The French Fries Had a Plan


Department of Tomfoolery

Is Kanye’s McDonald’s poem a parable of class struggle?

Avoid temptation.

When I wrote in May about the seriocomic implications of a Burger King Spa opening in Helsinki, I thought I’d pegged the most extraordinary fast-food story of the year. Reader, I blew it. In the past month alone, McDonald’s has opened a “McDonald’s of the Future” in Saint Joseph, Missouri, luring customers to their purportedly healthier, Chipotlified restaurant by promising all-you-can-eat fries; BK has debuted the “Whopperito,” a burger-burrito hybrid that fits in your cup holder; and KFC has sold two thousand bottles of fried-chicken-scented SPF 30 sunscreen. For any writer hoping to capture the texture of our greasy-fingered moment, the ineffable Sturm und Drang of life in a world where Denny’s believes the ideal male body is a stack of flapjacks, the outlook is grim. As Philip Roth wrote, American reality “stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” And he said that before Chicken Fries were a thing.

But Philip Roth is no Kanye West, and Kanye West won’t just sit there while actuality outdoes his talents—heaven forfend. Instead, Kanye West has published a poem about Mickey D’s in Boys Don’t Cry, a one-off zine from Frank Ocean. It goes like this: 

McDonalds Man
McDonalds Man 
The french fries had a plan 
The french fries had a plan 
The salad bar and the ketchup made a band 
Cus the french fries had a plan 
The french fries had a plan 
McDonalds Man 
I know them french fries have a plan 
I know them french fries have a plan 
The cheeseburger and the shakes formed a band 
To overthrow the french fries plan 
I always knew them french fries was evil man 
Smelling all good and shit 
I don’t trust no food that smells that good man 
I don’t trust it 
I just can’t 
McDonalds Man 
McDonalds Man 
McDonalds, damn 
Them french fries look good tho 
I knew the Diet Coke was jealous of the fries 
I knew the McNuggets was jealous of the fries 
Even the McRib was jealous of the fries 
I could see it through his artificial meat eyes 
And he only be there some of the time 
Everybody was jealous of them french fries 
Except for that one special guy 
That smooth apple pie 

The one close reading of this poem I’ve found, by Katy Waldman at Slate, construes it as “a pale, speculative allegory … You can be the conniving fries, West seems to say, or you can be the sad haters who want to be the fries, squinting out at them with your artificial eyes.”

I agree, largely, but I see a rich political subtext in the poem. Even with its abundant personification, it strikes me as a pretty literal-minded parable of class struggle. I imagine West seated in some vinyl booth with a McDonald’s feast spread before him, suddenly vivisected by paranoia. He’s realized what every Dollar Menu chump must, at some point: the fries do have a plan, and their plan is to make you eat them, and then to make you eat them again. They are, in their olfactory seduction, playing their role in an entrenched multinational conspiracy, encouraging you to buy, buy, buy, to quell your every hunger with the cheapest and most efficient solution, creating an engine of desire and addiction that will propel you into the oblivion of obesity and precarity as the whole Mickey D’s C-suite sucks your wallet, and then your soul, dry. The fries, like any Subway restaurant or Dunkin’ Donuts or even Cheesecake Factory, put down a distinctive scent to lure you in. You trust them at your peril. West’s poem is a protest song, in essence: a comment on the many ingenious ways that global capital sticks in one’s craw.

“The apple pie,” Waldman writes, “is who the speaker ultimately wants to emulate, if he can shake off the hollow, glamorous value system of the fries.” Here, too, I think she’s onto something—but where she ascribes an enviable quality of “genius” to the apple pie, I’d sooner look to Marxist rhetoric. Think about it: those pies are made of apples, and apples are red, the color of Communism. Just as the red ketchup “formed a band”—i.e., unionized—with the salad bar, cheeseburger, and shakes, against the fries, so, too, has the apple pie chosen another path, free of jealousy. If the ketchup/salad/burger/shake band represents the possibility of a labor movement, the pie represents total Communism. Be the pie, West says, and you can break the cycle of despair that forces fast-food chains to devise ever sillier gimmicks (remember the KFC sunscreen?) to trap you.

David Foster Wallace once criticized John Updike for his refusal to use brand names in his fiction: “When his characters go out to eat fast food they go to Burger Bliss instead of Burger King, as if in fiction you can’t use the regular product name.” No one could accuse West of that kind of evasion. But if you look at the passage of Rabbit Redux to which Wallace refers, you’ll see that West’s poetic vision is essentially Updikean—the two have more in common than you think. “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” Updike once wrote, and in Rabbit Redux his Burger Bliss is, despite its bullshit name, chockablock with the same false promises as West’s fries:

He stops at a corner grocery for a candy bar, an Oh Henry, then at the Burger Bliss on Weiser, dazzling in its lake of parking space, for a Lunar Special (double cheeseburger with an American flag stuck into the bun) and a vanilla milkshake, that tastes toward the bottom of chemical sludge.

The interior of Burger Bliss is so bright that his fingernails, with their big mauve moons, gleam and the coins he puts down in payment seem cartwheels of metal. Beyond the lake of light, unfriendly darkness.

If he could only leave, he’d see that the darkness isn’t so bad. But there he is, mired in faux-friendly blandishments, drowning in that lake of light. Smelling all good and shit.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.