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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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.