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Mac DeMarco's Inescapable Cult of Personality

Beyond

Mac DeMarco's Inescapable Cult of Personality

Ilan Desai-Geller

Original photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Feature by Ilan Desai-Geller

“Mac DeMarco is the boy band equivalent for hipsters,” Brown Concert Agency’s Allie Tsuchiya told me when I asked her why they had chosen DeMarco to headline Saturday’s Spring Weekend lineup. “I think he has an unmatched excitement from people. You know, apathy is trendy – but people still lose their shit for DeMarco because he comes off as very candid and authentic. And also, he makes fucking good music,” Allie explained. His style is also “kind of unique right now. A lot of music is going super digital [but] he’s sticking with the classic band setup, and I think that’s, like in an ironic way, kind of refreshing [that] in a world dominated by soundcloud DJs he still has a jangly guitar.”

As the interview went on, two things became obvious. For one, it frustrates Allie that discussion around DeMarco focuses almost exclusively on his charisma, and for another, she found it difficult to really stop talking about it. Even as she explicitly tried to steer the conversation toward his music, how it’s interesting, critically acclaimed without being pretentious, and inviting, she admits that his stage antics “are one of my main attractions to Mac DeMarco,” and that she “love[s] the crowd-surfing and the banter and the jokes with the band.” All that is what makes “him really accessible to people who don’t know who he is.”

In talking about the reactions she’s heard about his selection, Allie said most people are excited. Those who know him are pumped to see him live, and those who don’t still think he’ll have the right vibe. Tellingly, these are both statements first and foremost about his character. Those who aren’t impressed with DeMarco also tend to talk about his persona before his music. As my friend and Wesleyan sophomore Julian Waddell emblematically put it, “he likes being taken up in trendy ways and playing to a crowd” to a point of excess. DeMarco’s intention “to be taken up in trendy ways” seem so crystal clear that Julian has trouble getting excited about him (he won’t be visiting for spring weekend), and he’s far from alone in that. After reading a lot about DeMarco in preparation for this article, it became abundantly clear that the paradoxical preoccupation with DeMarco as a person rather than as a musician is not just an artifact of the media or of consumers, but something he himself has disseminated and promoted from his earliest days, even if he shows signs of chafing at this image from time to time.

To some extent, this image can rightly be said to be DeMarco’s genuine personality, and premonitions of his schtick can be clearly seen before he entered the public eye. In high school, according to a 2014 profile in Pitchfork, his first band was a joke band called the Meat Cleavers which got its shows by making explicit threats to local venues (though bandmate Alex Calder is quoted as not being sure if “anyone got the joke”). The Meat Cleavers eventually gave way to the Sound of Love, a smooth R&B group which wrote fairly distasteful songs about the different women they had crushes on at their high school (a song called “Chinese Takeout Lady” about a Chinese classmate, for example). Eventually, this morphed into a project called Makeout Videotape, whose five releases between 2009 and 2010 are remarkable both for their small resemblance to DeMarco’s later work and for the irony and disregard for propriety that overwhelm them.

DeMarco’s first release with a label and under his own name, 2012’s Rock and Roll Night Club, features a noticeable progression from the low-fi, punk-ish fuzz of Makeout Videotape to the higher-fi, pop-ish haze he has come to be known by. The album is dominated musically by an (at times fairly demonic) Elvis impression, and lyrically by decidedly goofy and at times off-putting preoccupations (on “Baby’s Wearing Blue Jeans,” for example, he sings “A fine lookin’ woman, wearin a pair of Lees/ Take her back to my place, lay her down in bed/ And after she’s stripped down, I say leave ‘em on instead”). Listening to the album is a disconcerting experience, and paying attention to his lyrics is to be confronted time and time again with a sleazy guy doing weird things. On “European Vegas,” for one more example, he admits to disappointing a lover’s vacation aspirations, singing “take my hand, walking down the avenue/ I know you wanted Paris, but I guess this’ll have to do.”

Later that year he released what would be his ticket to fame, the critically acclaimed album 2, which led him to getting picked up by Phoenix to open a number of shows on their 2012 tour. On 2, DeMarco leaves behind the baritone of Night Club for the higher register most fans are familiar with, while maintaining the formula of simple instrumentation and dripping irony. In this sense, “Ode to Viceroy,” the biggest hit from 2 and the song that would largely introduce DeMarco to a general audience, is a fitting emblem of the two albums: a sarcastic yet wonderfully composed declaration of love for a bottom-of-the barrel Canadian cigarette company. Neither does he love Viceroy cigarettes, nor does he love cigarettes at all. Perhaps surprisingly, when asked what advice he would give to his younger self in a 2014 interview, it was to not mess around with cigarettes, and yet he has let the world take the sleazebag character of “Ode” and run with it, egging it on at every step of the way.

Photo courtesy of Flicker user Mário Macedo

During his extensive tour following 2 in 2012 and 2013, DeMarco made a name for himself with wild stage antics (it would be impossible, unfortunately, to get through this article without mentioning the infamous drumstick incident), constant drunk banter, and a remarkable smoking habit, all of which only seemed to confirm the character he creates in his music. Between his lyrics, the lazy pace of his music, his antics, and his interviews (fart jokes abound and earnest answers are few and far between), the character was set: a sleazy, unshakeably laid-back, chain-smoking goofball.

In the publicity leading up to and following the release of the (even more) popular and acclaimed Salad Days in 2014, this image was omnipresent. Nearly every review of the album began by calling him an indie-slacker star, a sleazebag, a trendy bum, or something in between.

Pitchfork, which was (and continues to be) quite smitten with DeMarco played a large role in popularizing this persona by producing a 30-minute documentary called “Pepperoni Playboy.” In it, one can watch DeMarco devour a grotesque last supper-type feast (primarily consisting of raw meat and seafood) with his bandmates, smoke more cigarettes than seems remotely desirable, take a shower while shitting, and disparage D.I.Y. hipsters at the same time as he shows off his analog tape deck and small Brooklyn apartment. Watching the documentary is to be bludgeoned for 30 minutes by the fact that DeMarco is someone who pushes the envelope of the acceptable, and who refuses to be anything but goofy. At the same time, though, he insists that the key to pop songwriting is to be completely honest, and that that's what he tries to do with his music. In a lot of ways, DeMarco comes off as shying away from earnest, affirmative statements for the less vulnerable territory of perpetual irony, a characteristic abundant in adolescents and at college campuses. Despite his declarations elsewhere that he “will never write another song about nothing,” and despite the importance he here gives earnestness in songwriting, DeMarco seems like he’s trying to protect himself and his image by refusing to say anything at all.

At about the same time as “Pepperoni Playboy,” Pitchfork released a feature on DeMarco with the fitting headline “With his gap-toothed smirk and carefree tunes, Mac DeMarco has quickly become the goofball prince of indie rock.” As one scrolls through the article – which spends substantial time describing the genesis of what they term the “youthful abandon” of his stage persona – a series of meticulously crafted photographs appear on the side, which are microcosms of the image DeMarco (and Pitchfork) present to the world. The first is a black and white photo of DeMarco in a suit blowing a spit bubble with another long piece of drool hanging down to his chin. Next, he sits in front of a typewriter with a lit cigarette and animated, billowing smoke. On the next page, he sensuously licks his guitar with his eyes rolled back into his head. On and on.

What started as DeMarco giving goofy interviews and writing sardonic songs had by this point turned into a carefully curated cultural product, amply bolstered by these two Pitchfork pieces that were released within five weeks of one another. What is a little puzzling about this overemphasis on his “goofball” personality, though, is that it came at the same time as an opposite movement in his music.

Indeed, Salad Days was his calmest and most earnest release to that point. The well produced, musically tight, collection of songs spends most of its lyrics doling out clichéd advice and speaking of regrets. Indicatively, he opens the album on the eponymous “Salad Days” by singing “As I’m getting older, chip up on my shoulder/ Rolling through life, to roll over and die/ Missing hippy Jon, salad days are gone.” On “Me and Jon, Hanging On” from Rock and Roll Nightclub, he sung “It’s just me and Jon, we’re hanging on/ Trying it out, singing our song/ It’s just me and Jon and all that we’ve seen/ Trying it out, plain as can be.” The “youthful abandon” Pitchfork references is absent; instead, the album wistfully recalls the youthful abandon of his relatively more youthful days. The aggressive - and defensive - irony of his earlier work isn’t entirely absent though, and the seemingly earnest and endearing ballad “Let my Baby Stay,” it turns out, is about his girlfriend’s undocumented immigration status in the US.

Image courtesy of Exclaim!

Even if one isn’t convinced that there is an incongruity between the fairly conventional music on Salad Days and the image he presents elsewhere, it’s undeniable that DeMarco is trying very hard to let the world know just how strange he is (as a more recent example, he appeared in a 2015 video by Tyler, the Creator in which Tyler fantasizes about a sexual experience with an octogenarian he is sitting next to in a hospital waiting room). It’s just one step from acknowledging the supreme effort in creating a persona to begin to question its ‘authenticity.’ If he didn’t think a particular image were important for selling his records, why would he do the same sorts of weird videos and interviews so often? How could he act in a video more or less about having sex with an old woman as he moralizes “treat her better, boy/ if having you at your side is something you enjoy” (on Salad Days’ “Treat her Better”)? Moreover, he frequently asserts that he isn’t a slacker (look at how much I tour and how much music I put out, he says in a letter accompanying the release of Another One), and yet, he insists that it doesn’t bother him that people feel that way because it’s always good if people are talking about you (read: it’s good for selling records).

His most recent two releases, Some Other Ones and Another One, both from this summer, are almost antithetical to the image created by Rock and Roll Night Club and which he still perpetuates in interviews and videos. Some Other Ones is a collection of soft pop rock instrumentals he describes as being a soundtrack for a summer BBQ, and Another One is a collection of love songs that are slow, soft, and lyrically uninspiring. Though the song titles on Some Other Ones retain some of the classic DeMarco humor (“Onion Man,” “Don Juan,” “Special K”), the two albums are both decidedly straightforward.

It’s easy to be off-put by a lot of what surrounds DeMarco’s music, whether that be the antics themselves, the insistence with which he has caricaturized himself, or the seeming contradiction his critics point to. He remains, through this all, however, an excellent musician with an ear for unassumingly inviting basslines and guitar licks that make for excellent rock’n’roll. And that is, at the end of the day, the reason any of us are talking about DeMarco at all. To assume that one can ‘see through’ the artifice of his lyrics or his antics (depending on which you think is the ‘fake’ DeMarco) is nothing more than a certain kind of hubris. It is also to forget that everything we know about any public figure is inherently artificial and mediated.

Those who buy into the hype about DeMarco might say there is no harm in speculating or that it’s human nature to try to generalize a fully-fledged person from the snippets available to the public, but a lot of people would push back against that. Allie would say it distracts from having a conversation about his music. Julian would say the crowd support condones DeMarco’s absolute insincerity. I would say they’re both right, and that moreover, it doesn’t make sense to base your opinion of a musician on your inevitably mistaken perception of their personality.