Future Days

Can Father John Misty Help Save Us from Our Technology-Driven Hell-State?

Modernity sucks ass.

by Drew Millard
10 March 2017, 9:00am

Since I am a member of the coveted 18-to-35 demographic, I usually start my Sundays by waking up and watching all the good bits from Saturday Night Live that I missed while I was busy doing other things (lately, that probably means watching kung fu movies on Netflix and reading). I usually skip the musical guests when I do this, but on a whim this week I decided to watch Father John Misty's performance of "Total Entertainment Forever," his new single from his upcoming LP Pure Comedy.

Now, I'm by no means the world's biggest Father John Misty fan––I found the strain of dry, sleazy irony running through I Love You, Honeybear a bit too reminiscent of Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton schtick for my tastes––but "Total Entertainment Forever" blew me away. "When the historians find us we'll be in our homes, plugged into our hubs, skin and bones," he sings, writhing with nervy intensity as the band behind him drops out to let his words sink in. "A frozen smile on every face, as the stories replay / This must have been a wonderful place." The song is much like what you'd get if Randy Newman were tasked with writing a Billy Joel song based on Infinite Jest.

He returned, sans guitar but wearing a black duster jacket that was an instrument in its own right, to perform Pure Comedy's title track, vamping to the Nth degree, acting out his lyrics and during the instrumental breakdown doing a canonically weird dance that felt somehow both prurient and chimerical. He let the couplet, "But the only thing that they request / is something to numb the pain with until there's nothing human left," hang in the air just long enough for it to feel uncomfortable, burying his face in his hands before finishing the lyric: " Just some random matter suspended in the dark / I hate to say it, but each other's all we got." I can only imagine what mainstream America must have thought of this performance, but, for me, it was as if I were witnessing Mr. Misty hip-thrust his way into the next echelon of stardom.

It's undeniable that Father John Misty is already extremely popular, but it seems that in the past year or so the music industry has decided he should become a "thing." He co-wrote "Hold Up" for Beyoncé, served as a key collaborator on Lady Gaga's Joanne along with Mark Ronson and Josh Homme, got a Grammy nomination for some packaging that broke people's LPs, and starred in an 11-minute Lana Del Rey music video that currently has nearly 22 million views on YouTube. With momentum on his side, Father John Misty very easily could have cranked out 12 lushly arranged songs about doing drugs in Los Angeles, called his new record I Love You, Honeybear 2.0, and let the money pour in until he was up to his beard in cash.

Instead, Father John Misty, whose real name is Joshua Tillman, is determined to make the most of his moment. The four songs he's released in advance of Pure Comedy––"Total Entertainment Forever," "Two Wildly Different Perspectives," "Ballad of the Dying Man," and the title track––all offer active resistance to the culture industry that seems intent on subsuming him. "Perspectives" focuses on the futility of a politics nurtured by partisan bubbles; "Dying Man" inverts the helplessness of being unable to check a dead phone, thereby exposing the feeling's absurdity; "Pure Comedy" uses the arc of human history to make a point about the cyclical nature of power structures. This is pretentious stuff, sure, but it takes a bit of pretension to be ambitious. His new songs are smarter and better than nearly anything else I've heard this year, and they place him firmly in a small sphere of artists––Grimes and the Brooklyn rapper Elucid among them––who possess both the talent and temerity to speak to what historian Jackson Lears called "the muddle of entrepreneurial fantasy, techno-utopianism, and money-worship that governs our public discourse."

"The internet was supposed to be this new democracy, a utopia of information where everyone had a voice and we were all interconnected," Tillman said to Exclaim recently, "And it turned into pornography, followed only by outrage." As this week's Wikileaks-facilitated revelations about the CIA's surveillance capabilities emerged, it's clearer than ever that the very products that we thought would help grant us the freedom to live smarter and more unique lives have in many ways placed us under unprecedented control. Our preferences, browsing habits, and perhaps even our conversations are strip-mined for data so that we might be shown advertisements to which we relate. Our social media feeds and Netflix recommendations are tailored to us, creating feedback loops that encourage us to engage with content rather than with the world around us.

Pure Comedy deals explicitly with this alienating paradox, Tillman told Zane Lowe: "The power structure is largely sending these messages of, 'Be yourself! Have fun! Find something you're passionate about! Be an individual! Be a rebel!'" he said. "It makes it very difficult to have an authentic form of rebellion." Tillman went on to add, "Things are the way they are because this is how we want them to be on some level."

While Tillman's peers such as Tobias Jesso Jr., Bon Iver, Jim James, and Ryan Adams (who Tillman seems to regard with a certain gleeful enmity) might soundtrack and at times articulate neo-yuppie malaise, Tillman takes things a step further, directly addressing the underlying patterns which put us in these miserable positions in the first place. This eagerness to critique the upper-class liberal mindset––a perspective handily summed up in the essay "The Contemporary Conformist" by Carles of Hipster Runoff (RIP HRO)––is part of what makes Tillman's new music feel so vital. He told Lowe that, while writing the record, "I was asking myself, 'In what ways am I complicit?'" These new songs by no means seek to offer solutions or even serve as a warning, simply to assess the problems as they exist. He added, in that same interview, "If we are absurd, and we are in some way doomed to enact this same comedy over and over again, there's something liberating about that. I really think that real freedom comes from that perspective on who we are."

Tillman's outlook, to me, seems essential for each of us as we grapple with the world in which we've found ourselves. "Everyone knew that trains and railways would change the world, but no one predicted the invention of the suburbs," the British novelist John Lanchester wrote in 2006, casting the then-ascendant Google as the 21st century's answer to railroad, continuing, "I don't think we've yet seen the first suburbs." It appears that a decade after Lanchester's words, these metaphorical suburbs have taken root, and that Father John Misty has devoted himself to surveying them.

Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.

Photos: Lead image by Will Heath/NBC; all other photos by Nolan Allan.

Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.