Father John Misty Plays The Trump Card

Millionaire Donald Trump was nary a gleam in our country's political eye, but I felt his presence approaching at a rock concert.

Chastising an audience member for using their cell phone during his show, Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, was acting like a dick.

As annoying as cell phone use has become to paying members of the audience, I had never seen a performer actually heckle someone until that evening. Tillman treated the fan the way a bad comedian would a loud bachelorette party: he called them out and embarrassed them for wanting to capture the moment. He continued ranting for several minutes about immersing in the experience and, once his invective ran dry, finally resumed his performance. The audience inside the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix that October evening in 2013 all stared at each other in disbelief. 

“What the hell,” we silently asked ourselves, “Is that even professional?” 

The incident felt like an improvised part of the show, an Andy Kaufman-esque gag meant to prove how stupid we all were for giving a damn about Tillman’s music. I felt a weird mix of admiration and disgust at his actions as I left the venue but eventually dismissed it. Tillman was probably having a bad night.

Three and a half years later I’m still not sure how to feel about his performance that night. I understand where Tillman was coming from. It can be difficult to stay in the moment when a flash of light unexpectedly hits your eye, but playing the victim to eager fans who paid money to see him seemed to cross an unspoken line. 

Why didn’t he just ask the audience to put their smartphones away before the show started?

Years later, the world witnessed Donald Trump employ a similar schtick during his unorthodox rise to becoming the leader of the free world. In August 2015, a concerned Latino journalist was heckled by the candidate and then escorted out of the press conference by security. Last August, Trump was distracted by a crying infant and asked the child’s mother to “get the baby out of here.” There are countless instances of Trump admonishing protestors at his rallies. I watched in horror and astonishment as the world witnessed more of the same day after day, but I dismissed it thinking reasonable people would never elect someone so outrageous. 

I was so very wrong.

Tillman is not running for President, but much like Trump, nearly every day a music blog has a new post covering some outrageous thing he said or did while promoting his latest album Pure Comedy. Last week, the prestigious New York Magazine carried the story of how Tillman told Patton Oswalt he paints his balls red. The Internet expressed shock and disgust when he performed “Total Entertainment Forever,” which contains a lyric about “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” on Saturday Night Live. Then there is the interview he gave to Rolling Stone several days afterward during which he claimed to be high on LSD. He predicted to writer Andy Greene that the article would ultimately be all about the time he sang that lyric on SNL. His excuse for writing it?

“Who else's name rhymes with Oculus Rift,” he said.

Writers and music fans are clearly being baited by Tillman’s antics, and he knows it so he plays the victim when it happens. He’s not kicking out members of the press like Trump, but if Tillman gets a question from a writer he does not like, he will act childish and churlish for the rest of the interview. Coverage of the stupid things Tillman says has gotten so ubiquitous that when the artist acts even somewhat genial it is something of merit, much like when Trump reads from a teleprompter. When Tillman appeared well-mannered and polite on a BBC morning news show, every indie music blog wrote about it as if he were a candidate who finally stayed on message. 

Tillman claims he is not writing songs to get a reaction like Trump, but the lyrics of Pure Comedy’s title track are even darker than the Commander-In-Chief’s inauguration speech. Tillman told the Los Angeles Times the album is a love letter to humanity, but there is no hope to be found for most of the album. Reading into TIllman’s prose, we are not heading for a dystopian society. We are already there and we cannot turn it around. This bleak sample lyric sounds almost like something Trump would say about his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton if it didn’t show such clear disdain for the job he wound up with:

“Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?

What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?

These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods

So they can go on being godless animals”

Much like Trump, Tillman doesn’t offer any hope or solutions. We are all doomed to burn but we will never notice because we are too busy checking Facebook to care. None of us are innocent. Unlike Trump, Tillman has no aspirations in government, but he has clearly won over the hearts and minds of many who follow indie music. (If I Love You, Honeybear proves anything, Tillman has Trump beat in the male sensitivity department.) Meanwhile, other performers who are just as talented and deserving of attention go the way of John Kasich, speaking eloquently with no one listening. 

If there is one thing Tillman and Trump have done well, it is that they challenged the status quo in their respective fields. Trump exposed the multitude of cracks in the democratic process. Father John Misty proved that the work doesn’t matter—it’s whoever can get the most clicks by being the biggest asshole.

In a few years, someone louder and brasher than Tillman will come along. Our respect for the craft will be at odds with our desire for a spectacle. We will wonder what happened to sincerity in music even as we hungrily focus our attention on some performance art exhibit devised by a surly, eloquent hipster who believes he is making music great again.