Yesterday, a reader was kind of enough to direct me toward Nathan Rabin’s writings on will.i.am, which I had somehow previously missed. I will address those in a moment, but first let’s talk about the man himself.
will.i.am was born William James Adams in 1975. Growing up in East Los Angeles, he became involved in the city’s various music scenes, dancing at raves with his high school classmate Pasquale Rotella, the future founder of the Electric Daisy Carnival, but spending more time in the world of underground hip-hop. At 12, he met Allan Pineda, the future apl.de.ap, and the two, along with a few other friends, grew to be a force at Hollywood freestyle battles. will, believe it or not, was good enough to beat Chicago’s Twista, the Guinness Book of World Records champion whose Kanye/Jamie Foxx collabo “Slow Jamz” would one day be up for a Grammy.
As he aged, will supplemented that musical ability with a remarkable business sense, both recruiting sponsors the way an inventor recruits venture capitalists and becoming a venture capitalist himself, taking ownership of and investing in as many properties as possible. In recent years, he’s become a remarkable trendspotter, one of first to pick up on nascent genres and artists and sometimes midwifing them towards larger-scale success. In 2010, a few months before the release of even the “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” EP, he commissioned Skrillex to remix “Rock That Body.” Also in 2010, a few years before “Gangnam Style” had even the Country Music Awards dancing the K-Pop, will was trying to distribute 2NE1’s music in the U.S.
Anyway, Rabin essentially posits will.i.am as something like pop’s Isadour Isou, a radical attempting to blow up his art form in order to open new possibilities for future generations. He explains:
[will] is subverting the pop mainstream… Logically, the all-consuming shittiness of Black Eyed Peas can’t help but inspire the next great countercultural art form. That’s exactly how Will.I.Am planned it. He is fearlessly advancing pop music by attempting to sabotage it. And here’s the really crazy part: Nobody was hip to his game. Nobody even knew he was playing a high-stakes game. Until now.
Rarely does one come across a writer so impressed by his own half-ironic “theories.” For support, Rabin cites, among other things, the hiring of Fergie (referred to only as “an ex-meth addict who sometimes publicly soils herself” and “this preposterous ‘Fergie” concoction”) and Taboo’s Fallin’ Up, which readers should recognize as a favorite around here.
In the recently released memoir Fallin’ Up, The Other Other Guy writes about Will.i.am in quasi-mystical terms. Time and again, Taboo watched in quiet awe as Will.i.am communed with powerful spirits, wrestled with his demons, went on vision quests, and at the end of a series of grueling, powerful, profound physical, spiritual, and emotional experiences, came away with a song like “My Humps” or “Let’s Get Retarded.”
In Taboo’s telling, Will.i.am isn’t shamelessly chasing fickle commercial fads in a desperate attempt to maintain Black Eyed Peas’ immense, almost unimaginable popularity. Will.i.am is simply attuned to the rhythms of the universe. In 2009, the rhythms of the universe told Will.i.am that dance music was traveling in an exciting new direction.
I would approve, were this an anything-approaching-accurate reading of the book. Beyond it patronizing a guy who A) just spent a couple hundred pages explaining his battles with addiction (the main subject of the book) and B) has accomplished more than most of us ever will, that summary is straight disingenuous. I should know, because that’s exactly what I opened the book hoping to find.
Instead, Taboo keeps it remarkably cool. More than anything else, he portrays will as a regular guy with lofty goals and the work ethic to back them up. Most importantly, he works not only hard but smart, looking for rising trends (many of which he first learns of through his own failings) and figuring out the best way to get on top of them. Taboo seems to understand that without will, he wouldn’t have had much of a career, but he pays will back with respect, not hagiography.
To pick up Rabin’s specific example, Tab does in fact relate the story of when will told him that dance music was heading in a new direction and about to take over the world. However, will didn’t learn about dance music from “the rhythms of the universe,” he learned about it first from growing up around it, from talking to people within the culture, and from going to Ibiza to DJ and figure out what’s what. In this interview with the L.A. Times, he demonstrates a deep understanding not only of contemporary so-called EDM but of forty years of disco, house, freestyle, and hip-hop. If only Rabin offered such insightful criticism, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Instead, we get bogus theories that are good for yucks and not much else. Well, here is a theory of my own: Entertainment dorks like Rabin, those who dedicate their lives to standing on the sidelines and gawking at the popular culture in front of them, are so threatened by artists like will—the ones who don’t shrug their shoulders and ask “Isn’t it all so ridiculous?” but who take their craft, god forbid, seriously—that they can only understand them by projecting onto them, figuring them as, in this case, self-aware caricatures whose life is inevitably compared to a piece of performance art.
Earlier, Rabin asks:
Is Will.I.Am the soulless shill he appears to be or a prankster whose entire career represents a post-modern critique on the dangers of corporate co-option? Could it be that Will.I.Am is simply holding a mirror up to a society in which the concept of “selling out” no longer has cultural currency, exposing to us the emptiness of our mass culture?
The real question, though, is how do communities like the A.V. Club—and at their head, writers like Rabin—keep deluding themselves into thinking that they are smarter than, superior to, and one step ahead of the culture they comment on? At the end of the day, who is playing who?