The End of the Beginning: “Andrew W.K. Who Knows? Live in Concert 2000-2004"

With the release of his new DVD Andrew W.K. has achieved the impossible. He has succeeded in paying a respectful tribute to the past six years of his career, while simultaneously re-framing and re-contextualizing those years to suggest that his popular public persona was just that, a persona – an image as deliberately and meticulously engineered as the music it was designed to champion. While this revelation may come as a surprise to those who have chosen to see W.K. one dimensionally, either as an angelic prophet of the new ‘positivity’, or as a grunting frat-boy fraud, the film asserts that what Andrew W.K. really is, and has always been, is a question mark.
As the text on the back of the DVD informs us, “in the year 2000 a man calling himself Andrew W.K. appeared” amidst an explosion of confusion, rumours, half-truths, and lies. Few artists in recent memory have been the subject of a media blitz as all encompassing as the one given W.K. in the weeks before his first album was released. His bloody face was plastered across walls in virtually every major city in the world while the music press fell over themselves giving advance praise to a man they dubbed “the saviour of rock.” Yet, at the same time, from other quarters, questions were already being raised abound the authenticity of the artist and his music. Internet chat-rooms and electronic bulletin boards were abuzz with talk of a music-business conspiracy, and various contradictory theories were advanced and retracted. A strange melange of music fans, representing genres as disparate as death-metal, indie-pop and experimental jazz were agreed on one thing. That Andrew W.K. was a fraud. That he was a ventriloquist’s dummy created by the music business to pimp some cynical new product to kids too confused to know any better. Some went further, suggesting that not only was he a puppet of the music industry in general, but of Dave Grohl in particular, whose endorsement of the music resulted in widespread speculation that he had written it himself. W.K.’s early interviews only served to deepen the confusion, marked as they were by bristling hostility, hyperbolic profanity and enigmatic declarations of war. Yet, over time out of this mess a coherent image did emerge. And in the process “Your Friend” Andrew W.K. was born. A cheery, happy-go-lucky, party-hearty everyman whose apparant honesty, enthusiasm and winning smile captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. In fact, so successful was this image, this self-effacing dance-metal Christ in white, that W.K. became a kind of blank canvas upon which his audience might project their own needs and fantasies. And project they did. So that by the release of his second album “The Wolf” Andrew W.K. had become less a person than a mirror held up to the crowds who paid to see him. But now, beginning with a blizzard of weirdness that began in 2004 when his web-sites were attacked by people purporting to have written his music and stage-managed his career, and ending with the release of this DVD, Andrew W.K. has completed the circle. He has returned himself to that miasma of confusion, innuendo and high-strangeness he appeared from six years ago. And, if I am reading the subtext of his new film correctly, he has done something even more astonishing. He has killed himself, officiated at his own funeral and been reborn.

Since much of what follows is an attempt to give a reading of one of the strangest documents ever to be labelled a “concert video” I should start by acknowledging that the DVD does features some sixteen songs, and will not disappoint those looking for a definitive record of Andrew W.K. live. In fact, as a document of a band’s live performances, “Who Knows? Live in Concert 2000-2004" meets and exceeds one's expectations. It gives the viewer as close to a first hand experience of seeing an Andrew W.K. concert as is currently technologically possible. The film captures the raucous slippery fun, often at close quarters, and at times through lenses so spotted with fluid and saturated in red haze, it may appear that the blood vessels in your eyes have burst. Using a “synch-stack” process the film combines audio and video from numerous performances and sandwiches them together into a dense and electrifying amalgamation. I am sure that anyone who has attended a W.K. concert, or who hasn’t, and wishes they had, will be happy with the quality of the performances on the DVD. More likely it's the material that surrounds the performances that will provoke anxiety amongst some viewers. For while the film serves as an effective tribute to the concerts it depicts, it also serves as a requiem for the public persona generally associated with Andrew W.K.

Watching the DVD it’s impossible to ignore the feeling of finality it conjures. A strong funereal tone pervades. Even the box art, with its memorial dates and its distorted martyr like image signifies the film inside as a post-mortem product. The letter signed “Dad” included in the accompanying booklet, and its seeming acknowledgment of Andrew W.K. as a manufactured image also connotes – if not death – then at least an ending of sorts. And even if one ignores or construes these signifiers differently, there is no escaping them in the film itself. Its metaphors and symbology are hardly subtle in this regard. Melancholy music plays over slow motion scenes of W.K.’s stage antics, lending them a gravity and solemnity more befitting a vigil than a party. Directly following one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, a candle (designated as “Andrew’s Candle” in the DVD chapter titles) is snuffed out. The film’s narration, which is largely culled from text interviews and recontextualised here in the film, stresses both beginnings and endings. At the end of the film a figure dressed as W.K. takes a long walk away from the viewer, finally disappearing into the darkness while the sounds of trains passing in the night plaintively evoke a sense of loneliness and loss. And for anyone still harbouring hopes that the film does not represent an ending of some kind, the narrators final words spell it out in no uncertain terms. “We love you, goodbye.”

Yet if this DVD is a requiem for Andrew W.K., it’s a surprisingly unsentimental one. For, rather than attempt to eulogize its subject, or make him the object of our sympathy, the film treats him with all the warmth of an overworked forensic detective or coroner. It dumps his corpse roughly on the autopsy table and begins peeling back the layers. And this I would argue is the films most impressive feat. Encouraging audience identification with W.K. would be all too easy. The film-makers need only have edited the live footage together with some scenes of the band eating apple-pie at a road side café and the expectations of most fans would be met. Ninety-nine percent of tour videos are made up of such fluff, and almost every band who has released one, from Lightning Bolt to Genesis, are guilty of it. “Who Knows?” has set itself a more difficult task. Rather than attempt to humanize W.K., it seeks to totally de-familiarize us with him. It wants to re-establish the critical distance that his audience has lost over the last six years. And to help the viewer, as Andrew’s father puts it in the liner notes, “to create [their] own ability to form first impressions – after the fact.”

To accomplish this, the film employs a variety of techniques, Brechtian and otherwise, to deny us easy identification. As a result, “Who Knows?” is marked by a series of disturbing video and audio interventions which jolt the viewer into acknowledging that he or she is not witnessing some objective document of the phenomena the DVD purports to represent, but rather a highly mediated product filtered through the subjectivities of its creators, organized and manipulated by technicians and engineers, and mass produced by industrial capitalist processes. The mechanical and jaded tone of the narrator and the suggestive content of his narration, the interludes featuring a tuberculotic-looking W.K. staring intently at the camera, or stumbling jerkily through some shabby squat like an osteoporotic marionette, and the introduction of shards of dissonant noise into the performance footage, all work to disturb the film’s seamlessness and help create a critically distanced position of spectatorship. Furthermore the multiple and overlapping images, deliberately un-synched sound, the odd and unnatural framing of shots, and the film’s tendency wherever possible to mediate W.K. through photographs, video images, voice-overs, and stand-ins, or to show him from angles which obscure his features, all serve to reinforce the notion that he and his persona are the product of the same careful processes of selection, framing, editing, and manipulation which produced the film, and, like the film, cannot be taken at face value. By the end of the DVD the viewer has no choice but to reconcile themselves to the fact that the W.K. they believed they knew, whether in person, or via the media, does not exist, and has never existed.

Another question intimately connected to all this is that of performance. As a live music DVD, the lion’s share of the film is naturally taken up with performances of one sort or another. Yet here, just as everywhere else, the film complicates the binary oppositions we would expect of a concert video, collapsing ideas of active/passive spectatorship and annihilating the distinction between audience and performer, viewer and viewed.. Before being re-framed and re-contextualized by the film, the live performances documented here had already confused the positions of performer and spectator. Hordes of audience members sing, dance and perform on the stage alongside the band, often in such numbers that W.K. is lost in the swarm. Point-of-view shots of the audience taken from the stage ask us to consider the concert from W.K.’s position, while lengthy scenes of W.K. staring directly into the camera, reverse viewing positions completely, and beg the question asked by “Dad” in the liner notes, “Who is entertaining who?” Continuing in this vein, the mirror images, multiple images, doubles and doppelganger motifs in the film also serve to draw attention to the possibility of unfixing our positions relative to traditional concepts of artist and audience. And, of course, these same motifs, along with the stand-ins, the white costume and the coterie of wigs worn by W.K. throughout the film reinforce again and again the fabricated nature of his character.

The portions of the film that have thus far received the most comment are, unsurprisingly, the verite interludes. Combining elements of classical avant-garde cinema with documentary realism and simultaneously invoking Asian and European genre film-making, these transgressive blips provide the film’s most difficult moments. Appropriating and combining the rude aesthetic of Pennebaker and Weismann with the skewed vision of Bunuel, the abject textures of Lucio Fulci, and the do-it-yourself symbolism of Fort Thunder, these scenes are the films most effective tool in putting distance between the viewer and W.K. In stark contrast to the live footage, where he appears healthy and strong, the W.K. imagined in these sequences looks more like an Edvard Munch painting come to life. The setting too provides a disturbing juxtaposition, for where we once watched W.K dance joyously through a condemned house in the “She is Beautiful” video, we now see him stumble down similar looking corridors in pain and confusion. And where we once saw a body-building mile-a-minute musical dynamo, we now see a kind of sweating junk-sick neurotic documenting his own disintegration in a rotting dilapidated tenement. And, finally, in the films most upsetting moment, the festering corner of a bedroom somehow gives birth to W.K., regurgitating him onto the floor in peristaltic spasms, where he thrashes and screams, trying to right himself like some half-human crab left to the gulls. So disturbing are these scenes that they defamiliarise us with such mundane items as beds, door frames and lampshades, assigning them new and more threatening characteristics.

Yet, strangely, for all the work the film does to undermine our assumptions about W.K., to problematise identification with him and to unfix our position as passive consumers of some media manufactured spectacle, it does not attempt to suggest that the music he plays should be viewed with the same suspicion. Both the film and the liner notes accompanying it, take pains to distinguish between Andrew W.K. the character and the music he was created to promote. Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in the introduction to “I Get Wet.” While this segment of the film does its utmost to push the viewer out, employing nearly all of the strategies I have outlined above (the screen is bathed in an eerie red light, the face of the figure playing the piano is obstructed by a wig, the angle of the camera and the position of his body are meant to replicate those of a much older video, which is itself a dismaying exercise in audience baiting) the music is so powerful, so glorious that the viewer cannot be but moved. Throughout the whole running time of the film this pushing and pulling is taking place. The music works dialectically against the thrust of the narrative, reminding us why we became interested in Andrew W.K. in the first place.

And so, in the end, we have a beginning. If the film is what I think it is (and there is no guarantee that it is, for it is polysemic enough to support multiple readings, and ones which would run counter to my own) then it represents a wiping of the slate. A fresh start. A chance to liberate ourselves and others from the tyranny of expectations. An opportunity to approach this music anew, to give different things to it, and ask different things of it. And to once and for all stop worrying about Andrew W.K., who he is, what he wants, and why he does what he does, and accept the music on it’s own merits.


Anonymous chadwick eberhardt said...

interesting post, liam. you have clearly done a great deal of homework.

i have a question for you, if you are in fact willing and available to respond to it. andrew has always been one of the more accessible rockstars, especially physically, and as a result has come to represent the 'nice guy rocker' to expectant listeners. i would say that this film asks its viewers to divorce whomever the reborn andrew will emerge from the ashes of the now-dead andrew. but as the events on the internet have been transpiring for over a year now and the dvd has no doubt extended the audience of this propaganda, how much of an effect do you think this will have on the number of fans as a whole? if this was designed to discourage or even prepare the masses, unfortunately, i think it still evades all but the most ardent of fans with the methods currently being used (the internet, dvds, et al. - which are really just instruments of privilege).

i would personally like to see how this will all play out on the road supporting the upcoming release this year!

anyhow, liam, i am very glad i stumbled across your little corner of the web.

like an iron cube,

c.g. eberhardt

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, and I would go further and say that non-native speakers of English are likely to be surprised when the next Andrew W.K. rears his head, whatever shape it may be, for the majority of what has been going on over the past year and a half has been conducted monolingually to the best of my knowledge. But, that said, the DVD does work at levels that transcend language, and no doubt those overseas fans who buy it will sense that "something" is very wrong here, but whether they will have adequate context for understanding it, I cannot say.

Certainly I do expect changes to the way business is conducted in this next tour, and we may have a chance to experience firsthand this making of first-impressions - after the fact. Also consider that brand new fans approaching this after the release of the next album may have the chance to do the same in reverse, for when they hear of the Andrew of bygone days, it may be difficult for them to reconcile him with the Andrew that is yet to be.
- L.M.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous J. Worth said...

I haven't seen the DVD yet, but it sounds pretty weird from what you're saying here.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Joe Yardley said...

Why is there a link to shampoos for guys going bald? Oh wait, I just saw the picture at the bottom of the page.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Scott said...

Good blog. I haven't seen anyone mention the little trick pulled before IGW. This is what we've been waiting for. We've endured quite a bit to get here. I saw that tv show on MTV, and I thought, how, why? But it's starting to come together now.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous TedB said...

That's an interesting point, anonymous 5:35. A new fan coming into this will be like a Bizarro (typical) fan from 2002 - he used to be like what?? Plus I think it will be interesting to see what the new wave of fans are like.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Scott said...

Liam - you're going to keep this blog going, right? I'd like to see more.

6:51 PM  
Blogger blownouteardrums said...

Great blog here, I just got into AWK from the other spectrum that I assume (?dunno??) most AWK fans are from, listening to Wolf Eyes and noise.... I recently rented the DVD and even tho some of the songs are a little too "Monday Night Football" I really enjoyed Andrews energy, too bad I was too young to see him play live ever. Hopefully he tours again and I dont find him 'weird' hes actually pretty 'normal' which makes it seem even 'weirder'.
Keep It Green!

8:56 AM  
Anonymous m. bilyeau said...

I have been wondering: if what Andrew WK came to mean in 2000-2004 is to be replaced, are there any paradigms or expectations that can be shattered other than those of Andrew WK itself? Whatever else you might say about "Your Friend", it came across as something out of the ordinary. Let's say, on his next tour, andrew has tons of security, talks to no one, performs in multiple costumes, and generally cultivates an aura of mystique. Sure, old fans would be surprised, even upset, but would it really be anything new or original? In a post-YF context, does becoming a stereotypical self-important ziggyesque artiste rock star count as any sort of coup (however happy it makes duff mulligan)? or is there another way?

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Jason A. said...

Firstly, I cannot think of anything that exists on Earth that's like A.W.K. In my opinion, it's completely one of a kind, because of the entire feeling, and that goes beyond the music and also includes the music. I think of it as the experience of seeing this thing happen. But that's the biggest point, is anything even really happening here? You're talking about it as though there's all this subversive output, but all we've had since THE WOLF and YOUR FRIEND has been the WHO KNOWS? DVD, and anyone can read into that any way they want, but the fact is, it's a live show video, and reading into it any more than that is as absurd as the people who say that Andrew doesn't exist.

What I think we're talking about here is a person who's getting us to think about what he's doing. It's clearly working. But the reason we think about what he's doing is because it makes us think about what we're doing. It makes us think about ourselves, whether we realize it or not. It's impossible to deny. It's just part of being human. We all think about people all the time, but there's something different when some people think of Andrew and his music, and clearly it has different results in different people.

What I mean is simple: I'm a fan of lots of different music. I discovered Andrew WK when my friend demanded that I listen to the song "Never Let Down". It was one the most overpowering musical experiences I ever had. It started with the sound of it, which I can still only describe as strange and wonderful. But then I started to think about what else the music reminded me of, and while I could find lots of easy comparisons, none of them really described the whole experience. It became clearer that I didn't need to try and figure it out, or decode the sensation of listening to the music. I started to listen to other music that way and I started enjoying it more. I stopped trying to label and indentify all the music and songs and listen to the spirit of the music. I stopped trying to peg the people making the music into some sort of style or influence. I also started doing this in other parts of life. I stopped being so quick to feel like I knew what something was - that smug feeling that makes us secure when we're taking aback or confronted with something. I even noticed that I did this with things I "liked", not just with things I said I "don't like". Andrew's music taught me all these things. But I taught it to myself too. I realized that it was foolish to think that I needed to read into things and "figure them out" as long as it was something that made me feel good and made me use my imagination. Andrew's music did that for me. I let go of that need to feel right and smart and just focused more on making everything sound and feel new and exciting. I wanted to hear the same song in a million different ways, and think about all the different things it makes me feel - even things that seem completely unrelated.

It sounds like some people are trying to read into Andrew WK and figure him out beyond some level that he's just a human person.

What on earth makes you think that your completely subjective interpretation of what Andrew is doing is nothing more than your own reaction to your own isolated expectations and beliefs about what Andrew is doing or should be doing? And how can you be so confident that your current world view of music and performance is so complete that you can even have the tools to identify any of Andrew's maneuvers (even if there are any)?

At the very least, you could admit that your view is a paranoid one. Thinking that Andrew is even doing anything at all, other than making music and performing it, is to take for granted large amounts of information you could never possibly hope to begin to know.

But even if you don't agree with that, I beg of you to at least consider that your opinions could be the result of completely arbitrary beliefs based on your accumulated "experience" (or "knowledge") of music and rock music history. I find your take on Andrew to be quite cynical; a tired and unimaginative "summing-up" of a situation which appears to put you in a state of dis-ease. To say that it isn't original or bold is missing the point. The point is that you're thinking about it and thinking that you're right. That's all A.W.K. needs to keep going.

Don't you think it's possible that if you so easily think you're one step ahead of Andrew, how do you know that he's not one step ahead of you, anticipating every thought and reaction you might have, and intentionally baiting you to develop the obvious opinion you presently have? Andrew hasn't done anything in particular to confirm or deny that something is going on, nor has he answered any questions one way or another. Using the simplest and most logical explanation, that means that nothing is going on, but your own reaction to the question of whether something is or not, automatically generates a something to go on about.

You seem to think you're pretty clever and smart for having "figured Andrew all out" with your theory of him trying to convince everyone that there's "something going on". But remember you own question was full of what if's, and that's not usually a very healthy way to think.

Don't you see that it's you who's doing this and not Andrew or anyone else? And how can you assume that Andrew isn't doing exactly what he's doing so that you'll examine your own ideas about what he is or is not doing, or what he should or shouldn't do.

Perhaps his contradictions end up contradicting themselves, until the very idea of contradiction must be contradicted and essentially elmininated. How far up the level is your dialectic?

I think Andrew's being up front, instead of pretending or avoiding these feelings. But it's only you who feels exactly the way you do.

Jason A.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Will Wilkinson said...

I am thrilled to have found this blog.

I recieved the DVD in the mail yesterday, and I agree with most everything Liam has written. I would be curious to learn more about this David Grohl business and how awkworld.com got shut down. Do you have any links to information on the theories behind Andrew W.K. as a "puppet"?

My first impression after watching the feature, and this was only enhanced after seing the special features, was that the DVD was made to irritate Andrew's fans. Occasional sequences of live music are practically ruined by deliberately contorted audio. The deleted scenes, in which Andrew himself hardly appears, consist mostly of his friends being unenjoyable and often repugnant assholes (smoking weed for Christ's sake!).

As a side note, there's a strong element of "goofing off" in the editing of the feature. I've made plenty of shitty home videos in my day, and the absurd and excessive use of video effects is kind of an inside joke for people who edit video as a hobby. I don't know if the idiosyncracies of each scene are worth over-analyzing.

After reading the booklet the purpose of this DVD has become somewhat more clear to me. Andrew W.K. is not the Christ-like figure so many people have conceived him as. He is a character, or as "Dad" put it, the symbolic respresentative of the music's mission. This being a revelation to viewers did not at first occur to me, because I have always viewed Andrew W.K. as a persona. After all, it's not like he ever maintained perfect character on his CD's and in the public spotlight. The song "Make Sex" doesn't ideologically agree with him advising guys to always ask girls for permission to kiss them, as he did on his MTV show.

The fact that Andrew breaks character in this DVD doesn't bother so much. What bothers me is the question of why the people behind it chose to make it. Is Andrew burnt out? Is everyone just getting bored with the show their putting on? Or is this a cleverly calculated next move?

If I were Andrew or "Dad," I think I would be very curious to know how many people truly understand what Andrew is trying to accomplish with his music, as articulated in he booklet. Those kids singing "Party Hard" in the Bonus Footage shouldn't give them much hope. How much of the producers' motive with the DVD was to provoke the audience, to see how everyone reacted, to see if any thoughtful blogs such as this one would spring up?

Personally, I can't believed how perturbed I am by all this. I've spent the last three hours thinking about "Who Knows?"

Will Wilkinson

11:27 AM  
Anonymous April said...

I think you are too caught up in the whole masculine/modernist romance-of-the-death-throes thing to see what’s really going on here. The only point where you really seem to get it is when you talk about the birthing scene. You said, “the festering corner of a bedroom somehow gives birth to W.K., regurgitating him onto the floor in peristaltic spasms, where he thrashes and screams.”

If this DVD is about anything, it is about birthing pains and the celebration of life and music.

Look at the very beginning. We (the viewers) move closer to the title and are ushered into the film through the vaginal ‘O’ of _WHO KNOWS?_

The tired, patient voice of the narrator fades in and out like the voice of a parent or doctor when one is sleepy. It doesn’t really matter what is said; the smooth monotone gives your eyelids a heavy feeling and makes one feel warm and safe. We are being reassured that what we are about to see has already happened. And when the images become frightening, this voice guides us through.

And it is disturbing in parts. Yet, this is to be expected when encountering images of men giving birth. Take, for example, the classic novel _Frankenstein_ which problematises the idea of man’s ability to create. The intense isolation of Doctor Frankenstein is mirrored by Andrew who is seen alone in his clinically white clothes which seem to have been dirtied from his efforts. The jerky movements of the monster are reflected in the scenes where Andrew climbs the stairs and wanders down a hall. Are we supposed to be scared of the creation? Are we supposed to be feel sorry for the one who is trying to usher in a new life? Is Andrew both Frankenstein and the monster? The mix of feelings created by these dissonant interludes are the same produced by Shelley’s classic work.

Entertain the idea for just moment that Andrew is a surrogate parent. In countless interviews, he has talked about “the music” and denied ownership. He does not seem himself as the author, just the vessel of gestation. The inherent discomfort of birthing is most easily seen in Andrew’s protracted screams where his mouth opens over-wide like a dilating cervix which will inevitably release the creation.

The sound of the train in the finale indicates (not as you assume, departure) but arrival. The creation has come. This is clear from an earlier point in the film where there are a few frames of what looks like a shinkansen arriving at a platform. Clearly, read in this context, the phrase “We love you, goodbye” is that of a surrogate family (Andrew and the band) letting go of that which has been born and giving it away.

The key answer that everyone wants is missing. Who are the parents? Where is this all coming from? Wherein lies the moment of conception? One might immediately answer, “the piano - of course.” But, no - the womb imagery is too strong. Already we are too late. Take a close look at the curled foetal position of the pianist and note the glowing warmth of the light and the red haze the envelops the image. The hands seem attached umbilically attached to the dark placental piano.

We have extensive genealogy from Andrew on the DVD and the insert gives us information about the background of Andrew himself but in reality it explains nothing. The music is alien from all these facts and figures if Andrew is just a surrogate. The history is meaningless. But do we really need to know the origins of this music?

In the insert to the DVD, N.S. suggests that we (the fans) are the family for what has been given birth to in this movie. I say then, it is our responsibility to foster it, nourish it, and support it no matter what it turns out to be like. We must love the music unconditionally.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous James W. said...

What do you make of the Quantam Leap references at the beginning of the DVD? Are we supposed to believe that Andrew is leaping across time with the help of a hologramatic friend helping to put things right, or what?

1:31 AM  
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9:14 AM  
Anonymous John Signage said...

Very interesting blog. After reading it, I went off on my own and did lots of research in AWK, I'm even more confused now.

Does he even exist/

7:00 AM  
Anonymous Retail Signage said...

Also did that lawsuit about his identity and who create it ever get settled?

7:01 AM  

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