When we say the word “asshole,” we’re generally describing someone who is cruel to others in a purposeful way, lacks empathy, and engages in damaging, anti-social behavior.
In my world, though, there’s a second meaning, and it contains a grudging kind of admiration. I first learned this alternate definition of “asshole” from my family, but I’ve also cultivated a friend group that deploys it with regularity. In fact, the common negative usage of “asshole” has been replaced in our vernacular with words like “dick” and “douchebag” and “fuckface.” (“Fuckface” isn’t that common, to be honest, but I’m doing my best to bring it back.) When we say “asshole,” we’re using the positive secondary form, which I would define as:
(noun) Intelligent and subversive, with an open disdain for hypocrisy and posturing, and a willingness to expose these qualities in a manner both public and theatrical, without concern for the possible humiliation of the target who, to the asshole, is beneath contempt.
As an example of each type of asshole, take Donald Trump. If you believe he’s sincere in the beliefs he espouses, he’s the first kind of asshole. If you believe he’s a deep-cover performance artist engaging in guerrilla psychological warfare with the goal of undermining the Republican party in service of its eventual collapse, he’s the second kind of asshole.
Thesis statement: Father John Misty, along with being an extremely talented musician, is a quintessential Type Two Asshole.
In June 2013, I wrote a feature that originally appeared on Paste.com about experiencing a Father John Misty concert in Chapel Hill, NC. I’ve never had a more stimulating time at a live show, and it went deeper than the music. It seems like bad form to quote myself, so I’ll just give you the cliff notes and encourage you to read the source material if you’re interested.
1. Tillman pranced and kicked and sashayed and emoted his way across the stage all night, in a flat-out performance that felt strange and invigorating, and that went beyond irony.
2. He baited and antagonized the audience all night in ways I found hysterical, but which led certain offended concert-goers to consider demanding a refund. Others, mostly but not exclusively of the female persuasion, proclaimed their sexual attraction to Tillman. I couldn’t stop calling him a badass, which is probably the straight male version of that same attraction.
3. No matter what the rest of his body was doing, or what his mouth was saying, his eyes maintained that dead, thousand-mile stare, emotionless and hostile and vulnerable, like an indie rock Galifianakis.
4. Fuck it, I’m going to quote myself: “However we reacted when the lights came up, in awe or in anger, we knew Tillman had given us an overflowing cup of his own reckless humanity. This was performance art that transcended the music; an act of generosity, gift-wrapped in subversion and defiance.”
That was my first live experience with Tillman’s Type Two Asshole behavior, but I should have seen it coming from the songs on Fear Fun, his first album, which were political and challenging and combative in a way that would have foreshadowed that show, had I been paying closer attention. That trend continued on this year’s I Love You, Honeybear, where Tillman rains a certain kind of sneering fury even in songs that are narrow and personal, as in the first stanza of “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”:
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.
We sang “Silent Night” in three parts which was fun
‘Til she said that she sounds just like Sarah Vaughan
I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on
Why don’t you move to the Delta?
(Worth noting: In the music video for this song, Tillman seduces and eventually sleeps with…himself.)
The second time I saw him live, on a solo tour, he kept a bottle of red wine and an empty glass on a nearby stool for most of the show. Near the end, he began pouring the wine into the glass until it was full to the brim. But he didn’t stop pouring. As the wine overflowed and spilled onto the floor, he maintained that singular stare, never changing expression as he emptied the entire bottle.
My friend and I looked at each other, amazed: What an asshole!
Let me get to the point. Earlier this week, Ryan Adams released a cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989. There are a few ways to cover another artist’s work; you can do it sincerely, you can do it ironically (as we’ve seen over and over when indie artists cover pop stars), or you can do it in a way that seems like it should be ironic, except your approach is so earnest that nobody can accuse you of anything but straight-faced homage.
Ryan Adams’ 1989 falls into that last category, and I don’t think it’s dishonest to hold a few conflicting opinions about the result. First, the music is pretty good. Second, he obviously put a fair amount of effort into each cover, and he doesn’t seem to be mocking Taylor Swift. Third, this entire project is calculating and precious to an insufferable degree, and Ryan Adams is a loathsome phony whose immense god-given talent has been routinely undermined by authenticity issues that occasionally veer into outright style theft.
I have no idea what Josh Tillman thinks about Ryan Adams, for the record. All I know is that in response to Adams’ 1989, he did something really fucking funny—he released his own version of Swift’s “Blank Space,” but he did it in the style of Lou Reed, complete with Andy Warhol cover art from The Velvet Underground & Nico. He put it up on Soundcloud yesterday, and labeled it:
“My reinterpretation of the classic Ryan Adams album 1989“
To me, those are Inception levels of hilarity. His Lou Reed impression is perfect, and it was even better in a second track, “Welcome to New York,” that included a very Velvet Underground-ish guitar solo, and has since been taken down. (Digression: How unsettling is it that Swift’s lyrics sound a lot like something Lou Reed would write?) Tillman also delivers a surface-level jab at Ryan Adams, who has long come under fire for sounding a lot like Bob Dylan, among others. And above all, he’s commenting on the ridiculousness of the project in general, our cultural reverence for Swift and other pop icons, and the superficiality of the intersection between pseudo-intellectual thought leaders, “real” artists, and the soul-killing music-industrial complex that controls American airwaves.
That’s my interpretation, anyway. Like I said, I don’t know what he’s thinking, and he actually removed both songs from Soundcloud, so maybe there’s some kind of regret operating here. But I don’t think you can argue my main point, which is that Josh Tillman was being an asshole.
There are very few Type Two Assholes left. We are a conformist culture and a credulous people, and though we’re polarized by political philosophy, few of us are prepared to face our own self-deceptions. According to many top scientists, there’s no medically significant difference between people who wear permanent blindfolds and those who are actually blind. We need somebody to poke us, and prod us, even if it pisses us off. Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah once referred to himself in song as “the misanthropic topical arrangement that is met with a shark bite by the terminal patient.” That presents a rather fatalistic vision, and I’m not advocating for outright pessimism, but I do believe artists like this perform an important function. Father John Misty isn’t operating in a vacuum; he wants us to remove the blindfold.
I’ll leave it here: The service Tillman provided yesterday, as music’s Asshole Laureate, is critical. I hope he never stops.