Willis doesn’t hide the fact that he’s pursuing a music career to make money. He’s not looking for what comes with fame, fortune, and attention. He just wants to live a good life, and music is the one thing that he’s tried out that is actually working out for him. He once said, “I just want to do music until I make enough money to disappear.” You might think this is disheartening to hear as a fan, since we all like to think that everyone’s just doing it “for the love,” but in the context of Willis’ story, this quote takes on a different meaning. I don’t believe it’s the music that he doesn’t want to do, I believe it’s the music industry. He doesn’t listen to mainstream music. He listens to the CDs he has in a CD case, about 150 of them. He’s not even familiar with what’s on the radio, and when you bring this up with him he takes on a tone close to disgust. Same with indie rock. To him, it’s all just part of a bigger picture, and it’s a picture he doesn’t seem to appreciate. He likes Cat Power. The only station he listens to is one that plays classical music. He has no real interest in “collaborating” with other artists (although he says he’d consider it if they let him write all the music).
After I asked my final question, I turned the recorder off. I thanked Willis for taking the time, and for a second I thought about ending it there, but I had more to say. For the next 5 minutes I wasn’t I music journalist. I told Willis that I appreciate him answering all those questions about his story. I told him that I understand how it must get annoying, and how it’s weird because part of the reason people are so interested in him is because he doesn’t seem like the type of person to really put himself out there like that. He doesn’t do Facebook, he doesn’t have a Twitter account, and while he’s still somewhat of an enigma, he’s also not trying to perpetuate his own mystery by hiding anything, like so many other artists do today. I tell him that I wish we could just take the music for what it is, take him for who he is as an artist, and be content, but we live in a weird time when everyone wants to know everything, and it makes that kind of thing close to impossible.
His tone changed. “I’m sorry if I caught an attitude before. I just worry about the overexposure. Once you put yourself out there too much, people start to hate. It’s already starting to happen.” For a couple more minutes, we talked about this. I left my own personal story out of the conversation, but as a fan/music blogger/music journalist, I’ve struggled with the same thing. I’d be perfectly content with not a person in the world knowing who “Confusion” is. It’s not realistic anymore, and it’s probably not the best thing when I’m embarking on a career as a music journalist, but what I put into words and publish is what I want people to have. Anything beyond that is mine.
We said our casual goodbyes, then he asked, “What was your name?”
“Thanks, Jacob, good talking with you.”
On this day, to Willis Earl Beal, I was Jacob the music journalist—another member of the media trying to uncover little pieces of his story so I could have something entertaining for people to chew on while they decide whether or not to buy into the buzz. He didn’t know I was the same Jacob that went to his concert at Mercury Lounge—alone—and waited front and center next to the stage so I could have a prime spot during the show. He didn’t know how bad I had to pee, and how holding it for two hours was worth it to me. He didn’t know that I was the same Jacob that couldn’t hold back a smile when he walked on stage, or that I was the same Jacob that played “Evening’s Kiss” on repeat while I fell asleep for the first three nights after I heard the song. It didn’t matter, I guess. But to me, as a fan, it was a disomforting thing to think about. It was a thing I had never thought about before.
Willis Earl Beal is often called an “outsider.” It’s a catchy way to talk about him, and it immediately draws you in as if you’re reading about some sort of exception to the norm, but can also be damning. Willis’ story is the kind that makes journalists salivate, but it leads to a lot of buzz that relies on the strength of something other than the music. It gets people talking, and it starts a bubble. Eventually, all bubbles pop. Soon enough, more cunning journalists come along and see this inflating hype as their chance to pop a bubble, and believe me, there are plenty of journalists out there who love nothing more than popping an expanding bubble. You saw what happened with Lana Del Rey. As annoying as “hype” and “buzz” might be, at least the intentions are good. This growing trend of triggering a backlash against premature hype might seem like a necessary evil needed to balance things out, but it’s an ugly process to watch happen.
The thing is, Willis Earl Beal really is an outsider. He’s a man that has spent a lot of time in his own world, in his own bubble. Now people—people with loud voices—are trying to get into that world and trying to inflate that bubble as much as they can while others sit patiently with their needles, just waiting for the right time to prick the thinning layer that holds it all together. Willis wants none of it. He doesn’t want the hype, and he doesn’t want the backlash. The way things are playing out, it’s something that he’s going to find hard to avoid.
I wish that I had some great last paragraph to make sense of all this, to reassure you that everything’s going to work out for one reason or another, or to reveal some hidden piece of the puzzle that provides some comfort, but I don’t. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. As hideous as the world of music criticism and the commercialization of art can be, it’s all just a reflection of human nature, and it’s not something that is always going to align with the thinking of an outsider like Willis Earl Beal. As a music journalist, that’s not an easy thing to navigate through with tact. But before you start buying into anything that we music journalists have to say, whether positive or negative, keep in mind that there’s a clear line between music journalists and fans. It’s a very real thing, and I found that line today.