honest “think piece” on them), isn’t a nice distinction. But honesty lies at the core of Nietzsche’s anti-system. It’s impossible to self-overcome without the ability to acknowledge your own flaws, and it’s impossible to encourage and challenge your friends to self-overcome without acknowledging theirs. The übermensch is brave in that he expresses life energy through all moments of life–the happy, the sad, the bitter, the angry, the ecstatic–and affirms everything that happened, even going so far as to will that the course of events that has occurred should occur over and over again into eternity.

That William eventually writes the piece he does, and that Stillwater eventually decides to do him right and admit that his facts are correct, is central to Almost Famous’ central tenet of honesty. It’s better to tell your son the truth about his age instead of lying to him. It’s better to face the jealousies and the fact that everything is not okay in the band instead of trying so hard to project a “cool” face to the public eye. And it’s better to fall in love with the music and its soul–Penny Lane–than to allow other concerns to get in the way and interrupt the authenticity of rock and roll. Once the truth is out in the open, the arduous process of self-overcoming can begin, and with it the tremendous respect bestowed upon the aspiring übermenschen by those who understand their struggle.

As I go forth into the world of music journalism, these are lessons I’ll carry with me. It does me no good to lament the fact that I’m not scoring the Rolling Stone cover story–if I build a reputation for honest work, fair appraisals of music, and a knack for keen observation, I’ll get there eventually.

P.S. How adorable is young Jay Baruchel in this movie?







P.P.S. Rolling Stone needed the fictional fact checker from the movie for its “A Rape On Campus” story.



Is Kanye West The Übermensch?

Is Kanye West the Übermensch?

Have we at last found an example of the higher man?

Have we at last found an example of the higher man?

Get your scuba suits on and prepare to dive headfirst into one of the most polarizing, complex, crazy, egotistical personalities of the past ten years: we’re analyzing Kanye through Friedrich Nietzsche’s eyes today.

For the first decade of Kanye West’s recording career, I couldn’t have cared less about him.  I had never really given him, or rap as a whole, the time of day—it was the music that I’d heard at bar mitzvahs and dances, and in cars where someone cooler than me was controlling the radio.  I had of course seen South Park absolutely destroy him in the classic 2009 episode “Fishsticks,” and my friends had extolled the brilliance of Yeezy’s next two albums (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne).  It took extended exposure to serious ‘Ye aficionados in the sequestered environ of overnight camp to finally get me interested.  Ironically, it was the anti-commercial Yeezus that hooked me, and “Black Skinhead” that became the song of my summer of 2013.  We got the campers to pound the beat from the song on the lunch tables, because campers are impressionable and think good counselors are the coolest people ever.  My posse and I even rewrote it with clean, camp-themed lyrics to and performed it live at the staff show.  You could have called us disciples or just obsessed.

Then I saw Kanye on the Yeezus Tour that December, and all of a sudden he was transmuted into a champion in my eyes.  There he was, six feet from me on the stage—we got there really early—and for two hours he bombarded me with sheer inspiration.  The show was an artistic masterpiece complete with a dozen anonymous female dancers, a huge ass mountain, and appearances by a monster and Jesus, not to mention Kanye’s various and terrifying masks.  I marveled at his autotuned rant that somehow moved me nearly to tears despite making no sense whatsoever, and I started to realize that no matter how crazy he appeared in his interviews and how many foolish decisions he made in the public eye, this was a true creative genius.  For me, the question shifted from “Why does Kanye act so strangely?” to “Has Kanye transcended humanity?”

Probably the best picture I will ever take.

Probably the best picture I will ever take.

I was just beginning my study of Nietzsche at the time, and as I read about his concept of the übermensch, it was only natural for me to wonder if Kanye West fit the description.  Now, “übermensch” is a term that’s been corrupted to hell by the Nazis—another atrocity we can thank them for—so your conception of it probably doesn’t match Nietzsche’s original intention.  In a nutshell, here’s what the übermensch is:

  • A person who affirms life at every moment. That means all of life’s energy—the good and the bad, but most of all the spontaneous.  Nietzsche calls this spontaneous, ecstatic aspect of life force the Dionysian, and its channeling the will to power.
  • A person who is unfettered by existing systems of morality, values, and organized religion–the übermensch creates their own values every moment. You might think this would allow them to justify killing, stealing, etc., but you’d be wrong, because the übermensch isn’t troubled by the types of concerns that would drive people to kill or steal.
  • A person who escapes the influence of society and of their own past. I’d go into how Nietzsche thinks this is possible, but it’s pretty complex. If you want a more comprehensive explanation of the übermensch, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a great job of explaining his development of the concept in his seminal mid-1880s work Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The most important thing to remember is this: the übermensch isn’t about overcoming other people—it’s about overcoming yourself and anything that gets in the way of you expressing your life energy honestly.

So with that in mind, I decided to go back and listen to every Kanye West song, in order, from the very beginning of The College Dropout to the last notes of “All Day.”  I also looked up interview clips ranging from the tame to the bizarre, looking for some sort of indication that I had found the “higher man” of whom Nietzsche speaks.  What I found instead was a walking, rapping, screaming, living contradiction who is variously the epitome and the antithesis of the übermensch.  I’ll parse it all out for you right now.


No matter what you think of Kanye West as a person, his influence on hip hop and culture has been undeniably enormous and positive.  That said, opinions of Kanye the rapper are not as universally acclamatory as those of Kanye the producer.  It’s in the latter of those two fields—production—that I think the strongest Nietzschean traits come out of Yeezy.  He’s never been satisfied with a single sound, and even when he’s found something that resonates with an audience and tops the charts he follows a different creative stream with his next work.  That, to me, is the most amazing thing about his career: as with the Beatles, all of his work has been critically lauded (even if it took some time), but his fans can’t agree on which of his albums is the best.  Some long for a return to the sped-up soul samples that populated The College Dropout and Late Registration, and were thrilled when he returned to that style with “Bound 2” at the end of Yeezus.  Others love the synth-blasting arena rock of Graduation, or the bombast of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or the opulence of Watch the Throne, or the sheer chaos and primalism of Yeezus.  Even 808s, which a lot of listeners disliked in its time and is still his worst-reviewed album, set the tone for the dark, minimalistic, singing-heavy electro-hop that Drake and Kid Cudi would perfect and bring into the mainstream.  I’d expect that in twenty years, people will look back on that album with different, wiser eyes.

yeezy3No matter what style Kanye’s production has had, though, he’s found success and managed to stay ahead of the current tastes in the hip hop world.  Most importantly, he hasn’t just settled into one aesthetic and allowed it to define his career, which is what doomed T-Pain, Nelly, AC/DC, Nickelback, and other acts that remain firmly stuck in the past.  If the übermensch is all about overcoming his own past and living ahistorically, Kanye’s music fits the bill perfectly.  He could have made another “Gold Digger” using more Ray Charles samples and it probably would have been successful, but instead he ditched the style that had brought him to fame, took a creative risk with Graduation and its “stadium status” synths and Steely Dan excerpts, and still landed a number one single with “Stronger”–which, incidentally, rephrases Nietzsche’s famous dictum from Ecce Homo: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  Every single work has overcome its predecessor and created a vastly different soundscape based largely upon how Kanye was feeling at the time—his music has expressed the sentiments of a heartbroken cyborg, a triumphalist peacock, and a rabid specter at various points in his career, running the gamut of experiences and affirming the occurrence of life in all its glory and sadness.  Nothing is ignored as Kanye moves constantly forward in his music career and creates new musical value out of nothingness—a clear sign of his ascension to the plane of the higher man.

In particular, I find Yeezus to be, in itself, an incredible expression of Dionysian energy.  From the very beginning of “On Sight,” Kanye’s production on this album takes an animalistic tone, the type that reminisces upon the ancient Greek moonlit frenzies and sacrifice-orgies undertaken in the name of their wine god.  There’s dog barks on “I’m In It,” Yoko Ono-esque shrieks on “I Am a God,” and the intense breathing and tribal yells that form crucial parts of “Black Skinhead’s” infectious beat.  But what makes Yeezus a true sonic manifestation of the übermensch is its total unpredictability.  The best moment on the album comes 1:07 into “Blood on the Leaves,” when Kanye’s emotive autotuned singing over a haunting sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is suddenly overtaken by the massive synth-brass TNGHT sample that immediately turns the song from a ghostly ballad into a pained banger.  The transition is unexpected, instant, and so rapidly changes the beat’s value that any notion of what the song was going to mean no longer applies—and that’s the will to power at work.  You can also hear it in the children’s choir that interrupts “On Sight,” the busting-through of Hungarian prog-rock band Omega at the end of “New Slaves,” and Kanye’s surprising return to his soulful production roots on “Bound 2,” the album’s final track.

So if we were to just look at Kanye West’s music, we’d have a pretty convincing argument for his being the higher man.  There’s constant creation of value, freedom from set beliefs and other people’s direct influence, and Kanye’s overcoming of his own past.  Unfortunately, Yeezy’s music is accompanied by…


…and here’s where our comparison starts to run into problems.

While he is far more noteworthy as a producer than a rapper, Kanye has written some important and powerful lyrics over the course of his career.  From the very beginning of The College Dropout, whose first hook states, “We don’t care what people say,” he makes it clear that he will not be confined by any other person’s expectations of him, and in general this theme has dominated his work over the past eleven years.  Even though on his debut this struggle for self-determination is framed most explicitly through his battle to be taken seriously as a non-gangsta rapper—as depicted nicely in “Family Business,” which includes the verse “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind/A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns”—Kanye consistently finds new ways to portray his battle against others’ definitions of him.  In itself, this mission is one Nietzsche would praise, particularly as it shifts in focus over time.

For the record, I think that Kanye isn’t taken seriously enough as a political rapper.  His infamous accusation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and verses like “I treat cash the way the government treats AIDS/I won’t be satisfied til all my niggas get it” (from “Gorgeous”) might come off as propagation of conspiracy theories, but they’re rooted in ‘Ye’s very real and very accurate perception of the low ceiling forced upon African-Americans in the United States, which he’s alternately discussed from his own perspective and from that of the black community.  The College Dropout’s All Falls Down”—in my opinion, some of the best lyrical work Kanye’s ever done—offers the first classic Yeezian combo take on race and materialism:

We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us

We trying to buy back our 40 acres

And for that paper, look how low we would stoop

Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.

yeezy2Even now that he’s a critically and commercially acclaimed hip hop superstar, the dual pillars of racism and material wealth remain constant topics of Kanye’s music, two interrelated but vastly different lenses through which we can examine Kanye’s whole career.  While his take on the black plight in America has maintained a steady and very successful course—Kanye’s the rare 21st century rapper, up there with Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, who can simultaneously top charts and speak to racial issues in songs like “All Falls Down,” “Crack Music,” “Gorgeous,” and “Murder to Excellence”—his take on fame and riches has vacillated enormously on a song-to-song basis, an incongruity that has come to define Kanye as a split consciousness.  He glorifies the “Good Life” even as he decries the “Flashing Lights” that come with it.  He “looks down at his diamond encrusted piece” and the thought that springs to mind is, “No one man should have all that POWER.”  For every Kanye that revels in the glory, sex, and debauchery that comes with life at the top of the cultural hierarchy, there’s a Kanye who is painfully aware of the self-annihilating process it entails.

On no album is the split personality of Kanye more prevalent than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is rightly termed his masterpiece in production, lyrical themes, and overall catharsis.  Nietzsche, the man who lauded Greek tragedy for its perfect balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian life forces, would have listened to “Runaway” and fainted in ecstasy.  The last four minutes of the song, with their auto-tuned mumbling over the most beautiful strings arrangement composed this side of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, perfectly embody everything Nietzsche wrote about allowing the will to power to overcome all values and formations, as Kanye’s words literally disintegrate into distortion and the listener is left with pure feeling and a mournful ecstasy.

And yet the very notion of Kanye the living contradiction is what prevents him from truly embodying the übermensch.  Despite his ability to diagnose the American neurosis stemming from our obsession with material wealth, Kanye himself is a slave to money, fame, and nice things.  He also has a penchant for defending his place among the world’s rappers, and even though his willingness to speak without a filter and weather the public’s judgment transcends the current value placed on political correctness, he seems to care a great deal about how he is perceived in the hip hop and fashion arenas.  Most importantly, Kanye is a devout Christian who has never shied away from his belief— “Jesus Walks” made him famous, after all—but also has the temerity to buck his faith’s monotheism and declare, “I am a God.”  We need only look at the second verse of that song to see examples of all three of these contradictions:

I just talked to Jesus

He said, “What up, Yeezus?”

I said, “Shit, I’m chillin’,

Tryna stack these millions

I know he the most high

But I am a close high

Mi casa, su casa

That’s our cosa nostra

I am a god.

Nietzsche, who notably wrote that “God is dead and we have killed him,” fingered Christianity as the prime example of a concrete value system that needs to be overcome.  Not only is Kanye incapable of overcoming his belief in Jesus Christ the Savior, but he also mistakenly believes that he can be a committed Christian who somehow is also a god: that’s heresy, and worse, it’s a personal dishonesty that Nietzsche can’t abide.  Kanye’s also calling himself the closest thing to Jesus in terms of his influence and fame, which is a plea for recognition with which the übermensch should not have to be concerned.  If Yeezy’s telling people to kneel before him, he’s clearly dependent on their adoration for his own self-affirmation, a value he needs to overcome.  And then there’s the ubiquitous reference to making money, a goal upon which Kanye reneges on the very next song off of Yeezus, the brilliant “New Slaves.”  The higher man should not be pursuing anything that would enslave him, particularly not when he openly realizes that it’s a toxin.


Sometimes I wonder whether Kanye’s outspokenness and utter lack of filter are just a marketing ploy.  Obviously he wouldn’t be nearly the cultural icon that he is if he didn’t match his groundbreaking music with his brash personality, so it’s a fair question.  Personally, though, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I don’t think he’s faking in interviews like this.

Even though Kanye is not an übermensch, it’s still worthwhile to consider the value he provides to popular culture, which I think is considerable.  The primary reason people hate on him is that he’s willing to say anything and doesn’t hesitate to express a high opinion of himself.  But is that really a reason to despise someone as vociferously as much of the public despises Kanye?  He’s certainly guilty of some self-aggrandizement, and “tactless” is a mild way of describing his putdowns of George Bush, Taylor Swift, and Beck.  But in recent years, he’s learned to apologize for some of his crazier outbursts, and the statements from which he doesn’t back down are comparisons that I think he can back up—why hasn’t he earned the right to think of himself in the light of Da Vinci or Walt Disney when his music has made such a powerful impact on the hip hop world?  At least within his sphere, he deserves to be called a master, if not the master.  If you’re going to hate on Kanye, hate on him for the content of his lyrics, which arguably perpetuate misogynoir (the oppression of black women).  But aside from that problematic issue, the fact that Kanye is willing to speak his mind is so important to the preservation of free thought in a day and age when speaking off the cuff risks instant demonization by an online mob.

Kanye West might not live up to Nietzsche’s ideal for the higher man, but he is a “close high,” and for that he’s earned my respect.  Now let’s hope his next album—expected later this year—continues to transcend the values of rap music.







Nietzsche Would Have Loved Summer Camp.

One of Zarathustra's many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Singing one of Zarathustra’s many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Song of the day: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Today marks the middle of the summer at North Star Camp in Hayward, Wisconsin.  This morning, over a hundred boys between the ages of eight and fifteen finished up their four-week session in the North Woods and returned home to their families.  About sixty others are spending the day with their parents, four weeks of camp under their belts elastic waistbands and another four to go.  And tomorrow afternoon, the reinforcements will arrive: over a hundred new campers to replace today’s departed for the next month.

For the first time since 2003, I am not taking part in the North Star revelries.  After five summers as a camper and six on staff it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life (that of being a struggling writer).  I miss camp, and I probably always will.  But the lessons I learned there over the past eleven years will continue to form an integral part of my personality.

I could extol the benefits of being a camp counselor for the next year, without pausing to eat or drink or sleep or go to the bathroom, and still have more to say.  Others, from Fortune 500 CEOs to education professionals, have covered that ground thoroughly.  Camp teaches grit, fosters multidimensional growth in children and teenagers, and aids in the development of leadership skills.  What they haven’t done, though, is an analysis of camp from a Nietzschean perspective.  That’s why I’m here: to tell you that he would have looked at camp and seen a paradise for the will to power.

Two summers ago, instead of telling my 13-year-old campers a made-up bedtime story or playing guitar as I usually did, I pulled out a well-worn copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and explained to them my rudimentary understanding of Nietzsche’s thought.  They found it fascinating, but I hadn’t yet read The Birth of Tragedy or Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, so the job was far from complete.  Most crucially, I lacked a real understanding of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the two opposing forces that drive art and creation.  To fully comprehend them, I suggest you read The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest significant work, but here I’ll summarize.

The Apollonian, named after Apollo–the god of order, among other things–is the impulse to create forms out of the world, while the Dionysian–named after Dionysus, who represents self-less ecstasy–is a sort of nihilistic energy that stems from the absurdity of human existence and inspires spontaneous action without care for harmony or forms.  In an ideal world or work of art (Nietzsche cites Greek Tragedy pre-Euripedes as the epitome), the two work together, with the Dionysian energy constantly being shaped by the Apollonian into a form that we can understand and then subsequently destroying that form to create a new one.  It’s helpful to think of the Apollonian as a mask and the Dionysian as sheer inspiration behind it.  Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian can’t be expressed in human language or sense, but without the Dionysian, the Apollonian remains a lifeless facade with no energy to shape into forms.

When they’re described like that, the Dionysian seems pretty horrible to behold–existentialist philosophers would spend the next century grappling with the meaninglessness and terror of life that it brings to mind.  But the Apollonian alone is just as bad.  In Nietzsche’s mind, you can’t live in denial of this world’s fundamental lack of objective meaning, morality, and values and simultaneously experience life the way it naturally happens.  So life’s goal becomes one of overcoming your tendency to let the Apollonian dominate and instead allowing the Dionysian to express itself–an impulse Nietzsche calls the will to power and an aspiration he terms the übermensch.  And at camp, the comparative absence of “real world” formations makes it much easier for this balance to be achieved.

When kids go to camp, they often leave behind home lives where their days are rigorously scheduled, where there isn’t much time or mental space for them to think and create for themselves.  When they aren’t being shepherded from school to extracurricular activities, they have access to TVs and phones that might set limits on their creative and intellectual development.  Of course, for some creative types technology has opened vast new realms of innovation–the existence of pre-teen YouTube celebrities is proof that not every kid uses a screen for zombification only–but for many others it’s just another obstacle in the way of their self-overcoming, another Apollonian form that suppresses the Dionysian impulse for absurdity and spontaneity.

At camp, though, kids enter a universe outside of their parents’ colossal shadow and the distracting, overwhelming fray of modern society, where it is nearly impossible for a child to exert independence.  All camps have rules to ensure the physical, emotional, and social safety of all campers, and most of them have some sort of schedule of activities each day.  But compared to life outside the camp bubble–and this is particularly true of overnight camps, where the bubble is more complete–social formations are less structured and free time abounds.  With the guidance of a steady, open-minded counselor, the Dionysian energy that elsewhere finds itself in chains can break loose and contribute spectacularly to the development of campers’ values and creativity.

One of my favorite examples of a camp-fueled Dionysian outburst occurred two summers ago at the lunch table.  A couple of my campers, seemingly out of nowhere, began singing a number from Les Miserables between bites of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  I don’t know how “I Dreamed a Dream” gets stuck in a thirteen-year-old boy’s head, but it apparently had happened and now we were all listening to them impersonate Susan Boyle.  Would this have occurred at their houses back in the Chicago suburbs with their parents?  As a camp counselor your interactions with parents are minimal, so for all I know they may come from families that regularly bring Broadway to their meals…but I would venture a guess that no, this was an anomaly.  I found it highly entertaining, though, and wanted to see it continue in a way that would a) not become stale and annoying after two minutes and b) involve more of the group.  So on the spot I announced, “This is now an OPERA LUNCH.  You all must SING instead of speaking.”

What followed was the most memorable lunch I will ever eat.  My campers devised melodies on the spot to ask for the milk and tell each other about their morning activities, occasionally belting out a soprano proclamation at the taste of their food or dropping down to (a pubertal approximation of) a baritone to discuss what their rest period plans would be.  Fortunately none of them were tone-deaf enough to make me regret my decision.  By the time we were clearing the table, things had progressed into full-blown a capella versions of “Defying Gravity,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and the obligatory grand finale: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  There it was: the Dionysian energy of music transfigured into the Apollonian formation of a normal lunch, and the ordinary transfigured into the extraordinary.

The most important aspect of camp is this freedom to create at all times.  The moral framework and creative interests the campers have developed at home come with them, but in the context of a new community without the cloying influence of the outside world they find their potential as value-creators, if not completely unfettered then at least possessing a far-lengthened leash.  And so long as their creation remains on the side of affirming life and others’ freedom to create for themselves, there needn’t be any problems or moral issues with this type of expression.  They can come home with an appreciation for their ability to exert Dionysian power through the lens of the Apollonian (even if they don’t have those terms for it) and, hopefully, attempt to carry the lessons they’ve learned at camp into the rest of their lives.

I doubt Nietzsche considered the possibility that his thought would be applied to summer camps.  But if he could have spent four weeks at North Star, I think he would have shared my appreciation for the place.  It’s not quite Zarathustra’s mountain, and it probably preaches a little too much reliance on friendship for his liking, but overall it’s hard to find a place where the will to power can shine through more powerfully.

To all the campers who returned home today, I say, “Keep it up,” and to all the campers who remain, I say, “Make it life-affirming.”  As for me, I’ll continue to strive to make the world more like camp–a place where the Dionysian doesn’t have to be chased.