We’ve been talking a lot about fashion, but what about film? One part of your book Crackpot that I really loved was when you say that you have guilty pleasures but “in the reverse”—your guilty pleasures are art films. You talk all the time about how much you love trash, but are reluctant to let anyone know you love art films.
Yes, that’s my guilty pleasure. Certainly not Final Destination 3, which I loved, or Piranha 3D, which I loved. My guilty pleasure would be, like, The Tree of Life. I do like those art movies for real, but people don’t expect me to.
That said, there aren’t any good exploitation films anymore. Now Hollywood takes the punch out of them by spending too much money. They make them too expensive.
But do you think anyone should feel guilty about their pleasures and obsessions?
I’m not guilty about pleasure. I guess if I ever had a real guilty pleasure it would maybe be if I loved The Help. Which I didn’t hate, and I thought I would. When I love something that is mass-loved, that’s probably the only time I’m hesitant to admit it, because it goes against my image. However, that can happen to me. That’s why I love Justin Bieber. I always talk about him.
But The Help is my number-one guilty pleasure. Even though they copied Pink Flamingos. They eat shit in that movie.
And that was a very mainstream movie.
It’s just not dog shit, though.
What’s the difference between good bad taste and bad bad taste?
You have to know the rules of good taste to have bad taste. With good good taste, you just know the rules. You like something not because it’s worth money, but because you know its value, and you don’t care if anyone else knows it. You pull it off seamlessly without looking down on anybody.
Good bad taste is celebrating something without thinking you’re better than it. You think it’s so amazing, and you could have never even thought it up. But the people who have [this thing] have it without irony. And so you’re stupefied by it and you have to respect it because it is so peculiar and so weird and much crazier than you could ever think, but those other people think they’re normal.
Bad bad taste is condescending, making fun of others. An old plastic pink flamingo on a lawn that two older people have had forever is just good taste. But a plastic pink flamingo on a yuppie’s front lawn is bad bad taste. It’s not even the original—it’s mass produced, and they’re way too late on the joke.
So that’s the difference for me: if you’re celebrating something or you’re looking down on something.
My generation is also really into “liking things ironically,” and I read somewhere that you think irony has ruined so many things—how not everything is supposed to be “so bad that it’s good.” How do you think irony has ruined everything?
The last line in Pecker is “To the end of irony.” Because, yes, I’m an irony dealer. But irony is snobbery. If you’re really poor in a country where there’s famine, is there such a thing as irony? Is anything so bad it’s good? Usually irony is for the wealthy. It’s snobbism, in a way, because you’re saying something is good because it’s bad.
Irony, sometimes, if you’re trying too hard—like forced grossness in movies—can be tiring. Fashion is perfect for irony, but I think that’s more wit. Wit is different from irony. I think fashion needs wit.
But now, with kids my age, it seems like everyone goes to thrift stores and buys the ugliest sweaters and wears them ironically.
They always did that. When I was young and went to thrift shops, it was stuff my parents had given, so it was all ’30s clothes. Now it’s ’90s stuff—you know, it’s what your parents threw out. But if you buy the ugliest sweater and it’s funny, I think that’s fine. You still look hot in it. You don’t wear it to look ugly. You wear it because you’re so hot an ugly sweater can’t make you look bad, and that’s a great look.
Being the outsider and “the different one” is becoming more and more mainstream. You always read interviews with celebrities and they’re like, “I was weird and I didn’t have a lot of friends” and I’m just like, “You’re lying!” But to have a counterculture you have to have a strong group of outsiders. You once said, about rebellion, “When I was younger, it was being juvenile delinquents and beatniks and hippies and punks, and then grunge and rappers, but now what?” How can someone be a rebel today?
Be a hacktivist. That’s how you rebel today. Sit at home on the computer and shut down American Express. Hacktivism is juvenile delinquency. That’s how you do it. And nobody sees each other, so you don’t have to wear an outfit. Just a T-shirt. Bad posture. It’s the first rebellion where there is no look.
But how important do you think it is for kids these days to have a counterculture?
It may be less important these days. Maybe the way to rebel is to be an insider. Now outsider is a hackneyed term. But you can [rebel] with music and you can do it with fashion. You’ll always find away to get on people’s nerves. And with art.
I know you’re a huge art collector.
Art usually makes me angry at first. Over there I have a Peter Hujar picture of a pile of trash, which is the best thing in this house, because trash paid for it. I have a painting that’s all just mold. I believe that art, in the beginning, should kind of make you angry, because that’s what’s going to change things. It’s the same thing with clothes. You think, Oh, I would never wear that to my own funeral it’s so ugly. But then you think, Wait a minute, it’s so ugly it’s almost cool. And then it is cool! You decide it’s cool by picking it up and putting it on. It isn’t cool lying there in that bin. As soon as you curate it, like art, it makes it cool. That’s the difference.
I kind of love it when art makes people angry.
All contemporary art does, if you think about it. You know, abstract expressionism, with Jackson Pollock, made people furious. Then Andy Warhol put up the soup can, and in one night [abstract expressionism] was over with. Then Minimalism infuriated people. It always works like that. The next generation pisses off the one before.
What about your obsessions with music? I loved the part in your book Role Models when you talk about shoplifting a Little Richard record when you were 11 years old and putting it on full volume and scaring your grandmother half to death!
Well, that was a long time ago, and I paid it all back, because I ended up paying $30,000 each to put those songs in the movies later. So I don’t feel guilty about it. I listen to new music, too. Let’s see, what am I playing here [flips through CDs]…Yelawolf! Eminem…Zola Jesus… That’s young-people music, but I listen to all kinds of music. Here I have some Peggy Lee and Harry Connick. I listen to everything.
Who was the first musical artist that you were REALLY obsessed with?
Elvis. When I first saw him twitching when he was 18, singing “Baby Let’s Play House,” I thought he was a Martian. He was like a space alien. You can’t imagine—in the boring, straight ’50s, to see that was like, Oh my god. He was like possessed by the devil! And if you still go back and look at the early shots of him, they’re still shocking. When he’s twitching and moaning…it’s still radical.
Especially when you think about, like you said, the context of the time. That conservative era. Were your parents always supportive of your work?
My parents were very conservative. They were not hippie parents or liberals. But they saw early on that I knew what I wanted to do. I had a puppet-show career when I was 12 years old. They knew that I was driven and that I wanted to do something. So they wisely chose to let me do that, even though they were mortified by it. Mortified by the films and the bad reviews and the censorship bust and all the stuff that was written about me. So they were supportive and frightened. They had no reference guide to know what to do about it.
You have some pretty obsessive fans, right?
Nowadays I always sign their bodies and they have my name on their ass or something. They get it tattooed. One girl had the script of Female Trouble, a page of it, on her leg. The tattoo thing I get a lot. The fans are great, though! They’re all really nice. The big new thing is they propose marriage in front of me while waiting in line at a book signing. It happened three times this year. The guy takes out a ring in front of a girl and falls to his knees and asks her to marry him. Why, I don’t know, but they all said yeah.
Parents now bring me their fucked-up kids, which I like. They’re very sweet when they come to my book signing or a spoken-word thing. I can see that it’s a last-ditch effort for the parent to sort of bond [with their kid]. I treat them nicely and say, “How nice that your mom brought you here.” Then to the really crazy fans I say, “Call your parents.” [Laughs] They always look really uptight! When I see drag queens I say, “Call your parents,” and they always look SO shocked, because that’s the last thing they expect me to say. They don’t know what to say to that. Their entire drag persona crumbles.
It’s like, “Why is John Waters asking me to call my parents?” But do you think any of your fans are too obsessive?
No, because they never bother me, you know? They never come to my house. I don’t get stalkers. The people who get stalkers are the ones that are in the most innocuous TV sitcoms and stuff. The weird people in show business actually don’t get stalkers. Well, Madonna did, but it’s more like the [celebrities] you watch on TV and you think they’re talking into the house or something.
Finally, do you have any advice for your teenage fans?
Choose your friends wisely, read as much as you can, and, it comes a little later in life, but make a deal with your parents that you can get on their nerves and they can get on your nerves, so think before you say something, and they have to do it too. If they don’t, pull out a verbal-abuse whistle and whistle when they don’t. But if you think before you say something, maybe you won’t get on each other’s nerves, especially in the hardest time, when you’re a teenager dealing with your parents.
And remember that a no is free. Ask for what you like, and get used to being turned down. Rejection is hard, but to get acceptance you have to put up with a lot of rejection. If you really like something, don’t ever think, Can I do this? If you think Can I? you won’t. You have to say, “I’m gonna do this, and nobody’s gonna stop me!” But you have to believe that, you can’t just say it. It might take really a long time, because people never say you’re good at first. Or if they do, you’re a flash in the pan and it’s over. ♦