Exclusive Q&A: Allee Willis, Queen of Kitsch


What do Mark Cuban, Pee-Wee Herman, Earth, Wind & Fire, Soviet border guards, Michael Jackson jigsaw puzzles, and pink flamingos have in common? Nothing but Allee Willis — legendary songwriter, internet pioneer, painter, relentless punster and voracious collector of all things kitsch. “I love kitsch,” explains Allee, “be it an object, photo, person, song, performance, anything. These pop culture artifacts are distinctive and evocative because someone believed in themselves and their idea enough to see it through despite it being off from the norm.” Whether she’s describing her own life-long obsession, the invention of the Pet Rock, or the endless supply of people posting videos of themselves singing her songs on the Internet, she has a thing for quirk.

“As a kid in Detroit I used to spend Saturdays climbing massive piles of sinks and toilets, newspapers, and comic book and cars stacked ten high,” Allee says. “The shapes and textures of everything as well as imagining who owned every object fascinated me. My days in the junkyard are at the very root of my obsession with kitsch. My house is filled with it. My style of dress is informed by it. My fascination with certain types of people is defined by it. Musically it puts me in a trance.”

Whether she drew inspiration from her Afro-Pic collection when penning Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” and “September” or the Grammy-winning “Neutron Dance” (the mistranslated title of which landed her on a KGB public threat list) remains a mystery, though she does credit a Sammy Davis, Jr. bobble-head doll as muse on her Broadway musical The Color Purple . Curiously, she prefers karaoke and inexplicably unselfconscious amateur versions of her hits to any attempt at a “real” performance. Which might explain why she skipped the recent EW&F show at the Nokia, but insists on having a “September” karaoke smack-down at her opening.

After running out of room for her gold and platinum records, testifying before Congress about the internet before anyone else even knew what it was, and crushing the dreams of less tenacious kitsch collectors around the world for years, the “soul man’s Martha Stewart” is tying it all together. Following up on the success of her blog, Kitsch O’ the Day, the Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch launches today with a weeklong YouTube film festival, an exhibition of hundreds of objects, and a reception, when else but the 21st of September.

More than an unparalleled archive, the AWMoK is a social network based on shared connoisseurship, commerce, relentless kitsch-based pun-making, and the closest thing a four-headed talking Monkees doll or a piggy-bank in the shape of Mr. T’s head will ever come to scholarship.