Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Some Thoughts On Wesley Willis

In my music library post that included Daniel Johnston, I said:

Some people conflate him with Wesley Willis, whose popularity is mostly
built around his mental illness. Willis is a sad case, it seems to me, as every
mention of him had this ugly "let's gawk at the crazy guy" tone to it. Johnston,
though, is a great songwriter despite his illness.

In comments, cbean45 said:

Wesley Willis was an unstoppable as a freight train in both his art and music .
He loved what he was doing and most fans felt his joy. He felt he was living his
dreams and getting paid. He was happy as a clam.
It's taken me a couple of days to respond because I wasn't sure how to respond. I don't really have an opinion about the well-being of Wesley Willis himself. If he benefitted from his fame, good for him. I understand that he was homeless before he became popular, so I'm glad that he made some money and found some happiness towards the end of his life.

It's the attitudes of his fans - at least the ones I knew - that bothered me, which was my point in this post. There always seemed to be an ugly dose of exploitation in the fans I knew. They liked Wesley Willis because he was mentally ill and his songs sounded like the work of a mentally ill person. Does it make your enjoyment ok if you make someone's life better although your enjoyment is tied up with your desire to see him humiliated, especially when he doesn't know the difference between positive attention and negative?

I don't know the answer to that, actually. I think the answer is hell no, but I'm sure someone will find something that I enjoy that walks that same line, and I'm sure that I have a good reason why it's different, but it's hard to say definitively here. That's not quite right. The answer is definitely hell no, and I'm sure I'm a hypocrite, too.

The Wesley Willis fanhood seems like exploitation to me, but there's certainly a lot of entertainments that are built around the humiliation of the entertainer, even if the entertainer doesn't know that he or she is being mocked. It does seem especially ugly when the entertainer is both mentally ill and African-American, as Wesley Willis was. And knowing both of these facts seemed to be essential to enjoying Willis' music, at least in the case of those I've known who considered themselves Willis fans.

And I do think that Willis is quite different from other mentally ill performers, such as Daniel Johnston or Roky Erickson (although Roky is apparently doing much better these days). Both Johnston and Erickson were recording before their illness became apparent, and I think fans can listen to their music (or enjoy Johnston's art) without knowing that either has had psychological issues. Willis was a homeless and unmedicated street musician when his career started. His songs are pretty crude, too, and that's from an avowed Jandek fan. I don't think you can separate Willis's songs from Willis the man, whereas Johnston's and Erickson's songs have been successfully covered many times and have a life outside of their creator. That's why I find the cult of Wesley Willis uncomfortable: I see no difference between the listening to his songs and listening to a crazy black street musician make a fool of himself. The pleasures are one and the same, and I can't condone the former without feeling tainted by the latter.


John 1:41 PM, June 10, 2009  

If you had been exposed to "Bill Clinton" on Chicago radio during the Democratic Convention or heard "Rock and Roll McDonalds" on the "Supersize Me" soundtrack before you experienced his live performance, you would have formed a different opinion. Wesley's madness was a reflection some of his fans. Probably some very vocal ones. However you miss how avant garde his music really is. Wesley was to music what a can of Cambells Tomato Soup was to the art world. You like it or you don't. The only people I personally know, that liked Wesley were both empathetic, intelligent and very hip.

Hayden Childs 2:16 PM, June 15, 2009  

Thanks, John. I've had some similar comments over on Facebook from people I like and respect. I'm thinking that maybe I've missed the mark on the guy and should give him a second chance.

Anonymous 5:24 PM, June 19, 2009  

Though I agree with a lot of what you said, I think it is a bit of a stretch to say the exploitation was because of, or is somehow worse because, he was black.

I've known plenty of Willis fans who just wanted to laugh at the guy (I went to a show of his out of pure curiosity and was won over by how much fun he seemed to be having) but none of them ever expressed any kind of racist sentiments about him.

Is it important to note people laughing at the mentally ill guy weren't racist? I don't know, but it seemed worth mentioning.

Hayden Childs 11:18 AM, June 22, 2009  

Fair enough, Anonymous. It's hard to parse why something gives discomfort without confusing the issue. So thanks!

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