If you take Kanye West's "Runaway" at face value, it's a song about the narrator's emotional cheating and flaws and how they are destroying a romantic relationship. But the context of "Runaway"'s world premiere suggested that this was no simple love song for us to behold. It came during the moment we were all supposedly waiting for, saved till the end of last night's MTV Video Music Awards and teased throughout the show. At long last, Kanye was returning to the VMAs after interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech (never mind that his would-be comeback took place just one show later, meaning he spent no time away in VMAs time). Adding to the necessity of his voice was that by the time he hit the stage, Swift already had commented on the controversy in a performance that attempted to paint her as a Christlike boon of wisdom: "You're still an innocent" was her forgiving, condescending message to Kanye, who is 33-years-old, not that innocent and at any rate, doesn't need a 20-year-old telling him about himself. He would reveal in his performance that he's plenty self-conscious as it is.
After all that, how could we read the admission of wrongdoing in "Runaway" as anything but a metaphor of his last, least enthusiastically received public act of wrongdoing? And so, when Kanye told the world, which he knew was tuned in, that we should collectively, "Run away from me baby," it was disingenuous. He didn't actually want us to do so, and he knew that we wouldn't, at any rate. Not when there was water-cooler juiciness to be had. Not when it was anchored to a gentle-but-firm beat tailored for the hip-hop heads and more delicate listeners, alike (it recalls the downtempo '90s just before Primitive Radio Gods showed moms just how nice breaks could be). Not with that that ear-worm melody, which Rob Sheffield smartly compared to Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" on Twitter. Not with that consciously arty, undeniably beautiful and entertainingly silly background of lights and fabrics and ballet dancers he performed in front of. He put the ball in our court, making "Runaway" as much about as as it is him.
Renouncing the hidden-under-the-security-blanket-of-Autotune aesthetic of Kanye's last album, 808s & Heartbreaks, he sang "Runaway" without adornment (until the insanely filtered final chorus). He was consciously vulnerable (or at least, he would have liked us to believe as much) as he suggested, "Let’s have a toast for the douchebags / Let’s have a toast for the assholes / Let’s have a toast for the scumbags / Every one of them that I know / Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs / That’d never take work off..." Not that we need his suggestion to do so -- not with the cast of Jersey Shore around. It applies very much to Kanye, as well, as celebrating his persona before and since I'mmaletyoufinishgate '09 has often amounted to toasting a douchebag, as people have repeatedly forgiven his outbursts and tantrums immediately (we are Swiftlike!) and continue to chuckle at the indulgence of his I-can't-believe-it's-not-self-parody Twitter. It makes sense, too: as we become increasingly fascinated by ourselves as a culture, arrogance loses its stigma. Self-investment is just the way it is. It's why people think nothing of showing up in the pop culture sphere with no applicable or even apparent talent to offer or retweeting praise they've received or posting consciously gratuitous pictures of themselves or sharing their opinion in a public space. It's why we accept it these things in other people, if we can even bother to tear ourselves away from ourselves to do so.
We tore ourselves away for Kanye, only to discover that "Runaway" is not an apology. This is not the closure that it was supposed to be coming at the end of a show that was all about Kanye anyway thanks to Kanye making last year's show all about Kanye. Instead, it's a snapshot of the way things are. It's a handy guide to how the man's fame functions and what makes his persona so fascinating. It's self-awareness not as a means to improvement, but as an end. We should all be so lucky to have something so articulate to show for our introspection.
The VMAs were otherwise so boring this year that I did not feel like writing my usual recap of them. If you're interested in what I had to say in real time and enjoy reading things in reverse chronology, you can check out my Twitter.