This joke isn't just misguided, it's also old and boring.
Photos by Michael James Murray
Here's a fun fact that I learned today from our photographer on the scene at Bonnaroo taking pictures, including some awesome ones at Kanye West's show last night: People in the crowd at Bonnaroo are really into making gay fish jokes about Kanye. Like, absurdly into it. As in multiple people have gone through the concerted effort of making fairly elaborate signs about this joke. (Incidentally, several people have made similar jokes on our Facebook page about the aforementioned photos.) Fuck these signs, and fuck these people. And not just for hitching their personal identity and sense of humor to a quote from a TV episode.
I understand why the Bonnaroo crowd might be particularly hostile to Kanye: This is a festival with a particularly close-knit and loyal audience, many of whom were probably there for his disastrous 2008 performance. It's also mostly a rock festival, which means that the audience is probably more rap-averse than the American public at large. To many Bonnaroovians, Kanye may be someone they primarily know as the guy who bailed on them once before. And for whatever reason, many seem to have latched onto the Kanye is a gay fish narrative more than is even remotely reasonable, and it's become a long-running meme of the festival.
For those who aren't familiar, the idea of Kanye West as a “gay fish” comes from a 2009 episode of South Park called “Fishsticks,” in which Kanye is the sole person in the country who doesn't get a joke about the word “fishsticks” sounding like the words “fish dicks.” It's ultimately revealed that this is because Kanye is, in fact, a gay fish who enjoys fish dicks. At the end of the episode, he comes out as such and sings this little Auto-Tuned ditty about it called “Gay Fish,” a riff on his unpopular choice to make an album slathered in Auto-Tune in 2008, 808s and Heartbreak.
As far as South Park episodes go, it's not a particularly funny one, although it's one of the most famous. It's also become substantially less funny with age, as people have pretty much lost track of the original premise—that Kanye is too blinded by his ego to understand the joke—in favor of repeating it in a way that suggests what they think is funny is that Kanye is kind of like one of them gays.
Kanye was a good sport about the episode at first, but it has become a sticking point over the years and something that gets brought up from time to time in his “rants.” I don't think that's because Kanye chafes at the idea of getting called gay (or a gay fish) so much as at the idea that there are people who apparently care deeply about pop culture yet also haven't bothered to pay attention to a single thing Kanye has said in the last five years, if ever. Frankly, if you have the energy to make a gay fish sign, you should have the energy to pay attention. And you should realize that you're clinging to a narrative that is willfully wrongheaded and in no way reflective of what Kanye actually stands for—not to mention reusing a joke that's so old that it would be dumb even if it weren't misguided.
Yes, Kanye has a big ego, as South Park once pointed out. Yes, that sometimes means that he is at odds with the culture at large. But Kanye isn't some commercialized asshole ruining the purity of music. He's an enormous pop star who has chosen to focus his artistic energy on the idea of dismantling structural racism in America, with side goals of elevating American fashion culture, offering a richer and more constructive picture of male identity, and rejecting the premise that only the financial elite can participate in true culture. These are good things, not things to be picketed against by holding up a sign about gay fish, no matter how much you think Kanye's ego is annoying. In fact, these issues seem like the exact type of a hippie shit a festival like Bonnaroo should be about.
In the “gay fish” narrative, which is tied entirely to the years 2008 and 2009 we know certain things about Kanye—that he once was depicted as a gay fish on South Park, that he performed many hours late at Bonnaroo, that he uses Auto-Tune as an effect and is therefore not a real musician (this is like saying tonight's headliner Jack White isn't a real musician because he uses effects pedals, by the way), that he interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs. This last incident especially is held up again and again as unrelenting proof of Kanye's wrongness, which says more about the people still protesting it than about Kanye's supposed asshole character. Stop clinging to this outdated narrative. It's fucking boring, and it's almost as embarrassing as being seen walking around with a sign that says “Gay Fish” on it. Not only is it sad that you made a sign about a TV quote, it's pathetic that you're still lobbing around homophobia as if it's funny.
I'm not going to kid myself and assume that anyone actually at Bonnaroo is paying attention to this all of the sudden now, since they're probably too busy shitting their old-timey pants thinking about how great Jack White's guitar riffs tonight are going to be/hallucinating/looking for a place to charge their phone. But this isn't just a Bonnaroo problem, even if that festival's admirably devoted fanbase has a particular grudge against Kanye and a higher-than-average number of gay fish-themed signs in its midst. It’s everyone’s problem: It’s our problem that we still think that calling someone gay is an inherently OK way to insult them. More than that, people need to get over the three things Kanye West did in 2009 that they thought were lame, and pay attention to what he's doing now. You might like it. Even if you hate it, maybe you'll at least find something better to make fun of than the one terrible joke you've been beating into the ground for the last five years.
Kyle Kramer has never been to Bonnaroo, so maybe he just doesn't get it. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer