“I hate everybody,” says Rufus Wainwright in a particularly nasal monotone. It’s hard to blame him. It’s 9:30 in the morning in LA — he’s hungover, nauseous, bored to tears by interviews and mere hours away from touring in Mexico. He has just canned his management, and he hasn’t even started to pack. “I’ll take it back,” he concedes. “I don’t really hate anybody. Pretty soon I’ll be having a few drinks in some mystical backdrop of a Frida Kahlo painting and I will love everyone again.”
The statement is a perfect snapshot of Wainwright’s burgeoning public persona as the charming, coyly decadent, openly gay, obscenely talented jet-set brat. The proof behind the persona is just as clear in our conversation as it is in his cabaret noir-pop. Throughout his critically adored CD, Poses, it’s presented through refined observations and classic pop forms probably better likened to Cole Porter and Tin Pan Alley than any of his contemporaries. On the phone, it’s evident in sniffles and bitching about jerks in the gay press.
“I like to try to emulate the truly great,” Wainwright explains. Some conversation about Verdi’s “Requiem,” a cup of coffee and he’s starting to liven up. “Whether that is 50 years ago or 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago. I’m not saying that I am as great as those people — but I know I’m playing for keeps and that there are not a lot of people trying to be great. That is the only way that I can explain the music that I hear that is so bad and so popular.”
And all of a sudden the Verdi has worn off and he’s disgusted again — but again, it’s hard to blame him. Splitting up his childhood between his Montreal home and time on the road with his parents, folk luminaries Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, little Rufus was writing minioperas at the piano in first grade. After a near miss with the dark fate of child celeb status and years of classical training, it’s no wonder that his tastes in music are a little steep.
“I know I sound like a snob,” he admits. “But that is almost the family motto. We are total musical snobs. It can backfire and we can sound stupid and arrogant. But unfortunately right now the music world needs people like us just because there’s been a loss of integrity and there is a void, utter confusion everywhere. I might never be able to demolish pop, but it would be nice. It’s bad enough when little kids are listening to that shit, but when older people find meaning in worthless music, it’s very tragic. Like Britney or Celine Dion or the boy bands. At least the Spice Girls had some camp value. Maybe it was just their accents though.”
With overeducated allusions and dramatic hooks, the gradually evolving popularity of Poses (which is even manifested in scattered MTV attention) and his somewhat unlikely touring partners (the Pet Shop Boys, Sinead O’Connor and Tori Amos), Wainwright is poised to demolish pop from the inside out. But it’s a revolution of one. MTV is hardly hip to references to Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, love affairs between Greek boys on motorbikes or indulgent nocturnal stories set between “whiffs of freon” in LA, and circumstances of being “drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue” in New York.
“When I think about writing Poses now, I get a little weepy,” Wainwright says. “It was another era in the world. It’s about the beauty of a young man in New York and the beauties of the Western world right before everything changed. Not to buy too much into the Gestapo of CNN politics, but it was a different era in terms of innocence and I know that, for me, it captures the last memories of that world. The irony is that at the time I thought the record was very serious — the death of love, and the fall of the young man and the Greek hero — but those things have lost value. Songwriting is cosmic, though, and at the end of writing those songs I felt my attention shift to more serious matters, like the first thoughts of my own death and the end of the world. I guess I’m right on gear for the apocalypse. Maybe I’ll even get a spot at the world finale,” he laughs.
“Hopefully I’m not opening for Tori Amos.”
Rufus Wainwright performs Wednesday, February 20, at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. Find event details in our online calendar.Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org