There are plenty of parallels to draw between Jack White and Kanye West. They are two artists the press has recently criticized—and each took time to mention those recent qualms during their performances at Bonnaroo—and they are two artists who continue to innovate, collaborate and alienate within their respective genres. With the headlining slots on Friday and Saturday, West and White both touted their statuses as rockstars during their sets, which got us wondering: who’s really the rockstar?
Kanye West is controversial. You might love him, you might hate him, but it’s unlikely you are genuinely indifferent and you definitely know who he is. Even if you know him as Mr. Kim Kardashian.
Despite his six flawless studio records, Ye’s true genius comes out on the stage where his refreshing approach to what it means to play a live show set him apart. His passion comes through when he has the mic in front of an audience, in a way that is so raw a studio album could never capture it. He puts so much into his show it becomes a sonic and visual work of poetry. The few times I managed to catch a glimpse of the stage all I could see was the silhouette of a masked figure afront a blood red backdrop. It sent a clear message to me—despite all the flack he gets for being egotistical, he actively makes himself as The Kanye West disappear from center stage. He is begging us to forget who, where, how and listen for what and why.
And for anyone who has listened to his most recent record Yeezus in its entirety, it’s clear Kanye has a lot he wants us to hear. I’ll never forget the moment Kanye said he’d been waiting ten years to write the song he was about to play. I screamed my lungs out hoping a track from College Dropout was about to follow. But he played “New Slaves”—his potent tirade against the racism that still permeates so much of our culture. Kanye isn’t about himself, he’s about the passionate message he wants to send through music.
Still, it would be impossible to address his show without addressing his inevitable rants which have been known to last upwards of twenty minutes. It was discouraging to see hordes of people leaving Friday’s show when Kanye started speaking about struggles with the press or believing in your dreams. But at the end of the day, Kanye is not working for us. His music is his art, and Kanye’s working for himself. He carries an admirable authenticity in the age of popular music that is made solely for entertainment with little personal involvement from the artist to back it up.
For me, it comes down to Kanye’s clear display of passion about what he’s doing and his refusal to do it in any way but his own. As Kanye himself said, he makes music that’s fire AND spits his soul through the wire—he’s both meaningful and entertaining. Isn’t that what we ask from our music? At the end of the day, Kanye didn’t play a show for thousands of people Friday night. He played a show for himself and thousands of people still showed up. I don’t know what’s more rockstar than that.
Jack White has every right to do what he wants on stage, but he does it in a way that is genuinely enjoyable and inclusive to his audience. He seemed really jazzed to be at Bonnaroo Saturday night. Perhaps it’s because he lives in Nashville and Bonnaroo feels a bit like a hometown gig, or perhaps he’d heard people griping about Kanye’s performance from the night before, but he brought energy and enthusiasm to the stage that was somewhat lacking during Kanye West’s performance. Still, I have a feeling White is charming, lively and straight-up weird with every audience.
It’s hard to find a person under 35 who is not a fan of at least one of Jack White’s projects, but then again, the same goes for Kanye. Still, instead of acting like he was too good for Bonnaroo, White cared about what the audience wanted to hear. Sure, he complained about Rolling Stone portraying him as a pretentious diva, but he didn’t fuss about playing some of his most-loved songs, including “Seven Nation Army,” “Steady As She Goes,” and “We’re Going to be Friends,” a sweet interlude between the stinging guitar riffs. He also played plenty from his newer albums, including the groovy “Lazaretto.” He kept saying that he would play as long as the audience wanted, and while his set was scheduled for 90 minutes, he jammed for over two and half hours.
White’s catalog is so extensive that it’s certainly possible most people haven’t heard every single one of his songs. But it doesn’t matter. On stage, he can make even the most basic human fall in love with his funky swag (panty dropper). The chemistry between White and his band permeated to the audience too. Also, as a short girl, I genuinely appreciated that he used the big screens, unlike West, who I didn’t see once on stage because of the crowd in front of me.
Both West and White can be applauded for the art they’ve made. Rants can certainly add to an artist’s performance, and can be considered art itself. Still, White gave the people what they wanted and fit in a couple rants too. White’s capacity to turn people on instead of off (which some would argue Kanye did) is what makes him the real rockstar.
Maybe the answer is Elton
Despite all the hype over Kanye and Jack, perhaps Sunday’s old school headliner was the real rockstar. A select few artists can inspire awe in anyone willing to listen and Sir Elton John is certainly one of those musicians. No one makes music with a piano the way he does—he is a true master of his trade and put on an impeccable performance without the crazy antics or beat drops of many of the festivals other performers.
There were plenty of these artists throughout the festival that some loved and some hated, but Sunday night it felt like everyone was an Elton John fan. As the remaining hours in this year’s Bonnaroo began to dwindle, thousands made their way to the main stage. Elton’s was the final set on the final night and everyone was together. After a weekend of raving around in the heat and the dust with thousands who started as strangers, it felt special to share one last show all together.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t have thought to see Elton on a solo tour, but quickly remembered there are plenty of his hits we can all vibe with live. Many artists like to play with the audience and save all of the best for last, but not Elton. Hits like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Candle in the Wind” were among the first songs played, with “Tiny Dancer” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” not far behind.
But it was the combination of the atmosphere and Elton’s finesse that made Sunday’s finale so special. For fans of live music, it’s hard not to get a bit choked up over thousands of sweaty, mud-caked and exhausted fans together singing tracks like “Rocket Man” releasing japanese lanterns into the night sky.
Though we had to leave early to beat the traffic out of the festival Sunday night, listening to “Your Song” echo through the fields was a bittersweet ending to our time on The Farm.