I’ve been a music fan my entire life. I was the type of kid that always had posters on my wall, always scribbled band logos on the covers of my school notebooks. When I first heard 2Pac’s “U Can’t C Me,” I memorized every word and when I was home alone, I’d turn it up as loud as possible, stand in front of a mirror, and rap along with 2Pac while throwing around my arms like rappers do. When Nirvana was my favorite band I grew my blonde hair down to my chin. When I saw the picture in the liner notes of In Utero where Kurt has pink hair, I dyed my hair pink. Yeah, I was an annoying, disloyal little mimic, and I had no idea where the fuck I belonged in the world, who I was, or who I wanted to be. It didn’t matter. I was a fan.
When I started Pigeons & Planes, I started it with that same mindset: that of a fan. I didn’t have industry connections, I didn’t have an agenda. I had listened to enough radio, seen enough TV, and read enough to build an idea of “the music industry,” but it was very much an outsider’s perspective. As the site grew, so did my awareness of the music I was writing about. If you write about music long enough, you’ll notice how this happens. You start off spewing your opinions, you graduate to researching every song and digging through the thesaurus to find the right words to describe it, and you end up trying to tell a story that hasn’t already been told.
I studied, I listened, I started a music blog, I worked at a record label, I joined Complex, and I’ve started to slowly transition from a typical music fan to something else. Somewhere along the lines, I started considering myself a music journalist. I still haven’t come to terms with it, because in my heart I’m a fan, but my job is to write about music, and that inevitably changes things. It’s not that I don’t still consider myself a music fan. I do. I still get that rising excitement in the pit of my stomach when I first hear a song that blows me away. I still remember moments of my life based on what song was playing at the time. But something’s different, and it didn’t really hit me until today.
Today, I interviewed Willis Earl Beal. Not as a fan, but as a music journalist, and for the first time in my experience writing about music, the line between fan and journalist became devastatingly clear.
When you’re talking to Willis Earl Beal at this point in his career, there are certain things you have to ask about. His story is too filled with intriguing tales to avoid the obvious: he was discharged from the army, he was homeless, he passed out flyers with his phone number and offered to sing songs to people over the phone. And he was once on The X Factor.
I’m a fan of Willis Earl Beal. From the first time I heard “Evening’s Kiss,” I was fully engaged. I dug into his story, took in as much music as I could, and shared the music with as many people as I could. I was excited. It was a familiar feeling, I’ve always been a fan.
We got through about 15 minutes of the interview when I brought up The X Factor. “So why did you decide to do The X Factor?” Willis paused for a few seconds, then let out a sigh. “Not to be disrespectful, but don’t you already know the story?”
I did know the story. I had read everything I could possibly find about Willis Earl Beal. I was a fan. I had seen the videos of him on The X Factor, watched the footage of the aftershow interview, read other interviews by people who asked many of the same questions that I asked today.
“Yeah, I do,” I said. “But it’s an interesting part of your story.” I got slightly defensive. As well as he knew that I probably knew his story already, he also had to know that this was a part of his story that I needed to include. Leaving it out would be borderline negligent. “It’s interesting to people to think that someone like you, who seems so unconcerned with mainstream success or mass appeal, would end up on a show like The X Factor.”
He seemed to accept my answer, and he went on to tell me some really interesting stories about his time on The X Factor. As far as my mission to interview Willis Earl Beal, things were back on track. But something about his initial response threw me off. For a second, that switch in my head went back from journalist to fan, and I completely understood where Willis was coming from. He wasn’t eager to regurgitate the same stories he’s already told to everyone who talks to him about his music career. That makes sense. But it was more than that, and I knew it. Willis Earl Beal is a man with an interesting story, but he isn’t just an interesting story. He talks about his past as if it’s completely unremarkable, just some stuff that he went through. At times, it sounds like he was just kind of drifting by, trying to figure things out make ends meet. He’s not interested in being some character that gets high off buzz because we’re all so enamored with the story. If he had his way, you get the feeling that he’d just prefer to sit in his room, play his music, and share it with a few people. But he has to make ends meet.
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