Sympathy For The Devils

Josh Tillman's latest album as Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear, is a sincere and shocking catalog of the main character's adventures in sex and love. (Courtesy of the artist)
Josh Tillman's latest album as Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear, is a sincere and shocking catalog of the main character's adventures in sex and love. (Courtesy of the artist)

It's been five years since Kanye West raised his glass to "the a--holes" in the song "Runaway," a poetic taxonomy of bad behavior that formed the emotional center of his masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It's a sad song about romantic failure, but also a strong statement connecting West to popular music's longstanding practice of being dangerously outrageous. From Jim Morrison to James Brown to Morrissey to Courtney Love, rock and soul has housed huge personalities who upended and offended the bourgeoisie within performances that melded messily with larger-than-life personal styles. Today, however, the big bad personality in pop has mostly receded. Troublemaking characters still ruffle feathers — the men's-rights poster boy Ariel Pink, the often problematically frank rapper Azealia Banks — but these Twitter warriors don't really register as major figures. Today's pop elite tends to be much more careful, tamping out feuds as soon as they erupt and dancing together at music industry pseudo-events to dissipate any real tension. A few stars inhabit the pose of the bad girl or boy in ways that resonate: Rihanna's made it the center of her complex and distanced choreography, and in those realms of rock that appeal to the youngest fans, bands like Falling in Reverse (whose latest single, "Just Like You," has a lyric that echoes West's) tout impudence as a self-esteem booster. But civility seems more marketable today, and therefore it's favored. Even West might be wondering if he had the wrong mentality as he sits down to a West Village bistro bite with his former scorn victim, Taylor Swift.

Even Kim Gordon's much-discussed dissection of Lana Del Rey, a justified rant if ever there was one, seems to be ending in a wash of reasonable talk. Gordon, the musician, conceptual artist and fashion trendsetter best known as the bassist in the now-defunct, longtime reigning indie band Sonic Youth, recently published her memoir Girl in a Band; among other trenchant opinions expressed therein, she originally included a paragraph suggesting that the theatrically depressive balladeer Del Rey should just "off herself" instead of playing at self-destructiveness merely for the cameras and in the recording studio. After backtracking some, and publishing a much more benign takedown in the book's final version, Gordon has clarified her comments in ways that are smart and refreshingly withering, comparing Del Rey to the 58-year-old rock crooner Chris Isaak (a funny swipe, though somewhat unfair to Isaak, who does what he does impeccably) and, like a serious liberal feminist, urging Del Rey to "take responsibility" for her weird and affected masochist persona. Gordon's ripostes may seem unsisterly, but they aren't unwarranted: As a thirty-year veteran of edgy rock and art scenes known for confrontational risk-taking, and an intimate of several particularly tragic lost souls from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Kurt Cobain to Mike Kelley, Gordon has every right to be repulsed by Del Rey's caricatures of pain — and to be rude about it. She has a vision of how popular music should encounter and communicate emotional extremes, she's been honing it for decades, and she knows what rings false to her.

The only somewhat puzzling thing about Gordon's choice of targets is that, had the two begun their careers simultaneously, Lana Del Rey would have probably been an ally. Sonic Youth's own music, and Gordon's contributions in particular, confront subject matter similar to what Del Rey fetishizes. Songs like "Shadow of a Doubt," inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's stalker noir movie Strangers on a Train, and the poignant ode to an anorexic Karen Carpenter, "Tunic," explore how, within traditional feminine experience, weakness can feel like strength, and playing cat-and-mouse with the menace of masculine brutality can become a kind of addiction. Gordon's own image, as Lindsay Zoladz artfully describes in a recent essay, has always been purposefully blank — a feminist stance that nonetheless allowed her to maintain and aesthetic connection to the 50 shades of feminine passivity advanced within conceptions of gender from Freud to today's fan fiction.

That Gordon also publicly called out "white male corporate aggression" and mentored other women artists who loudly rejected the victim-princess archetype (though not all of them; she never liked Courtney Love, her memoir reveals) makes her explicitly different from Del Rey, who refuses a political stance even as she dreams of the kind of progressive artistic community that might motivate her to at least consider one. Yet the contrast between the two women is not simply personal. It also reflects the distinctions between the scene that bolstered Sonic Youth's rise and the current moment's pop reality, in which outrageous artists tend to emerge pretty much in isolation.

The success of an extremist like Del Rey, whose lyrics openly express the allure of danger and sexual abjection, is a strange historical echo to the moment when Sonic Youth emerged in the early 1980s. Gordon co-created that band within the context of an art/post-punk milieu that included the filmmaker Richard Kern, whose most famous work was a semi-pornographic romp called "Fingered"; the performance artist Lisa Suckdog, an advocate of public sex whose memoir is called Drugs Are Nice; the poet and singer Lydia Lunch, who in one critic's 1987 description, "carries brutally sarcastic, obscene misanthropy to its theatrical limits short of actual physical violence," and the visual artist Cindy Sherman, whose early self-portraits occasionally showed her beaten and bruised in the manner of film noir's victimized heroines.

The filmmaker Nick Zedd described this arts community's mandate in his 1985 manifesto "The Cinema of Transgression": "We propose to break all the taboos of our age by sinning as much as possible. There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined." This daring group included a bunch of privileged art school kids spreading anarchy mostly within galleries and other, sometimes grant-funded downtown art spaces; but it also had real links to the underworlds of sex work and extreme erotic practices. It was here that Gordon developed her conviction that to be "kickass" as an artist is to "bring in less desirable aspects of yourself" — an action that, as she notes in her memoir, is never easy for women. What made it possible for her and her peers to effectively do so was intermutual support and an awareness of the legacies they were both challenging and upholding. Following the lead of the Dadaists, the Beat generation and The Velvet Underground, these young transgressors established a safe space within which to conjure scary internal scenarios.

Del Rey also invokes the Beats, but it's unclear if she's ever talked to anyone besides the journalists she seeks to court about her Kerouac fixation. In this way, she's typical of today's young, outrageous pop presences, from the campy indie rock lizard Father John Misty to the absurdist rapper Lil B to the lonely king of them all, Kanye West. These characters present themselves as strange loners, the frames of reference around them constantly dissolving and shifting. They operate within an Internet-driven zeitgeist ruled by novelty and the seemingly random associations of click-based consciousness. Their music can be just as historically rich and open to present-day connections as was Sonic Youth's in that band's prime; think of West's commitment to unexpected collaborations with everyone from the conceptual artist Vanessa Beecroft to that old songmeister Paul McCartney. But these connections tend to feel fugitive. That's not the fault of the artists, in many cases. It's more a reflection of an ever-accelerating pop environment in which artists' complicated ideas are less likely to emerge from subcultures where they've been both nurtured and prodded into shape, but instead as part of a marketing plan, whether it's steered by a record label or by the musicians themselves, who know they have to be entrepreneurial to survive and have to focus more on finding followers than cultivating community. Maybe for that reason, outrageousness now doesn't seek to change much beyond itself. It's provocative, but not necessarily oppositional or even that unconventional at its core.

An interesting example is the fascinating new release from Father John Misty, the alter ego of Los Angeles-based former indie-folkie and current freak J. Tillman. I Love You, Honeybear is already one of the most-discussed albums of the year, a rich dish of orchestrated Southern California singer-songwriter pop both brazenly conventional and hugely ambitious, cunningly constructed and almost alarmingly intimate. Further refining the Misty persona — a comic blend of the most charming and repulsive elements of the decadent-rocker archetype, with no apologies to sources Jim Morrison, Papa John Phillips, James Taylor, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain — Tillman perfects the serious-satirical approach he took on the first Father John Misty album, Fear Fun, by braving an encounter with the unsettling emotions he unearthed while courting his wife and deepest collaborator, the photographer and filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman. The subject of I Love You, Honeybear is their romance and marriage; the album's theme is sincerity, an impulse that Tillman presents as deeply repressed within the average male, one that unsettles the careful constructions of self that define today's version of the good life. "I've got nothing to hide from you — kissing my brother in my dreams or finding God Knows in my jeans," Tillman sings in the typically, uncomfortably frank "When You Are Smiling And Astride Me," whose rolling melody and chorus of backup singers suggests a lounge singer's version of folk music. The line is a Portnoy's Complaint-style acknowledgment that bodily fluids factor as much into love as do the heart's outpourings. (Tillman is an avowed Philip Roth fan. It's also a comical dissipation of sincerity's mood: Its grossness causes the listener to pull back a little, protecting herself from the spurt.)

The songs on Honeybear abound with these disruptions. The title track presents the marriage bed as full of "mascara, blood, ash and cum"; "Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow" earnestly compares Emma to a blowup doll; even the climactic, bombastically heartfelt final track, "I Went To the Store One Day," tops off its wooing with an image of an elderly Tillman succumbing to a heart attack while making love with Emma. These sweetly sticky images lighten the impact of more disturbing ones. "Strange Encounter" is a self-absorbed account of reviving a one-night stand who has overdosed, and "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment" indicts another passing sexual partner in a way that would simply be funny if it didn't end with a line about him roughing her up during sex.

Showing himself — or at least his Father John Misty self — warts and all is central to Tillman's satirical approach, and the shock of these frankly misogynistic lines give the songwriting's lighter elements teeth. At the same time, they expose the limits of Tillman's Misty project so far. His ugly imagery exposes the limits of rock 'n' roll romanticism and indict the skinnily macho character he's created. But Father John Misty walks away from these encounters unscathed and able to redeem himself through the love of the "right" woman. Created in collaboration with Emma, I Love You, Honeybear does reflect the dialogue with a community that allows artists to keep refining their outrageousness. But it's a hothouse community of two, and Tillman's ultimate faith in his own sincerity as a lover provides a redemption that his Misty character simply doesn't earn.

Tillman has gone much farther than has Lana Del Rey toward a genuine analysis of the patriarchal bull his Father John Misty escapades indulge in and expose. But he's not yet where Gordon managed to get in songs like "Swimsuit Issue," Gordon's furious exposé of sexual harassment in the music industry. Maybe Tillman doesn't want to go there — while I Love You, Honeybear does offer trenchant social critiques like the anti-consumerist "Bored in the U.S.A.," it pulls the listener toward the smaller picture, presenting intimacy as a curative in a way that's ultimately conservative. Tillman's so talented and also so singular that there's every reason to believe he'll continue to develop more complex scenarios within which to confront the problems of individual freedom and interpersonal power plays. Emma will certainly help him; her own work is all about the way people put frames around intimate moments and create selves that are less than honest, even in the midst of them.

But Tillman could use more peers, to challenge him, to call him on his crap for real. They're out there. They're mostly women, and, like Tillman in many ways, they're mostly doing comedy. If musical outrageousness seems oddly isolated in 2015, the feminist world of daring jokes and naughty bits keeps expanding in ways that stress interconnectedness. It makes sense that comedy connects young artists more effectively now than do other forms of aesthetic risk-taking; it's a practice that requires grit and pluck, qualities favored by the self-starters of the Vine and Tumblr age. Tillman may not find a like mind in Lana Del Rey, but he could have some good conversations with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City, deflating sexist preconceptions regularly on Comedy Central; Mallory Ortberg at The Toast and Issa Rae at Awkward Black Girl, deadpanning pretentiousness one eyeroll at a time; or with the Seattle bands Chastity Belt and Childbirth, working their own version of louche sexuality as a way of both claiming rock's power and disarming it. "I only f----- you as a joke!" screams Julia Shapiro (who's in both bands) in Childbirth's punktastic single of that name. She sounds a lot like a young Kim Gordon, playing with what could harm her, facing it down with a strength that's grounded in a sneer. Female laughter might be the most outrageous sound echoing through the culture in 2015. It's a uniter; it's a subversive force. It creates that safe space where things can get ugly and be transformed.

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