The XPoNential Music Festival took place in Camden, New Jersey over the weekend, but instead of the many musical acts that performed, the biggest story of the festival was Father John Misty's unorthodox Friday set. In other words, there wasn't a set, as Father John Misty - real name Joshua Tillman - played a 10-minute improvised song, ranted onstage, played "Bird on a Wire" by Leonard Cohen, then walked off the stage 30 minutes early.
Here's a little snippet:
Tillman's rant, with snippets captured on various videos, attempted to discuss the current political climate, with Donald Trump recently accepting the Republican Presidential Nomination, as well as commented on the entertainment industry's role in creating this toxic climate. "I always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened," Tillman said in just a portion of his speech, "When the collective consciousness was so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment... How entertaining should this be right now with a fucking battleship in the background and this shit on TV, how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be?"
Following the shortened set, Tillman took to Twitter to continue expressing his grief, and attempted to clarify his actions with an Instagram post. Since Friday, people all over social media are taking sides, with some calling Tillman's actions a completely justified critique of the current state of affairs and others calling it a waste of his paying audience's time.
I'm a fan of Tillman's work, starting all the back when he was drumming for Fleet Foxes, but I didn't really know what to think when I first heard about his performance. After watching the various clips from Friday and reading what both Tillman and others had to say about it, let me start by saying that I completely understand where Tillman's coming from. Entertaining and playing music for people can feel pretty damn pointless given everything that's gone down recently. There are clearly a lot of things wrong with the world right now, both with the angry orange man going full-on dictator here at home plus all the violent discord abroad, and it's pretty much impossible at this point to successfully justify ignoring all of it. That said, I don't feel like what Tillman did on Friday was the best way to go about expressing his thoughts, and I don't completely agree with everything he said.
First off, I don't agree that all entertainment is "stupid" and has no point in regards to current issues. While yes, you have the typical, shallow TV shows meant to numb your mind for a few hours, much how Trump likes to use his brand of showmanship to gain endless attention and promote ignorance, entertainment can be used to promote legitimate social change. We have seen smart, progressive entertainment with substance done time and time again from the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore, and many others. While Tillman criticized the "professionals at Comedy Central" as being part of the problem, you can't deny that they are effectively educating and informing the masses through entertainment. They have a solid, well-thought-out message to say, and they say it in a way that will make the average person listen and enjoy, which is very different than what Tillman did on Friday. Even Tillman's own album, I Love You Honeybear, was all about taking deep issues and framing them in a "love song" format, allowing immense emotion and thought to reach the listener when they least expected it, and it was a shame to see him dismiss that.
Going off of that, music can be an extremely effective commentary and is very much not a meaningless form of entertainment. You can go back decades through history all over the world ( which I did recently, funny enough) and see that music has always been at the forefront of inspiring significant social progress. By addressing issues like racism, war, and political discord, these songs inspired countless people to take action and demand change, and continue to do so to this day. To call entertainment useless is to unfairly dismiss the work of generations worth of artists and musicians. Yes, you can view this argument as over-idealistic, and I'll admit that like anything involving big business, the music and entertainment industries have their problems. But until there's a better way to raise awareness, reach people in a way political speeches and round tables can't, and incite people to fight for what they believe in, it seems to me that entertainment is our best bet. People tune out of incoherent rants, but those same people will likely listen to a well-constructed song with a genuine message.
Lastly, and this may be the most contentious point but bear with me, Tillman has no right to denounce the very thing that has given him a platform of relevance in the first place. Coming onstage as an entertainer and then abusing that privilege of being onstage for a self-righteous tangent is not only hypocritical, but gives artists who are actively fighting for change through art a bad name. It doesn't even matter whether or not Tillman accepted the money the festival paid him (which he allegedly didn't), if you go up there to a devoted audience and try and say something, you better do it in a meaningful way. Whatever Tillman's rant was about could've been expressed through what he's good at, which is the thoughtful and emotionally stirring music people came to see. Instead, he chose to go on a meaningless, self-loathing rant that people will only watch and remember for the spectacle and, what do you know, the mindless entertainment of watching another sanctimonious artist get on his soap box without anything real to say. To me, Tillman's rant lacked both direction and substance, was self-loathing, used language only meant to incite fear and anger, and was fueled by blind emotion rather than legitimate conversation or fact-which, frankly, sounds all too familiar. By scoffing at a platform for change like entertainment in favor of telling everyone to be "really fucking sad," you're not changing anything for the better. You're part of the problem.
Alright, that's all I have to say on that. Hopefully the Internet hipsters won't come for my throat for this, but I've always believed in the power music has to make the world a less crappy place, and I hate to see such a amazingly talented artist cynically dismiss that power. It's true a lot needs to change in the world, but it would be a huge mistake to give up and the influence of music and art so quickly.
Here's Misty at his best, playing a small show for another beloved radio station, KEXP, last summer: