After watching nearly 100 of these interviews, I must say that this is still (a la Slate) the place to begin in Nardwuaria: the N.E.R.D. interview. I hope you’ll watch it before reading further. Be not worried if you do not know who Pharrell Williams or N.E.R.D. happen to be. Consider it an interviewer and an interviewee–a top-tier musician and producer, who has definitely done many, many interviews. Think about how you might interview someone who has answered your note card questions a gazillion times, then watch this.
It doesn’t take many Access Hollywoods or sideline post-games or sneak-peak actor interviews to see that the typical interview with a celebrity is almost sheerly exterior. Pat answers and catchphrases abound. The body language alone expresses a void of human connection. Probably 80% of the post-game interviews in, say, the NBA end with the player’s back already moving from the camera toward the locker room. I don’t blame them. It is interesting, though, that we watch these interviews–they do not often give us much. You can hear what you hear from them with the tv on mute. Maybe it is the potential thrill of peering upon a face that makes waves in the world. But the face is still veiled. The wave-makers in these interviews remain, for any valuable purposes, faceless. Not to get all sympathetic for the celebrities, but it is hard to imagine they would feel the need to express human emotion–the questions do not allow them their humanity.
Enter Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Besides the obvious differences from more “respectable” interviewers–the pants, the hair and hat, the voice–there are more important (and subtler) differences that make Nardwuar “music’s best interviewer.” One is the meandering ratio of questions to answers. Watching a Nardwuar interview is uncomfortable, sometimes, because the artists ask nearly as many questions as Nardwuar himself. Whether it’s “How did you find this?” or “Who are you?” or “Isn’t it embarrassing that you have to do this?” You get the feeling that the interview is getting derailed; but instead, the interview is actually taking on a life that it would not have were there not a real, personal exchange. Slate’s Mark O’Connell describes it this way:
Despite his hyperactivity and his impenetrably quirky persona, he knows when to keep quiet and let a reaction develop. There’s a particularly affecting moment towards the end of the long Questlove interview when Nardwuar presents him with a copy of the fanzine Roctober, featuring an article on Soul Train in its early incarnation as a Chicago variety night.* Questlove has just spent a few minutes talking about the formative influence of the show (his parents, he says, used to wake him up at 1 a.m. to watch it), and mentions that he’s currently involved in a book project on the subject. When Nardwuar hands it to him, he is rendered literally speechless; he turns his back to the camera, faces the wall, and stares down at the zine for a few wonderfully awkward seconds. “Not gonna cry,” he says. “I’m not …” It’s a lovely exchange, and a rare enough example of a celebrity and interviewer meeting on level ground. Questlove is visibly affected and excited by Nardwuar’s gifts as an archivist and researcher. “I truly believe you could have found Bin Laden,” he says, clearly only half joking.
One of the most interesting things about watching a lot of Nardwuar’s interviews (and if you watch one, chances are you’ll end up watching a lot) is the way that they tend to reveal aspects of artists’ personalities that we’re not accustomed to seeing. His aggressive uncoolness—the silly hat, the grating manner, the relentlessly pursued obsession with minutiae—amounts to a kind of challenge. The respect he gets from people like Big K.R.I.T., Grimes, Brother Ali, Pharrell, Snoop Dogg, Joanna Newsom, El-P, Questlove, and Ian MacKaye reflects the extent to which these people are, in their different ways, smart and empathic enough to see past the geeky, gimmicky surface to the value of what he’s doing.
But that uncoolness brings out a lack of basic decency—a shabbiness and stupidity—in others. A 1991 interview with Sonic Youth, for instance, was especially difficult for me, a Sonic Youth fan, to watch—first for how it reveals their stunted and clichéd conception of what it means to be a bunch of cool people in a cool rock band, and then for how it reveals them as just standard-issue schoolyard bullies. Lee Ranaldo breaks a rare 7-inch record Nardwuar has brought them, and then he and Thurston Moore (then age 33 and 35 respectively) grab him and pull his T-shirt over his head as he struggles and shouts.
Taking these risks, Nardwuar is able to transform a flat celebrity into an interesting human being (for better or for worse). And the key to this genius has got to be the presentation of the gift(s). Whether it’s an old vinyl of historical importance to a band, or a baby doll from an artist’s childhood, or a reference to a shopping mall oft-frequented–for Lil Wayne and Marilyn Manson and Hilary Duff and The Misfits and Lady Gaga alike–these gifts are shell-cracking detonations into the real-life of a human being in hiding. In other words, the gift given here is kind of like the disarming power of abreaction, of deep-seeded and hidden lives being let loose by an external force. YouTube viewers have the chance to see a side of Jay-Z they’ve never seen before and, perhaps more importantly, the artist themselves have entered an interview in which they are known, not for their double-platinum record, but for their dad’s early rhythm and blues band, or their extreme obsession with salt-n-vinegar chips. When the “gift” is given, the power of feeling known becomes very literally visual; watch the Waka Flocka Flame interview, if you can stomach the cursing. He cannot say anything but “crazy” over and over. The veil of celebrity-giving-stock-interview-answers no longer exists. Instead, the surprise at being released of the veil shows viewers the person behind the art.
Watching these interviews, I couldn’t help but think of Stephen Colbert’s ability to get to people. Certainly both have a “get-up” that is at once disarming and comforting. Wearing weird golf slacks and a vintage rayon letter jacket is kind of like wearing an Evil Kinevil onesie (or writing in the sand)–the celebrity’s nervous energy can be cornered on the very weird caregiver; the celebrity has the cornball trump card to play on him. They don’t have to treat this like a serious interview, because this isn’t a “serious person”. One might caution this connection, saying that Nardwuar is no satirist–his knowledge and research is prodigious and he has no “character”. That is Nardwuar the Human Serviette on the screen, that’s also his legal Canadian name. No difference, or so they say. But the similarity that’s there, undoubtedly, is the mortification they undergo for the sake of the interview or story. Nardwuar, in his–yes, I kid not–TED Talk, describes it with the Latin law term “volenti non fit injuria”. It means, “To a willing person, harm is not done.” Come what may, both are willing to submit themselves, even to the embarrassing prospect of becoming an ass, that a human connection might be made.
If you think about it, all the reactions to these interviews–“How did you find this?” “Who are you?” “I’m blown away”–sounds a whole lot like, “We’ve never seen anything like this before” (Mk 2:12), or “He told me everything I ever did” (Jn 4:29), or even “Immediately they began to conspire against him…” (Mk 3:6). While we are amazed at the magic of a Knower, it is the miracle of being known from within a faceless crowd that we’re really drawn to. We want this magic done unto us. We imagine what being known like this might feel like. Perhaps this is the task of ministry, to wear a funny get-up, to shamelessly offer up a gift-bomb–the Gift-Bomb, every Sunday–and to wait and to listen, with just the right kind of kooky empathy, for its infinite unravelings among the people of God. Doot doola doot do…