Everyone you love wants Father John Misty, or as his birth certificate reads, Josh Tillman, to work with them. Beyoncé picked some of his lyrics to complete “Hold Up,” arguably the best song on Lemonade (okay, but top five for sure). Lady Gaga asked him to write with her, and out came “Come to Mama.” Lana Del Rey put him in her video for “Freak,” a song inspired by their friendship. Even Stranger Things allegedly wanted him in the cast of the second season. So what’s the appeal?
It’s his poetry. The guy writes some undeniably attention-grabbing songs. Like that one he performed on Saturday Night Live that talked about having virtual reality sex with Taylor Swift. It wasn’t a burn, it was a commentary on the public’s access to famous people in a heightened technological state (and, as Tillman explains, Swift rhymes so nicely with Oculus Rift).
In the age of President Trump, Father John Misty is about to deliver an album called Pure Comedy that is one you need to listen to if you're unhappy with the state of America. It attacks the uninformed citizenry immobilised by religion and prescription drugs while mocking hipsters and hypocrites on the left, all through the lens of his sardonic sense of humour that he calls petulance. While Trump, and in fact no public figure other than Swift (and Amy Grant, but that’s another thing entirely), merits a mention in his lyrics, they are pointedly aimed at our culture. For example, “Ballad of the Dying Man,” which satirises the often overstated point of view of any one of the white males who offer endless commentary of cable news or engage in the never-ending battles of social media warriors. It’s one of those songs that makes you laugh because it’s true and then sigh...because it’s true.
What’s intriguing about his songs is that musically, they’re so familiar. There are elements of blue-eyed soul in his vocals that can be traced to their origination in the halls of Stax and Motown Records. The songs have elements of folk guitar and structuring, overlaid with modern production giving some of them just that hint of electronic that doesn’t verge into EDM territory. It is when they are paired with his lyrics, which are equal parts jocular and dour, that they take on the veneer of monologues by John Oliver or Samantha Bee. His book full of burns how the system, humanity, religion, the patriarchy, and civilisation are failing us are unflinching and punctuated with enough wry humour to make you hear the truth underlying the joke about how the world is falling apart.
Outside of this album, his stance on pop music caught my attention. Naturally, after one writes for Bey, every music site on the internet will want to ask questions about it. His response to Jillian Mapes in a Pitchfork interview, when asked about his experience writing with these women who dominate the landscape, was shocking.
“If you think that pop stars are anything other than prisoners, then you are fucking kidding yourself,” he said. “…why do you think that Lady Gaga or Beyoncé would come to old Uncle Jerry over here for songs if they weren’t looking for something? If they weren’t like, ‘Get me away from these fucking psychos.’ Both of them know I’m not running around looking for these gigs.”
He then turned around and told the New York Times that the pop music industry “is categorically anti-woman. I know a lot of women in that industry. They were pitched an American narrative about success equaling freedom when there couldn’t be anything further from the truth.”
That’s a pretty big coffee mug of what the actual fuck to be serving up, especially considering that Tillman’s debut album as Father John Misty was an outrageous and sometimes misogynistic take on the male psyche in love. But he’s not wrong about how pop music treats its female artists. Put into perspective, I recently read the memoirs of one of the giants of the music industry, Clive Davis (he’s the guy who oversaw the careers of Whitney Houston, Patti Smith, Alicia Keys, and royally pissed off Kelly Clarkson). At the end of his book, Davis reveals that he is bi-sexual and for the last 20 years, after two marriages to women, he has been in relationships with men. If you think he’s an ally, though, let me assure you: he was not. Through his tenure as the head of Columbia Records, Arista Records, and J Records he signed hundreds of artists. He never mentions taking the consideration of how men look into account, but his assessment the looks of every female artist he works with are an important part of the marketing and imaging plan around them. That never changes in how he writes about artists, from the 1960s to the 2000s. It’s irritating as fuck.
That’s just how it is, all the time. Seriously. It’s not something Max Martin or Diplo are ever going to acknowledge in a conversation about the women they work with because they probably don’t notice — or don’t care, they’re getting paid either way. We live in a world where a radio DJ felt he could stick his hand up Taylor Swift’s skirt during a meet and greet. Fortunately, we also live in a world where Swift sued him for doing it.
Is Tillman an ally to talk about the grinding meat machine that is the pop music industrial complex? Not exactly, but it feels like a relief that he didn’t just answer the question by saying that Beyoncé is an ethereal goddess of creativity and he was #blessed to be in her presence.
Pure Comedy is released on 7th April.