Bad Feminist: A Conversation With Ariel Pink

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Ariel Pink has just woken up. I can hear it in his voice and incomprehensible greeting. It’s Monday morning, 10.30 a.m. on the West Coast. A few hours earlier, Pitchfork published an op-ed from Joanna Gruesome singer Alanna McArdle titled “Ariel Pink’s ‘Joke’ Isn’t Funny Anymore.” I’m sure Pink hasn’t seen the piece yet yet, but it doesn’t stop him from referencing McArdle’s claim that he’s just trolling us. Oh, yes — he has many thoughts on this topic, which he volunteers without me even having to bring it up. In fact, that’s the theme of our conversation: Ariel repeats the nasty things others say about him before I even say a word. It’s a classic bullied-kid trick.

There’s just one small caveat: none of the things people say are true. I mean, he did say the things he’s been reported to say, but Pink claims that how his comments are framed is the press making him out to be a bad guy. Then he admits he’s playing the press to his own advantage. I look for an opening to ask if he considers himself a Men’s Rights Activist or a sociopath, but instead he barrels forward with a seemingly endless stream of words. We go on like this for 30-some minutes, a portion of which is hard to make out amidst his frantic style of speaking and weak cell reception.

He’s amiable to me while referencing the ways he’s offended me (calling Grimes “completely stupid and retarded” for believing the media, quotes like “the white heterosexual male is the last minority,” his “I got maced by a feminist” victim act). I ask if he’s concerned about offending his “real” fans, a distinction Pink makes to condemn those who take an interest in his indie rock tabloid tale. He claims to have little interaction with his fans, thanks to an inability to understand Twitter (he’s 36). But boy does he understand the press, specifically its ability to funnel listeners towards his prolific discography while simultaneously vilifying him. “There seems to be a bunch of new people who definitely don’t like it,” Pink says of his new double album pom pom, “and there also seems to be new people who do like it.”

Pink is the latest entry into the “great artist, questionable man” club: his misogynistic rants are weighed in comparison to his creative contributions. If you completely discount his music because of his views, you may be accused of not “getting” Pink’s “joke,” plus obviously you miss out on what he has to offer creatively (some would shrug at that tradeoff). If you turn a blind eye to his views because you appreciate his music, you’re condoning his offensive rants. Any way you slice it is problematic, but his statements aren’t egregious enough, nor his star bright enough, to have warranted more than pockets of backlash. Yet.

As pom pom has taken a critical victory lap in the week since its release, many conversations surrounding Pink have found ways to justify away his views, or depending on which side of the debate you’re on, temper praise with frustration. This messy internal struggle is dealt with daily by feminist hip-hop and country fans, but in the indie rock circles where a gender-bending figure like Pink gets to be the hero, there’s been a veneer of progressive politics for as long as most participants can remember. It’s why the conversation about Pink will not go away when he simply stops doing press to promote pom pom: for better or for worse, the Ariel Pink debate represents something bigger to many who participate in outsider music culture. I am one such person, but I attempted to approach my conversation with Pink using an open mind — the same one I have when I listen to a song like pom pom‘s “Black Ballerina,” loving the bizarro pop skit I hear yet hating that Pink feels the need to diminish the accomplishments of Condoleezza Rice by sexualizing her within the song’s lyrics. What follows is a portion of our conversation.

Flavorwire: You’re good friends with Kim Fowley, who co-wrote pom pom‘s wackier songs with you from his hospital bed. Fowley definitely plays a complicated role in rock history. I’m wondering if there’s something specific that Kim has imparted on you.

Ariel Pink: I think he’s been very misunderstood. I think that he was not appreciated, very early on, although he worked very much within the industry, like the sort of key nexus of whatever was happening, working with Alan Freed [radio DJ who coined the term “rock’n’roll]. He was really there for the real introduction to rock and roll. He’s a true A&R man, a real impresario, but he’s also a creative, competitive outlier. He kind of came a little bit too early, and he never was interested in money enough to really do anything good for his career. Plus his reputation.

So I think he’s a real great example of somebody who doesn’t fit into the mold as far as any kind of real relationship to rock and roll. He really occupies a good place that is a lot more ambiguous and sort of title-free. His real contribution is something that we don’t have a word for. He’s not like the head record exec or even a legendary photographer — all these people have much more secure positions and easy-to-see relationships to the thing. He did start his own label, but it goes to the heart of, “Well, what is a label? And what do they really mean?” He’s not really working at a label, he started his own little imprint as an A&R man under such and such, blah blah blah — all these things that are mind-numbing to anybody who’s not into the history of rock music.

So the way I think about it is, he sits in that complex zone where, if you know about him, it takes a little bit of intelligence to even wrap your brain around who the hell he is or what he did. He’s not going to get boneheads saying, [affects voice to bro tone] “Oh, you know, he’s a great rock and roller.” [laughs] “Oh, didn’t he play for The Runaways?” Like, no, he did a little bit more than that — he made the Runaways, he pretty much got them together. Joan Jett is Joan Jett but he helped write the songs, he believed in them, he gave them something to do after school. His obvious misogyny was almost like courting the spirit of his reputation. [laughs] It’s really weird how he’s always been seen as a real slimeball but he cherishes that because he loves it. That’s his ego. That’s straight-up and center. He loves to just play with that all the time, whenever you talk to him.

Do you feel a kinship with Kim because some people also think of you in a “slimeball” way?

[laughs] Of course! I’ve always suffered from being too earnest. I mean, I’m a nice guy! We don’t come across as being assholes… all the time. Well, maybe to some people. I mean, I don’t court controversy with every single thing I write, it’s really just a matter of timing: for that moment when I drop my guard and start talking, I’m an asshole. There is a temptation to take it the wrong way, easily. Some people are going to think I’m misogynist, and it’s almost flattering that the press would invent something out of nothing, in my case. Part of me feels like, “Okay well, in lieu of people not getting what I’m about, it’s probably a good tradeoff.” They’re just inventing some persona that they can latch onto or respond to, and that makes it much easier to be a caricature of myself. Also, it makes my role easier in terms of sort of executing something big — for my brand or whatever. I’m like a salesman, right? So I have to put my name on as many things as I can. There seems to be some sort of complicity and effort to do that on the part of people who hate me so I appreciate that. But I also don’t necessarily want people to divest that much into who I am, because that stuff’s private.

Since pom pom‘s release, there’s been this attitude floating around in the press that divorces your music from your persona and views, and gives you credit for the record. I imagine you find that satisfying, don’t you?

I do. I think it’s all because of the order of operations, the way that things just rolled out as of recently, before there was even a record to turn in. There was Alexi Wasser. That [the “I got maced by a feminist” interview] sort of got the whole ball rolling. Our interview had been long dormant in her control obviously, for about a year and a half, up until about two months ago. And all of a sudden the conversation came up: “What is this guy thinking? Oh yeah, doesn’t he have a record coming out soon?”

Then there was this article that followed up on certain impressions from the [Alexi Wasser] video. Some thought sort of crystallized around that article, which kind of sorted it out for me that there was this sense that I was courting publicity. That put a taste in my mouth for this record cycle. And everybody else’s mouth. Then there was the strange one-two punch of every single interview with the inevitable, “Oh, can you talk to us about your interview with Alexi Wasser, blah blah blah?” There were a bunch of articles that were written afterwards that basically were bigger than the initial thing. And I just thought, “At that point should you put your foot in your mouth, Ariel? And here’s going to be the part where we’re going to put this in the headlines.”

Then, of course, another writer fixated on something I said about Madonna, and then Grimes chimed in [laughs] with a misogyny comment, echoing what she had read about a month before, because that seemed to be the only conversation about me. This is all prior to anyone having heard the album. So the record’s been out for a week, maybe a month, depending on who leaked it. For the most part, there’s been a giant drumroll that anybody can support. From an editorial standpoint, they had to essentially disclaim any kind of impression they had from the get-go. It’s almost like, “Don’t give this guy any more airtime!” “Well, why do you have to?” “Well, here’s why.” They like it, but they feel embarrassed to like it because of what an asshole I am. I don’t know who they’re trying to convince.

The whole perverted dynamic is how everybody sort of does their part in facilitating the perversion part. It really depends on whether people like being brought down or not. That makes it all the more entertaining. They see these personalities, that just are seen as being opulent, like Kim Kardashian. They’re such easy targets. And considering you can’t fucking call up CEOs or corporations all that successfully, people just offer themselves up to the sword. I am now among the ranks of Kardashians.

So you’re just trolling?

I admit I introduced that into the conversation. I’m definitely not… it’s definitely not me doing it. I don’t have that kind of power and I’m not that intelligent. But I definitely provide the words that people ended up throwing right back at me. So it’s very easy to manipulate the conversation in certain ways. Trolling, that’s something that I described myself as doing. Misogyny might’ve been something that I said. I’m not sure if I did or not. I’m just saying, it’s easy to imprint these words into the conversation when you just use them. So I’m well aware. I’m just not trying to back down or make any apologies for anything that I say. That’s essentially where the whole thing kind of continues and lumbers on, in a deviant kind of way. Essentially I should be coming out and apologizing, or I should be staying silent on all these things, but instead you’re just reading about me more and more [laughs]. And who’s to blame? [laughs]

I don’t even care that much about it, to tell you the truth. I feel like [with people who take offense], “Okay, cool, I don’t need you, get out of the way. Great. Awesome. Move. Get out of here and waste somebody else’s time. We’ve got new people here. That’s it.” In that sense, yeah, I’m trying to basically get up there as much as possible, in every different kind of way. I don’t necessarily want to be doing this forever. So uh, I don’t see it being, in and of itself, a bad thing. I don’t think people really pay that much attention, and if they’re anything like me, they just listen to music and they enjoy what they hear. The conversations that happen on the outside are really tedious and boring, and they appeal to some sort of tabloid faction of the industry, of certain fans. I don’t think those are the real fans. I think those people are too old, or something, I’m not sure.

How can you be completely unconcerned about offending someone you would otherwise consider a “real” fan with the misogynistic things you say? Have you had interactions with any fans about this?

I don’t really have that kind of interaction with them. I’m right there in the Facebook generation — we don’t know how to tweet, we don’t know how to speak that confidently on the social media. We’re still sort of half in the ’90s and half in the naughties [’00s]. Like I said, for me, new fans are the real fans. Okay? That means that they’re temporary fans, probably. Ultimately. I don’t have any solidarity to people who have solidarity to me. I’m glad for that, but I know that this is a cyclical thing, everybody loves lots of artists. They like me, they’re likely to like a thousand others. Unlike people who listen to Taylor Swift, for instance. They might just be all about Taylor Swift. My biggest, most devoted fans are probably already devoted to T-Rex, but also devoted to some German band. To compete among those ranks is kind of stupid.

I’m all about new, younger people — the new fans, people I’m turning on for the first time. Those people aren’t coming to the table like, “I hate this man blah blah blah.” Maybe it’s a first impression, but hopefully they can stop and think, “Okay, well what makes me hate this so much right off the bat?” It’s pause for thought. I know that’s the case for me. Whenever I meet somebody or have the impression that I absolutely detest something right off the bat, I almost can’t hide it. I know well enough now that “This is somebody’s brother or sister, and I’m not totally on the same page. And we’re going to be best friends in about two years.”

I’m more afraid of mediocrity and things that there are no opinions one way or the other that they’re my enemies. Those things are the real enemies, for me. I don’t spend time on things that I hate, but there’s certainly things that I don’t necessarily like outright. But I will not be ashamed about being totally unlikeable, unloveable — I’m really, really into that kind of stuff. And I love people — I like everybody.