Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty

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Father John Misty/Josh Tillman. Image Source: Bristol 247

Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty

The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.

In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?

Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’.  LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including  turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.

For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.

For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…

With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.

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Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty in the video for ‘Freak’. Image Source: Pitchfork.

Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.

Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that

attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].

Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.

One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:

In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.

(Peters 2015: 1357)

Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism).  The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.

NPG x87840; Manic Street Preachers (Richey James Edwards; Nicky Wire (Nick Jones)) by Kevin Cummins
Culture Sluts? Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire of the Manics. Image by Kevin Cummins; source: NME

The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.

Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,

[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?

And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.

This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.

Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?

Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks): 

Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.

Turner, Luke, 2015. ‘Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction’, Notes on Metamodernism. Available at: http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/ [Accessed 15th November 2016].

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