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.