This Charming Man
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
"I feel like the drink of choice at this hour really changes people's perspective on you,' Pete Wentz says, settling in for lunch at a swank Hollywood hotel. 'I like to give a piece a good intro: 'And then he had a beer.' ' His prefab opening anecdote fits particularly well with the sweatpants he's wearing. 'Oops,' he jokes, predicting my editor's reaction to his straight-dude shtick before settling on an iced vanilla latte.
Wentz also suggests two sidebars for this article ('a thermostat of my gayness' and a quiz with real and fake quotes about his sexuality) and asks if him being in Out is akin to the Beastie Boys doing Vibe. 'Will you get flak for having someone like me on the cover?' he asks, sounding more concerned for the magazine's reputation than his own.
Like a line he wrote in 'Sugar, We're Goin' Down,' the band's 2005 breakout hit -- I've been dying to tell you anything you want to hear -- Wentz seems all too aware of how his words and actions will play on the page, not to mention the entertainment TV shows and blogs that eagerly mine his confessional, sensationalist tendencies. But he draws the line at painting a self-portrait that's easier for his more narrow-minded detractors -- or even fans -- to swallow.
What Wentz wants us to see is a complex, sometimes contradictory image. 'I'm like the boy next door,' he quips, 'but just a little bit off.'
But while he may have a bulldog's attitude and more than a dozen tattoos, Wentz isn't intimidating enough to stop the hate parade. 'When I'm going down the street I get called a fag all the time,' he says. Instead of bothering to deny it, he shifts deftly to mocking the bullies' Neanderthal mentality: 'We have iPhones, and I'm still getting called the same names as when I was 13.' It's a 10-second sound bite so succinct in its disdain he'll use variations for months in blog posts and other interviews.
He readily cops to having appropriated queer culture, just as early white rock and roll artists ripped off black music and went mainstream. 'If I was gay,' he says, 'and I saw people playing with it, being ambiguous, I don't really know how I would feel. I look back at Elvis and I'm like, Was Elvis a dick?'
Even with 6 million Fall Out Boy albums sold worldwide, another 5 million by bands signed to his own label, a pop princess on his arm, a baby on the way, and a new deal to sell his clothing line at Nordstrom stores, Wentz remains impulsive and profane. He's also transparently annoyed at friends who warned that whatever sexually suggestive comments he makes will feed tabloid headlines for a year. 'There's part of me that's like, Fuck you, I do what I want,' he says with a curled lip. ' 'Don't do that'? Now I'm just going to do that 10 times in a row.'
Like his friend Kanye West, he's found that 'whenever you say that homophobia is stupid, you just get called gay.' Lucky for us, he sees his ever-growing audience as an opportunity to fuck with the minds of anyone who thinks there's something wrong with that. 'Homophobia is the last acceptable hatred,' he says and writes, frequently and wearily.
'People treat sexuality the same way that [during] Jim Crow [white] people treated African-Americans,' he tells me. 'It's totally dehumanized.' It could be his view from the stage -- Fall Out Boy audiences skew toward teenage girls, and dudes who like mosh pits and teenage girls -- but Wentz shrugs off the idea that whatever bias remains will survive another generation. 'The actual acceptance of gay marriage is inevitable,' he says. 'It's just like how the next generation of kids are going to all have tattoos.'
Before Wentz, 29, covered his skin with an inked collar of thorns and portraits from Tim Burton cartoons, he was just the oldest of three children growing up in the wealthy northern suburbs of Chicago. He says his liberal parents never shoved any particular politics down his throat, 'except, like, Kenyan food.' A star soccer player in high school but also an intensely unhappy and angry kid, he did time in a teenage disciplinary boot camp, bounced from one punk band to another, and eventually left DePaul University a semester shy of a political science degree to play bass full-time.
His new career was Fall Out Boy, a pop-punk band that left the local hardcore scene for more melodic rock pastures, in part because the homophobic violence they witnessed at shows pissed them off. After hauling ass cross-country in a beat-up van to play tiny, shitty venues, their indie-produced album, 2003's Take This to Your Grave, landed them a deal with Island Records. From Under the Cork Tree sold 3 million copies in the U.S., and last year's Infinity on High topped the Billboard chart, spawning two top-10 pop singles.
Wentz doesn't sing on stage. (He occasionally screams into the mike between spinning around in crazed circles, caroming off amps like the stage is a skate park.) But it's his lyrics, mid-show demands of their faithful audience, and thousands of interviews as the band's front man that have shaped Fall Out Boy's image. Even in radio-friendly major-label land they've hewn close to their do-it-yourself punk roots, routinely exposing the man behind the curtain by explaining contract details or backstage drama that most bands are too intimidated by record company power to bring to light.
Wentz's quest to cut out the middleman seems inspired as much by innate business savvy as impatience. Totally in love with a band no one else wants to sign? Start your own label. Harassed by kids at shows who want to wear the shirt you made in your parents' basement? Start a clothing line. Sick of getting elbowed by VIPs at clubs you think suck? Open a bar with your friends.
And if people are confused about Wentz's sexuality, he deserves at least half the credit for that too. Onstage he'll lick a stripe up the neck of his bass or his bandmates' guitars. He hooks his chin over singer Patrick Stump's shoulder, mouthing his own words against Stump's cheek. When they covered the Killers' 'Mr. Brightside' on a recent tour, he would punctuate the line 'it was only a kiss' by aiming with varying success somewhere in the vicinity of Stump's mouth. In 'Sugar' he boasts of 'always sleeping in and sleeping for the wrong team'; the line 'He tastes like you, only sweeter' in 'Thnks Fr Th Mmrs' paraphrases what's spoken by a female character in the play and (by Julia Roberts) in the movie Closer. It loses any jealous, alpha-male edge when repeated over and over as the song's key emotional refrain. Eventually, I point out to him, it just sounds, well, gay.
'It is pretty gay,' Wentz easily agrees, grinning as we discuss how the crowd still sings right along. 'A big portion of our fan base are these white-hat jock dudes who maybe actually have some kind of homoerotic behaviors,' he says. 'They're so violent -- but they feel pretty free at Fall Out Boy shows.' So does he: 'It's all because I know I'm going to get a reaction -- but it's all things that I believe anyway. I don't get on stage and give a social diatribe. I am a performer and an entertainer.'
It's a convincing performance. Even his longtime manager, Bob McLynn, says he spent at least a year wondering. 'I thought maybe Pete was actually gay,' McLynn says. 'I know guys who are gay who would sleep with girls. I wouldn't have been that surprised.' Asking Wentz did nothing to clear things up: 'He would try to act like he was to push my buttons.'
Then there are the interviews in which Wentz refers to himself as 'half gay,' says 'anything above the waist is fair game,' and boasts of making out with boys, even when corporate sponsors or fans' parents balked or boycotted. The more uncomfortable or conservative his audience, the less likely he is to give them an easy out. Plus, few reporters ask for further clarification when confronted with an ambiguous, moody rock star, so single sentences wind up as stand-ins for self-defining declarations.