This Charming Man
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
A dude in a band who dares to dream a little bigger than sold-out tours gets compared, on a good day, to a hip-hop impresario such as Jay-Z. Wentz would rather take his cues from the queer king of mass-marketed pop culture: Andy Warhol.
'Warhol impacted you in the '80s whether you wanted or not,' he says, but after seeing Piero Manzoni's Merda d'artista (literally, cans allegedly filled with 'artist's shit') as a kid, he followed the theme to Warhol. Tributes to his hero fittingly run the gamut, from T-shirts -- one has Warhol's name across the chest of a baseball-style jersey; another is a set of cartoon monster portraits with 'Warholier than thou' as tagline -- to a new bar with an underground space modeled after Warhol's less glamorous hangout, Max's Kansas City.
Wentz says he most admires how Warhol gave shallow, timeless quotes without ever really answering whatever question he'd been asked. His favorite: 'Being famous isn't all that important. If I weren't famous, I wouldn't have been shot for being Andy Warhol.'
'It's the most contradictory statement on the planet: that Andy Warhol didn't want to be famous,' he says, laughing. Wentz definitely wants to be famous -- he often declares, not jokingly, that Fall Out Boy will one day be the biggest band on the planet -- but he'd rather get there with a gang of collaborators. In one video posted online, he and Gym Class Heroes' Travis McCoy holed up in Wentz's Los Angeles home, churning out paintings as McCoy joked he's playing Warhol to Wentz's Basquiat. ' 'Cause I'm black,' McCoy deadpanned.
The ideas that have worked best over the last five years have given Wentz the industry cachet to be taken seriously. His eclectic record label, Decaydance (an imprint of indie Fueled by Ramen), signed the theatrical young band Panic at the Disco, whose first album was made for $10,000 and sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. Their Beatlesque follow-up debuted at number two. On what would be the other end of the radio dial for any other A&R guy are the hip-hop rockers Gym Class Heroes, whose 'Cupid's Chokehold' was a top-five hit last year.
Wentz's dive-chic bar in New York City's East Village, Angels & Kings, has spawned a spin-off in Chicago, with outposts in Las Vegas, Miami, and Los Angeles planned. And after three years as an online-only enterprise, Clandestine Industries -- a media and clothing company -- opened a flagship store in Chicago and signed a major deal to sell its apparel at Nordstrom; Clandestine has outsold expectations and proved a crossover success. 'Even Nordstrom has been surprised how many dudes are going into the [juniors] section and rocking the hoodies,' says Stephen Westman, Wentz's gay business partner.
All of these enterprises have brought together a group of artists who seem equally excited to embrace a Wentzian brand of ambiguity. When the '80s-inspired dance-rock band Cobra Starship got heckled by kids at one show, singer Gabe Saporta yelled back, 'I may be a fag, but I do the fucking around here. Come on up, dude.' Like Wentz, he's as comfortable talking sexual politics as trash. 'We use language and tags to make things fit into boxes,' he says. 'Something like sexuality isn't so easily defined.'
Asked by reporters what rumors the members of Panic at the Disco have heard about themselves, they cite the frequent speculation they're all dating each other. 'What's the problem if Ryan [Ross] and Brendon [Urie] were actually dating, you know?' the band's bassist, Jon Walker, told Out last year in reference to the band's guitarist and singer, who on one tour acted out a love story on stage. Drummer Spencer Smith jumped in to say, 'Because they might be.'
'They're more gay in a totally other way,' Wentz says cryptically, with a proud parent's smile.
Unlike the usual runaround music execs give when asked -- even hypothetically -- what's keeping a band with out gay musicians from major crossover success, Wentz says Decaydance could easily handle the challenge. 'Fourteen-year-old girls are really into just about anything that's earnest,' he says. 'I'm sure that if it was the right song, they'd be into it.'
He's also unfazed by potential hurdles if one of the acts he's already signed came to him wanting to go public in more defiant, unambiguous terms. 'I think that I do have, maybe people on the label, but [also] definitely friends who are gay and don't know they are,' he says. 'I've never had someone be like, 'Just so you know, I'm gay.' I've never had that. I don't think people really need me to care about it, because they know I don't really care.'
Bob McLynn, whose Crush Management reps most of the Decaydance stable, doesn't hesitate when asked how the company would react: 'We'd support them 100%. If he wanted to speak out in the press, we would, and if he didn't, we wouldn't.' Then he shrugs. 'I don't know if anyone offhand [on the label] is out. But it'd be a lot easier in our scene than it was for Rob Halford and Judas Priest.'
Like Warhol, Wentz has already achieved one major pop culture milestone: He's made himself impossible to avoid, and he's all but guaranteed every move he makes turns into a headline. 'People hate grand ideas,' he says, ready and waiting for the critics. 'They love when they fall apart. Everyone likes to see the Titanic go down -- especially if it's in front of [paparazzi haven] Hyde.'
Even so, Clandestine plans to expand its menswear collections in 2009 with more high-end, less dude-like apparel, though even Wentz admits, 'I don't know that men want to wear clothes inspired by someone who only inspires a legion of 14-year-old girls.' Fall Out Boy's CD/DVD of a live show in Phoenix, called **** (Warhol made a 25-hour movie called Four Stars too), spawned the most audacious and unlikely of hits: a cover of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It.'
'Like, who says you shouldn't do that?' he asks, of whatever 'that' is on a given day. 'Everyone on the Internet, of course. But all those people would do it if they could. Nobody ever gives a good reason why you shouldn't, other than 'People will laugh at you.' '
Pete Wentz doesn't care -- today, at least -- if you laugh at him, if you call him a fag, or that other f word: a failure. So maybe it's time for a little fuck-you of our own, at least to the idea that a guy can't be a good queer role model unless he actually has sex with men. Wentz could be the world's best spokesman to a generation of kids who grew up with gay-straight alliances but haven't all made the leap to full acceptance. No matter how much older or famous he's gotten, he hasn't stopped speaking their language. And he certainly isn't going to shut up anytime soon.