Misty-Schmisty: Father John Misty’s Letterman Performance & the End of Mass Cultural Critique

Geoff Nelson

Joshua Tillman took the Lord’s name in vain on the 2012 sex-is-death-death-is-sex exegesis single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” with a harrowing, “Jesus Christ, girl.” Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes, has never shown resistance to invoking inverted or transgressive religious imagery in his music—his stage name is Father John Misty after all. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” found Tillman screwing the girl of his dreams/nightmares to much delight on the graves at Hollywood Forever Cemetery with “Adderall and weed in [his] veins”. Those searching for traditional sanctimony would find it elsewhere, perhaps, Misty sang, in tracing the expanse of the girl’s “American back”, an image as attractive as it is inscrutable.

It was a hidden cultural critique, a broadside obfuscated by the cymbal-heavy four-on-the-floor drums. Tillman rooted his narrative in a corner of America’s most post-modern city, a plot of land nestled between the languid diagonal of Highway 101 and the Paramount Studios lot: Hollywood Forever Cemetery is a place that is no place, located in one of the centers of the city that has no center. The chorus, “Someone’s got to help me dig”, found Misty both excavating and fucking in a graveyard, looking for and fearing that empty darkness at the center of all American life, the nihilism lying just behind the consumer aesthetics implicit to American Dreams. Los Angeles just happens to be a great backdrop for such dystopian Americana. And yet other than Tillman’s super-thoughtful interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, it was hard to label Father John Misty as much more than another faux-rustic musician, maybe with an extra dose of self-consciousness. He certainly was no great cultural critic, more like good musician who possessed a gift for shtick.

All of this brings us close to the debut of the first track, “Bored in the USA” from Tillman’s coming record, I Love You, Honeybear. Aping the Future Islands program of riding a compelling late-night television performance to career-defining success, Father John Misty similarly took to Letterman with “Bored in the USA”, a song built to troll Springsteen and the American cultural experience in general. Unlike Future Islands, however, Tillman’s performance, in secular Father John regalia, was fully self-conscious and intentionally ironic. For those who first saw Future Island’s lead singer Sam Herring’s fecund, middle-aged dance moves for the first time on Letterman last March, it was a moment of compelling irony for the viewer, but this was no special performance for Herring; he had always moved like this on stage, for some reason crossing the cultural Rubicon on Letterman; the Internet is nothing if not unpredictable. Future Islands wasn’t subverting anything; they were just being Future Islands, a band to which most Letterman viewers were distinctly late to the party. Nor was there a critique of what it meant to be a rock band or a person. If there was any irony in the performance, it was that the band experienced the biggest exposure of their career based on Herring’s gyrations on Letterman going viral.

Tillman’s conceit for “Bored in the USA” emerges as dark and limited. If he was fascinated with termination of all kinds, the penetration of sex and the finality of death, the drooping slouch as we slide into our final days, he now worries that we can’t die the right way. We can’t get off, instead inoculated to experience with pills and aesthetics, hidden behind all our bespoke luxuries, deeply unsatisfied. None of his critiques are new. Cultural theorists have wondered about the damaging nature of our relationship to money, things, imagery and prescription pills for a long time. Suffice it to say that Josh Tillman is no Roland Barthes. The laugh-track, his straight face, not to mention the very serious orchestra section, is as post-modern as Father John Misty gets on Letterman. It is unsettling and incomplete, and in a different way from the Future Islands viral performance, perhaps one reason the Misty performance has just over a 100,000 views to 2.8 million for Sam Herring’s dance moves on “Seasons (Waiting On You)”.

Tillman’s performance revealed an artist up to some of his old secular-religion tricks with a heavy dose of meta-cultural sarcasm thrown in for good measure. Tillman, raised in an evangelical household, is no stranger to the showmanship of the fundamentalist Christian world. Many know the tropes of the forever-smiling Joel Osteen, but things get far weirder in the Bible Belt where exorcisms and scriptural literalism reign. Mega-church preachers take to the stages of basketball arenas, playing their adaptation of “get rich quick” New Testament happiness doctrine and spouting fears of the looming specter of sharia law. This is theater, a modern version of Twain’s King and the Duke, snake oil salesmen doing the Royal Nonesuch with the Bible. I suspect that Tillman finds the evangelical project at once fascinating and objectionable. Yet the rabid would-be theocrats of America’s heartland need no cultural critique; their views and rhetoric are more damning than any satire. Playing Father John Misty, Tillman aims his magnifying glass not at the religiousity of his childhood but at the non-believers: Who are the mega-church preachers of secular American consumers? Especially among the coastal elites, who make up most of Tillman’s listening audience, what and who do they worship if it isn’t God and Joel Osteen?

The answers are troubling. Tillman’s Letterman performance reveals the artist in the mixed garb of the bucolic evangelical and the secular elite: a huge beard mixing with slicked back hair and a suit, no tie, his shirt open to the second button. It’s all meant to be playful until it isn’t. Tillman begins at the piano, though the television viewer can’t see his hands, a fact that becomes important when he turns to reveal that he hasn’t been playing at all—the first of many hollow expectations. Sitting, legs crossed as a player piano continues the plaintive chord progression of “Bored in the USA”, Tillman begins to attack a different happiness doctrine than the strange interpretations of the New Testament used as screed in the American South. The first verse largely aims at the manufacturing of consumerism and life-partnership in American life, asking, “How many people rise and say, ‘My brain’s so awfully glad to be here for another mindless day.” Mindlessness drives us to “accrue a small nation of meaningful objects… to represent me too”, he croons, though the deployment of “meaningful” is richly sarcastic. We surround ourselves in stuff with supposed meaning, our consumer decisions meant as a placeholder for our souls. It is perhaps no surprise that the modern bourgeoisie so love individually numbered items. In logical syllogism: This is one of a small number of things; we are one of a small number of people owning a limited numbered thing; we are an exclusive limited numbered person; we are our stuff; we are an individually numbered thing. Your small-batch Bourbon tells a truth about you deeper than you know.

The consumerism that drives us into debt acquiring things we don’t need lies in our relationships too, where we emphasize aesthetics over substance. Tillman sings to an imagined life partner, “I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways I’ve grown more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades, I suspect you feel the same,” suggesting a deep connection to our American consumer impulse and what we privilege in the earliest days of what become our disappointing relationships. Or as David Foster Wallace wrote: “Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.” This is the sound of those million deaths, Tillman, coming into fuller bloom approaching the chorus, singing, “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?” Of course, to paraphrase another master of American letters in an age of terrifying modernity: the world ends with a whimper, not a bang. The refrain is the title, Tillman preaching now, moaning, “I’m just bored in the USA.” The terrible amalgam of our emphasis on the imperial acquiring of things and the veneer of those same things ends in a sigh, not a scream. The sound of our dehumanization is the echoing terror of an empty soul. Again, I’m paraphrasing here.

Tillman, growing more polemical in “Bored in the USA” countervailed with playful twists on Letterman. He crawled on the piano, taking the pose of a sexy lounge singer: the sex-God-death triumvirate never lies far from Misty’s work. The final movement of the performance, one Tillman invokes with the subversive and maybe annoying, “Save me, White Jesus” takes the viewer down the straight-faced sardonic pathways of the cultural critic. We know well how Christians appropriate and edit Jesus into the back-lit beatified Caucasian long-haired guy. Such edits are confusing (Hipster Jesus), and in a world of cultural re-appropriation, Father John Misty suggests it isn’t just Christians who play the signifier dissociation game—if Jesus can magically turn white, what might secular people edit? Foster Wallace again offers some insight: “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” The secular brand of worship is no less damaging than the evangelical’s bizarro landscape of White Jesus. We worship our bodies, minds, our stuff—hell, we worship independent rock artists like Tillman, worrying over their artistic choices like scripture. None of us are clean. Tillman’s world—it is our own, he suggests—requires a fistfuls of pills to keep leveled out. Asking for salvation again, Tillman wails, “Save me, President Jesus,” invoking a uniquely American brand of religiosity and nationalism where the best and worst day of every passing cultural year is Super Bowl Sunday.

The Father John Misty performance grows heavy-handed in its approach, finally introducing a haunting laugh track on the song’s final movement. Misty cracks, “They gave me a useless education and a sub-prime loan/on a craftsman home,” eliding any number of contemporary American domestic policy problems with the early 20th century mythology of owning the Western bungalow house. The laugh track rises maniacally, an especially weird move for a performance on a late-night show with an actual living studio audience. You wonder if this laughter was piped into Letterman’s studio 6a, so the straight-faced audience confronted Misty’s packaged laughter in real-time. If nothing else, the brilliance and the irritation of this moment lies in the hijacking of the real people who came to laugh at Letterman and found themselves the straight man in Misty’s joke. Tillman, approaching secular sermonizing, raises his tenor to meet lyrics about keeping “prescriptions filled” and being unable “to get off.” In “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, Misty had no trouble finishing on his mixture of Adderall and weed. It was sick, this American sensuality of sex and death, but it was final. We and he could get off, and I would suggest this colloquialism works on two levels.

It all comes back to worship and sermon, popular critiques and internal self-consciousness. Misty is, in some sense, no better than the mega-church pastor who he finds so transfixing and terrible, merely granting himself a measure of moral authority in the self-awareness of his art. But unlike Osteen, Tillman will never sell-out a basketball arena, let alone do so every Sunday. Tillman hijacks a media climate ripe for such critique. Many modern folk are complex self-haters, something Tillman knows well, but there are limits to the audience and “Bored in the USA”‘s ability to reach them. “Born in the USA”, the song from which Tillman borrows the phonics of “Bored in the USA” was also a cultural gutpunch, but it still rang out across hockey arenas, football stadiums, and bars across the American landscape. Springsteen hid his medicine in plain sight. Few Americans know “Born in the USA” was the last and maybe best anti-war song, a similarly damning indictment of our horrifying mixture of military imperialism and off-shoring of jobs. Springsteen’s protagonist arrives back from Vietnam to find no work and no hope, an anthemic railing against the free-market policies of the Reagan administration. These facts don’t keep Americans from singing along with “Born in the USA”, blindly chanting its lyrics with ignored irony, granting it a measure of authority and popular misinterpretation that will never threaten Father John Misty’s version. Tillman’s latest critique of American desire will stay where it was intended and limited, in the meta-narrative of—and this is Foster Wallace for the last time—our own “skull-sized kingdoms.” No longer even fascinated with sex and death, we finally only worship ourselves.

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