I am at the baggage carousel of Katowice International Airport in Poland, contemplating the unshaven neck of Andrew W.K.’s hype man as he watches peoples’ slowly looping belongings. He looks like guys I’ve known who work in kitchens, or maybe a car mechanic cleaned up for a funeral. The night before, we were in London in a warehouse meant to serve as a green room for 20 bands, with food and drinks set out on long, labeled tables. My bandmates examined with scientific precision the table set for Andrew W.K. and his crew, noting with awe everything that was different between his table and ours. Unsurprisingly, I was off in a corner trying to get drunk as fast as possible, so I can’t remember anything specific they ate or stole.
They were really excited, though — the boys, unlike me, were obsessed with the myths. He sings about getting wasted but he’s sober! He’s married to a bodybuilder, he had a TV show and the producers thought it would be zany to have him live in a sorority house for a weekend; the sisters found him to be odd but generally alright. They were shocked when they found out I didn’t know anything about him. “You’ll just have to see for yourself,” they said, “it’s really hard to explain.”
Andrew W.K.’s first album came out when I was 14; there he was on the cover, blood from his forehead and nose covering his face and running into his mouth. There were boys I knew back then who loved that album — only boys — and two of them I remember very well, a rude, round nerd and a mama’s boy who, according to popular myth — started by me — was a premature ejaculator. They were best friends and they lived in my neighborhood, and they liked picking on me enough to keep me around. They were the only “indie-rock” boys in our small rural high school, obsessed with Death Cab and the Get Up Kids, trying to be a little more like Seth Cohen every day. The squat nerd with the bald spots and his shitty little sister was an ardent supporter of Andrew W.K., obsessed really, but maintained that he only liked it ironically. Some of the other boys I knew were more sincere in their love, but boys — all of them.
Unfortunately, I’ve met more of those boys since then. They’re the pretentious boys who, when they meet a girl who likes metal, only find it fair to insist she recite the Slayer discography in reverse chronological order. If she likes comic books, she has to know every character’s origin stories as well as subsequent changes and how they correspond to different decades and illustrators. The same boys who, a year later, when I was 15 years old, still on dial-up and not yet part of the world, scoffed when they found out I had never heard of a website called Pitchfork. They were 18 and I was just young and stupid, I clearly wasn’t a real music fan. The ridicule and questioning were constant.
Women are called upon every day to prove our right to participate in music on the basis of our authenticity — or perceived lack thereof. Our credentials are constantly being checked — you say you like a band you’ve only heard a couple of times? Prepare to answer which guitarist played on a specific record and what year he left the band. But don’t admit you haven’t heard them, either, because they’ll accuse you of only saying you like that genre to look cool. Then they’ll ask you if you’ve ever heard of about five more bands, just to prove that you really know nothing. This happens so often that it feels like dudes meet in secret to work on a regimented series of tests they can use to determine whether or not we deserve to be here. The “fake geek girl” test is one, door guys stopping female musicians carrying gear to make sure they’re actually in the band and not just somebody’s girlfriend is another. Big rock magazines that interview male musicians about gear and female musicians about sexual harassment — that’s up there too.
And even if you pass all their tests, you’re probably just a gimmick, there so the guys in your band seem progressive, or because you’re cute, or they couldn’t find anybody else. Worst of all, they might compliment you, and tell you that you’re good — for a girl. Regardless, you’re never considered “real,” you’ll never meet their idea of what a real musician or real music fan should be, because the standard is male.
So Andrew W.K. was on our flight to Poland and the guys in my band were unbelievably excited. But we couldn’t really see him because he was in first class and we were in the back of economy, surrounded by screaming children. At Immigration, one of our guys was trying to make everybody laugh by loudly announcing “Where’s Andy? Did they rush him to the front of the line?” and I crimsoned and my shoulders shrank up to my ears in that helpless gesture of secondhand embarrassment because I had seen him, not five places behind us, patiently waiting in the back of the line. I knew he’d heard them and I live in fear of doing anything that others could perceive as rude — rudeness is high up on the list of things “young ladies don’t do,” the opposite of “boys will be boys.” I pretended to casually look around, and I’m awkward so I was basically staring straight at him, expecting to meet the offended eyes of the King of Partying himself.
But he was staring off in space. His NYPD ball cap had made a thick dent in his long hair; he’d obviously been napping on the plane. His gray sweatpants were cut off at the knees and frayed over a hundred washes. He was wearing the sort of wraparound shades you see on old ladies at the bus stop, those Robocop-looking visor shits designed to go over your regular glasses.
I feel weird about eating these days or leaving the house, or existing in a material form at all, because having a body that talks too much and sweats and makes mistakes is exhausting, and here’s this dude just standing around with dented hair and a Napalm Death shirt over sweatpants shorts and it’s almost as if the whole world isn’t scrutinizing what’s in his cart at the grocery store, what he looks like without makeup on, how his gender affects his authenticity as a performer. I was looking straight at this spaced out, sweet-faced, charming guy, just standing there, calm and existing.
It didn’t make sense at first. The only people I’d known who liked his music — which at that point I had never heard and knew nothing about — were those sensitive indie boys who idolized Andrew W.K. because they believed him to be the comically outsized personification of the base, dudely desires they claimed they had somehow managed to suppress. Guys who think they deserve sexual favors because they’ve read The Catcher in the Rye. Guys who cuff the sleeves of their cardigans in case they spill while playing Edward 40-Hands. Guys who bitch incessantly that they can’t meet a girl who’s “actually into music.” To them, Andrew W.K. represented the parts of masculinity from which they had distanced themselves, that they could now appreciate “ironically.” But the second you see the guy, it’s obvious that he’s nothing like the image they’d built up of him. I was perplexed and vowed to investigate.
Which brings us forward a few hours to 4:00 PM on a 95 degree day in Katowice, as Andrew W.K. is sprinting past me in a skintight white shirt and jeans onto a giant festival stage illuminated with rainbow strobe lights and heavy with fake fog. His drum machine is so loud and determined and violently annoying that it makes Big Black look like a high school AV club meeting. His hype man was running laps around him, all for the amusement of maybe a thousand teenagers who were going absolutely ballistic. Every single song started with an extended, Rachmaninoff-esque classical piano introduction that would then sharply and jarringly increase in tempo the second he launched into the actual song, all of which were odes to partying and getting wasted. He leapt into the air and headbanged to every single song, hair in his eyes, while bashing out these meticulous five-finger chords with the skill and determination of Jerry Lee Lewis.
He addressed the audience directly and reminded them, “We are not musicians — this is our show, we are performers!” I wrote that one down to use later. It started to pour rain. He played a New Year’s Eve-themed song that began with him making the audience count down from 100 before screaming “Happy New Year!” It was August 2nd. He ran through an uncomfortable rap song, doing synchronized choreography with his hype man, and then it was over. He had played for an hour straight.
As they finished their performance and came running off stage, his face instantly deflated and went back to that quiet, contemplative look I’d seen in the airport. One of my bandmates was grinning ear to ear, as amazed as I was at what he had seen, and stuck out his hand for a high five. And Andrew, who probably recognized him as the rude guy from the airport, blew him off completely.
I was possessed. I was in love! It was the most intense performance I had ever seen! That night I holed up in my little hotel room and read everything I could find. Here I had thought this guy was the patron saint of butt metal and frat parties, whose genuine positivity and desire to shut off brains in the name of fun had been co-opted by pretentious music snobs who were basically making fun of him — and here I find that he’s a classical, university-trained pianist who began studying at the age of five. He spent his adolescence playing noise and experimental music, and later played in Current 93 and the Boredoms. He was a motivational speaker at a Brony convention, lecturing about positivity and the good, healthy community surrounding a creepy, reprehensible and disgusting fandom known for appropriating and sexualizing a cartoon made for little girls. He’d had multiple TV shows, written advice columns in international newspapers — there’s nothing this guy hadn’t done, and he wasn’t a moron, he was really talented and probably a genius.
But the facts still weren’t lining up! I couldn’t find a logical bridge between the happy guy I was reading about — the same guy I’d seen on stage, the guy who had accomplished all these incredible and strange things — and the mellow, almost morose guy I saw in the airport.
Some people went totally nuts when it came out that Lana Del Rey was at least partially an industry construct. After surviving teenage alcohol dependency and moving to a trailer park in Jersey to record a first album that by all accounts bombed, she reinvented herself by a process that seemed to combine the two overarching themes in her life: her obvious, deep sadness and her part of the collective experience of being sexualized as a young woman. And when it worked — good for her, she put in many years of hard work! — she immediately became the victim of targeted attacks and constant negative commentary about her authenticity as a performer. This woman, who really does tour and write songs and suffer scrutiny, is written off as a fake. But never mind her anxiety-ridden early television appearances, people came at her for possibly having gotten lip injections. It was like Jezebel and the dogs — she started singing exclusively in her lower register because she felt it would help people take her more seriously, dyed her hair darker, and used a sexier stage name, and suddenly there were people trying actively to ruin her career.
Tavi Gevinson put it brilliantly when she said that Lana Del Rey “has many different qualities that women in our culture aren’t allowed to be, all at once, so people are trying to find the inauthentic one.” Early on, when Del Rey was asked if she was enjoying her new success despite all the backlash, she said, “I never felt any of the enjoyment. It was all bad, all of it.”
Which is why I was shocked when I found out that years ago, Andrew W.K. held a public press conference after some bizarre legal trouble, later attributed to a blackmail-driven spat with a former friend and producer, where he announced that it was time to admit the Andrew W.K. persona was a fake character invented by him, his lawyer-professor father, and a record label. The entire thing was a cleverly planned piece of living theater that was meant to seem very real, but the ruse had gotten too large and complicated to maintain. He wasn’t even the first person cast in the “role” of Andrew W.K. But unlike Lana Del Rey, he is granted not only leeway, but an entirely new cultural importance.
I have read a dozen websites dedicated to exposing Andrew W.K. as an innocent pawn of the Masons or the Illuminati, calling him the kidnapped victim of a decade-long government mind control plot. There are semi-scholarly articles debating whether the man, the persona or the music is the real “art” of the Andrew W.K. “concept piece.” Fans gather on forums to compare pictures from shows in different countries, trying to determine if it’s the same “Andrew” on stage every night.
It is twisted that people only seemed to love the idea of Andrew W.K. more after the truth came out. The truth is so interesting! He’s fearless, talented, he has a dark theoretical and critical mind. He’s on television with Glenn Beck talking about being afraid of abortion. But it was transformation into a party dude at the hands of the music industry that made people pay attention to him. Meanwhile he’s up there with Ian Svenonius at the Guggenheim talking about how his early experiences exploring the interstices between “pure music” and “unwanted sound” have shaped his intentionality in the “Andrew W.K. presentation.” The kids in Katowice were there to have fun and get wasted. It’s Harmony Korine playing dumb for Letterman back in the ’90s, over and over and over again. In a way, everybody loses. It’s like nobody was listening when he himself told them at point-blank range that he isn’t real.
But when a female musician is in any way fake, she’s denied creative agency, written off as uninventive and talentless. Beyoncé is accused of lip-synching, even when she isn’t. Music rags run articles exposing pop stars’ real names, highlighting Lorde, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus. But being that these are the most successful female artists in the world, one has to assume that their fakeness — or, as we should be calling it, “reinvention” — is necessary for women to succeed in the music industry. It’s the basic principle of survival, period: adapt and evolve, or die. And of the women I listed above, look at what they’ve done that gets them called fake: taking on more seductive names and more assertive personas, getting breast and butt lifts and lip fillers and wearing makeup, wearing more elaborate, sexy, sometimes borderline-fetish costumes — everything that men claim they want out of women! But no, that’s not good enough — those qualities have to be both present and completely natural in order for spectators to be satisfied.
Those spectators being, in many cases, the party-hard, ham-headed, get-wasted dorks who are willing to stand out in the rain to count backwards from 100 with a man whose entire career is built around tricking those morons into thinking he’s one of them.
What then for Andrew — not Andrew W.K. but Andrew, the person, who confuses the hell out of me, who I’ll probably never be lucky enough to see again and who, if he ever finds out about this essay, will probably file for a restraining order — who seemingly receives nothing but support for being a complete fake? As talented a musician as I’ve ever seen and ridiculously smart, but who must be as affected by the pressures of maintaining this persona as any other performer? If he permanently gave up the code-switching and explored the space between the keg party and the Guggenheim, if he decided to perform as himself? This is one of those rare occasions when I will whip out a line I usually loathe, that “feminism is for men, too” — but look at this double standard of gender and authenticity through the lens of our culture and it all makes sense.
And what’s more, it’s sad — Andrew W.K. the persona might be the ultimate wicker man for dudes of my generation who were raised, as all men are, to repress their feelings. Not wanting to become their fathers, who worked their way through the ’70s and ’80s when men were still adjusting to workplace equality and the elimination of the ’50s patriarch role, an identity crisis that often resolved itself in heavy drinking, they internalized that aimless masculine aggression and sadness — but in the navel-gazing ’90s and 2000s, backed by capitalism and the assembly line homogeneity of music, culture, even food, they had no option but to make that crazed, bottomless feeling ironic, make it about loud, repetitive, boring music, partying hard, and insisting that you’re having fun — all a convenient excuse for the ultimate cure for confronting your bleak feelings, “getting wasted.” And Christ, they would rather attribute it to an Illuminati kidnapping plot than take responsibility for their actions.
After a month of thinking about the bizarre truth inherent here — that real women with fake names are somehow considered exponentially less authentic than completely fake men harboring a real, hidden sadness — I’ve come to one conclusion; that the cult of personality surrounding artists exists because of an unfeeling world that loves nothing more than breaking sensitive, talented people. The oppressive systems that surround us have forced us to assume personas like castles have moats — they can’t protect you forever but they might work for a little while to keep the bad guys from coming in. That’s not safe or good for human hearts, regardless of their respective privileges in regard to class or gender.
I’m reminded of another artist who suffered the pressures of maintaining a public persona that wasn’t at all indicative of his inner struggle: the late Robin Williams, who used to tell a sad joke about this, where a man goes to the doctor and begs, “Please help me, doctor, everything is meaningless and I have nothing to live for. What should I do?” Doctor says, “The cure is simple. Go and see the great clown Pagliacci, in town for one night only. He can make anyone happy.” His face falls, the man cries out, “Doctor, I am Pagliacci.”