The Curious Case of Nathan Williams

Or why we can’t let the indie rock media turn Wavves into AltJesus

You graduate from college in 2008. The economy is the worst that it’s been for years, and right when you need to find a job. Living at home with your parents seems like a good, rent-free option, and you can work at your local record store. But you’re too bored, sitting around all day smoking weed and playing video games. You decide to mess around on your guitar, record a few tracks on your Macbook, and show them around to friends.

Your friends on Woodsist put out a tape of your music. Then, on October 2nd, there’s a small blurb on a big blog called Gorilla vs. Bear. It posts an mp3 and says the following:

“Wavves is a kid from San Diego named Nathan Williams. He is a fan of the Beach Boys, Beat Happening, and the Wipers, and that good taste is reflected on the fuzzy ‘beach punk’ slacker anthem ‘So Bored.’ Wavves recently put out a cassette-only release that has since sold out, but it will be available again soon in LP format on Fuck It Tapes. A follow-up — featuring this song — is due in early ’09 on De Stijl, so look for that.”

Seven months later, you wake up in Spain, call your mom, and tell her that your set at the Primavera Sound Festival went pretty well last night, because you were so messed up that you don’t actually remember that your drummer dumped a beer on your head and you got booed offstage. Your behavior at that festival becomes one of the most-discussed matters on the Internet in just a few hours. From people saying it was awful to totally punk rock, everyone was talking about it, even just to say that it’s stupid that everyone’s talking about it.
If you’re a reader at this site, it’s probably pretty obvious what I’m talking about by now. You know the story. Kid makes tape in his bedroom, and one year later has a very public meltdown at one of the biggest music festivals in Europe, on the front page of every major music website. In between, Wavves received “Best New Music” on Pitchfork, a glowing review in the New York Times, and was the toast of the town at SXSW. The typical backlash came along with all that success, fueled by the coverage of Williams’ meltdown and general claims that he’s a talentless, ungrateful rich kid.

There’s a lot to say about this incident, and most of it has already been said. “Who cares?” seemed to be the biggest consensus. “Blogs have too much power.” “Lo-fi music is terrible.” “Wavves is totally rock and roll.” Reactions ran the gamut, and this article is probably redundant in many senses. But the thing that brought this up for me, yet again, is the interview of Wavves during the Pitchfork Music Festival, which showed up on the front page of Pitchfork last week. This was only after Pitchfork posted a revealing interview with Wavves about his breakdown a few weeks before. This paragraph was particularly revealing:

“Yeah. In the end, the whole reason I left, I guess, was because it got to a point where it became so stressful and there were so many people whispering in my ear. It just got so big so quickly. I think maybe I realized it, and it freaked me out a little bit. Obviously, I handled it in the worst way possible, but it was just… I don’t know. It’s weird because it’s kind of like a personal thing, and then these business-y things are all kind of tangled in it. It’s weird to say when it is fun and when it isn’t fun. And if it isn’t fun, I guess I shouldn’t really be doing it anymore. But I do love doing it, and it is fun. But with every good, there is a bad part of it.”
Ryan Schreiber writes a seething “news” piece about Wavves’ behavior at the festival. The tone is almost of a betrayed father chastising his son for a night of too much drinking and the subsequent mistakes he made. The article creates a fervor about this now-infamous “Wavves meltdown.” This then allows them to post that incredibly personal interview quoted above, where Wavves cluelessly atones for being young. Then, somehow, Wavves ends up playing one of his first shows back at Pitchfork’s own music festival. Not to mention another recent headline on Pitchfork’s site that reported Williams broke his wrist in a skateboarding accident. A lo-fi artist breaks their wrist, and that’s front page news next to Jay-Z and Coldplay. Pitchfork and the rest of the music media builds Wavves up to knock him down, only to benignly forgive him and “allow” him back into the fold. I don’t mean to take away Wavves’ agency here; he’s obviously making decisions and continues to work with Pitchfork. But, Pitchfork has acted incredibly poorly, and ought to be held more responsible for their actions.

This is tabloid scum at its very worst. Pitchfork profits off of their own schizophrenic coverage of Wavves. Just because he’s awarded “Best New Music” does not give a media outlet the right to dress up an opinion piece as news. It was a piece that ultimately turned out to be beneficial but could have been career ruining, all because of one concert during which a 22-year-old rocker got too drunk. The most recent reporting on Pitchfork, regarding Wavves, vaguely absolving him from his actions in Barcelona merely because he was sober at Pitchfork’s own festival, is absolutely unacceptable. Indie music lovers need to hold their media outlets responsible, and make sure that we don’t let our favorite musicians become J-Lo and Ben Affleck. The cycle of building a star up just to break them has been going on since the beginning of time, and it’s gotten even worse with blog backlash, but the paternalistic, hegemonic feel of Pitchfork is starting to go too far.

The lesson in all of this? I suppose in the end, we should look towards Williams. He’s probably back in his bedroom, smoking weed, playing video games, and fucking around on his guitar working on his next release. I suspect, like most 22-year-olds I know, he never expected to be famous within the span of a year, and is just along for the ride. Ultimately, the best course of action seems to be to ignore these media stories. Don’t repost them on your own blogs. Don’t judge artists based on these media-spun events. Just enjoy the music. And in that case, this article should end as quickly as possible. Just forget I even mentioned it.

– Madalyn Baldanzi

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