Kanye West has inexplicably launched his own travel website; it's like Orbitz or Travelocity except that it's Kanye. Ostensibly, the point is that West is selling more than hotels and plane tickets; he is selling a lifestyle, namely, his.
On its own, the news of Kanye's online travel agency is benign, novel in its quirkiness, maybe even admirable as seen as part of a long line of West's creative and unique endeavors; but within the broader context of artists or people-turned-brands, West's new venture is not so much troubling as it is tiring. Maybe it's that it comes at a time when Madonna is once again ubiquitous, gracing the cover of half a dozen magazines. And Madonna is always extolling something--oxygen facials, peeing in the shower (kills fungus!), Pilates, adoption, Kaballah, children's literature, Britain. Madonna is so branded that it's hard to distinguish between her and, say, Proctor & Gamble; she's just some other company that shape shifts with the times, transforming her outward appearance and message to attract new buyers, all the while selling us on a new way to exist in the world. And the concept of artist as a brand is also overwhelming within the context of an election year--one in which we as consumers (I mean, voters) are already inundated with sales pitches of how we can best make America (that brand we live in) safer, cleaner, and stronger.
When bands become brands, the dynamic creates a very cynical way of viewing music; the inherent value shifts from an aesthetic or sonic one to a monetary one. If I am choosing between a U2 iPod or a regular one, a White Stripes camera or the non-White Stripes camera, my role as a fan has been commodified as well. Basically, I feel like a tool.
I'm not fooling myself--bands and fans and the music industry as a whole are a business, and a struggling one at that. And there has always been a bottom line. But when everything is branded it gives me the feeling like I'm doing all of my shopping at the mall; there is the illusion of choices, but mostly they are being made for me. And by being at the mall in the first place, I've already forfeited most of my options.
Much of music has always been about buying into an idea, a movement, a sphere of influence, an aesthetic, and a voice. As music fans, we're sometimes willing to let the collective voice of the audience speak for us, or for the music to represent a bit of who we are. But I'd be less willing to do that for a brand. Imagine putting brand stickers on your car, following brands around the country, asking for a brand's autograph, or trying to sleep with members of the brand. Frankly, it wouldn't be as fun. So, before Bright Eyes puts their name on a hybrid car or Feist comes out with a line of handbags, they should remember that their fans would likely be embarrassed to utter the words, "I'm with the brand."