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The Wesley Willis Question

By D. ROBERT Okada and Z. SAMUEL Podolsky, Crimson Staff Writers

By D. Robert Okada and Z. Samuel Podolsky

Contributing Writers

Enter T.T. the Bear’s. To the left, an overcrowded stage area and opening act in the twilight of their set. To the right, surrounded by a cadre of drunken Harvard students, sits, ponderous, the main attraction. From time to time, he disengages from what appears to be a highly involved internal dialectic on whether or not to take another sip of his water, clasps lucky fans by the ears, and repeatedly graces them with his trademark headbutt. The anticipation in the room is almost palpable as he, with great effort, makes his way towards the stage. It is here that our examination of one of contemporary music’s most sad, interesting and complex phenomena—Wesley Willis—begins.

To someone unfamiliar with the Wesley Willis canon, it may seem strange that this 350-plus pound, paranoid schizophrenic who sings such timeless classics as “I Whupped Batman’s Ass,” “Rock and Roll McDonalds” and “Cut That Mullet” easily sold out T.T. the Bear’s on Friday, Sept. 14. Willis is, by any reasonable measure of musical talent, completely talentless. The songs—all of approximately the same length and same musical infrastructure, consist of strung-together expletives and choruses that explore the very margins of harmonic dissonance.

But this is fine, since none of Willis’s fans pretend to enjoy his act on a musical level. Rather, they enjoy the comic relief involved in the almost vaudevillian (and certainly pathetic) spectacle of Willis’ psychopathology. They come to laugh at the leper’s festering lesions in a shameless display of Schadenfreude. This in itself is a disease inherent in American culture: We enjoy seeing others flounder and make fools of themselves.

Imagine the scene: A vastly overweight, mentally disabled, middle-aged man howls unintelligibly into a microphone while playing the same few notes again and again on a keyboard; a crowd of young college students drunkenly catcall and jeer at the performer. Willis, of course, seems entirely unaware that he is being jeered at, and mistakes the sarcastic applause for genuine adulation.

On the one hand, one is inclined to sympathize with and feel profoundly sorry for Willis, making his living by unwittingly making a mockery and laughingstock out of himself. At the same time, this may say something about those who are willing to pay $8 to support this sort of sick exploitation. One wonders who is more pitiable—the performer who is a travesty, or those who are willing to spend their dollars and hours allowing that travesty to exist, and indeed making it a profitable enterprise? In short, who’s exploiting whom? After all, there exists the (albeit remote) possibility that Willis’s entire act is, well, an act. It is possible that Willis goes home after his shows and, while counting the pocketful of money he made that night, laughs to himself at the gullibility of his audience. It would be a delicious irony if this were the case.

Either way, the point is the same: Someone is laughing at someone else’s shortcomings, which seems, to us at least, to fly in the face of what rock music is all about. Innovation, incisiveness, social criticism, yes; vaudeville and shameless exploitation, no. Then again, who are we really kidding? Great rock n’ roll acts—and their devoted fans—have been the victims of some brand of commodification long before the Jackson Five. Since the advent of commercial radio, music has beens an industry, and the importance of money has at times eclipsed that of talent and musicianship. And Wesley Willis, while musically insufferable, somehow remains a marketable commodity.

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