Father John Misty and the Death of Cool
by Guy Walker
“Very evil people cannot really be imagined dying.”
by Guy Walker
It’s always been the same. Musicians are those veiled effigies we look to for momentary reprieve from being alive. We demand to be entertained, like sticky-fingered children gripping onto lollipops, yelling at the monkey to be funny again. We go to concerts and music festivals with the same gluttonous exigency, herding ourselves around towering stages, gleaming up with glossed-over eyes at the chugging fog machines soaked in red light, anticipating the silhouette of our hero for the evening.
“Distract us from this catastrophe!” we cheer. “Take us on a journey, and make it rhyme!” as we clap our hands and shake our sweaty buttocks to the main chorus. But our love of amusement is nothing new. We’ve always said it. Plato scribed the hedonistic torments of our survival, that we’ve always needed human marionettes, dancing shadows against the light. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, jesters weren’t only used to amuse noblemen. At fairs and markets, they sung songs for the common folk, pulled never-ending ribbons out of hats, told jokes, eased the restless tension of being poor and having little prospects. They made the crushing hysteria of living under a monarch that much more tolerable. Today, we’ve brought Netflix in the bedroom, Youtube channels in our back pocket, and regularly attend concerts with the same intent of escape, soaking ourselves in Red Bull vodkas and MDMA. A blast of serotonin and idol worship—today we are free!
The machinery of entertainment smothers us. The cornfed paradise spreads on. Remember Franz Liszt and the hysterical fan frenzy that ensued when the Hungarian composer and pianist took the stage, now known as Lisztomania. In the mid-19th century, crazed fans would treat Liszt as a greased-up celebrity, making bracelets out of his broken piano strings, fighting over his handkerchiefs, gloves, even locks of his hair, collecting his coffee dregs into little glass vials. One lady resurrected his old cigar butt from the gutter and encased it in a locket surrounded by diamonds. We hoist musicians up on stages so they tower over us. We blind them with coruscating measure, leaving us all in the anonymous pathetic dark. God is dead, so we needed to manufacture new gods.
A century and a half later, the mania has only worsened. For the breed of ghoulish beard-entangled apathy, there is Josh Tillman, or as he is popularly know, Father John Misty. He’s one of the leading figures of the indie rock scene; or the indie folk scene; or folk rock. With songs such as “Bored In The USA,” “I’m Writing A Novel,” “I Went To The Store One Day,” he leads us along the meandering ennui of celebrity libertinage. He exerts great effort to come across as a pessimist, a son to Hermes, to seem deep in thought, tortured, enigmatic, all the usual attributes given to artists and contemplatives. But Tillman is more. He is the direct reincarnation of two classical figures: Julie Andrews twirling between wild dandelions, unable to suppress the libidinal volcano inside her; and Nero playing the fiddle as America falls into an entropic spiral of spectacle and misery, the parody of indifference swelling inside him. Tillman is ravished by the orgiastic features of life, but needs to wear a more putrid pixelated glaze in order to exist. It’s high-definition theater, and he’s caught in his own madness.
Josh Tillman is tall, lean, his face covered in a bushel of perfumed pubic hair. Yes, he may be hideous to look at, but he fashions himself as a mirror to Jim Morrison’s last drunken days in Paris, when he was the most self-indulgent, right before he died in the bathtub with chunks of half-digested Cheerios stuck to his chest hair. His look is a biological mishap—an extended phenotype of hipsterdom—what a nest is to a bird, Josh Tillman is to hipsterdom. His entire personage is a performance, as an aloof misanthrope, like a Dostoyevskian antihero who’s won our pity because he has one or two squabbling virtues left, because we want to see him go mad in front of all of us. His charisma is synthesized glee, like he’s dancing and making jokes so he doesn’t collapse in a puddle of his own drool and beg for forgiveness under a cloud of fireflies. All in all, he is the ideal figure of a cult leader (this is of course what musicians are). Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson—they were all able to command over their disciples, their screaming fans begging to drink Kool-Aid, piss, buckets of semen, anything to say they were by their leader’s side.
When Josh Tillman dictates over the mud-soaked peasantry from high on his stage, he’s weary of his own power. It’s not that he’s pretentious; it’s more that he’s exhausted from trying to seem pretentious. Under the guise of pubescent narcissism, with his spongey tendrils waving in a burning desert, Tillman makes an appeal to the hysterical crowd of disciples: “Fuck you! I hate entertaining you, and everything it involves. Also, I’m conflicted about my manbun!!” The crowd goes wild. Kids in skinny jeans yell “Hell yeah! I’m cynical too. I haven’t washed my socks for a whole week!” A twenty-something year old with rainbow colored John Lennon glasses turns to his friend, and comments simply, “Rad. He gets it … Here, hit this.” Tillman scowls at the crowd. They’re not getting it. I actually hate all of them, he thinks to himself. At that, young women lose strength in their legs, and faint one by one like dominos, like the gaggles who collapsed during the early Beatles concerts, their 1950’s chastity bursting into wanton cherry-nippled flames, pheromones of spring and dawn collecting into visible clouds above the stage.
In the end, Tillman will go mad. With cardboard cutouts of the Snapchat doggy ears and nose glued to his face, he exclaims to a crowd of invisibles, “I’ve read Norman Mailer! I can quote Nietzsche!! I think about serious matters!!” At the impenetrable silence, he looks out across the wilting cherry blossoms, pulls out his acoustic guitar, and sings a song about canvas shelters. And all the wild animals run far far away.