If you’re using the coronavirus stay-at-home order to get in some deep listening with monumental works of art, congratulations and we hope you’re truly moved.
But if you’re instead staving off existential terror with Netflix’s gobsmacking true-crime documentary “Tiger King” (which we can’t recommend enough) you’re probably doing some deep listening of your own. Namely, to the suspiciously mellifluous music of its star Joe Exotic, the big-cat-breeding, gay-throuple-enmeshed, hit-man-hiring and currently imprisoned star of the series.
It’s no spoiler to say that Joe Exotic’s amateur country music career is the least shocking angle in his extremely American life of breeding tigers on a private ranch and hiring a bumbling assassin to kill his activist nemesis. But of all the reasons his misadventures (and very serious crimes) are so riveting, his improbably heartrending voice and uncannily earnest songs including “I Saw a Tiger” and ”Here Kitty Kitty” are among them.
The soft-focus lip-sync videos are masterpieces of Tim & Eric cringe comedy, escalated by the fact that the music is actually kind of moving, or at least surreally convincing country-rock. What’s the deal with his genuinely beautiful voice?
The short answer: It’s not him singing, but he won’t admit it.
While we’d all rather live in a world where Joe Exotic, instead of resorting to the attempted murder of humans and serial abuse of tigers, landed a side-tent gig at a rescheduled Stagecoach 2021, the actual recordings of his albums were farmed out to songwriter Vince Johnson and singer Danny Clinton, each of whom are credited for “Archival Footage” in the docuseries.
Joe Exotic discovered their work writing novelty tunes on commission, including one customer angry at the car-repair shop Meineke. The two worked with Exotic on the promise of exposure from a planned reality TV show that never materialized outside of Exotic’s mind-frying YouTube channel and a pair of albums for sale at his cat ranch (well, until “Tiger King” came out).
While their musical relationship, like so many in Exotic’s life, soon soured, the work holds up as one of the weirdest yet fully realized hired-gun music projects in pop history. The two apparently had no idea Exotic was going to straight-up pretend he sang them on record, and Exotic’s inability to perform them in person was something of a running joke during the filming of “Tiger King.” He lasted the whole series straight-faced swearing that it’s him singing on record.
“We all get what’s coming to us in the end, be it good or bad. Joe, all in all, was likable,” Johnson told Vanity Fair in an email. “Most people just bore the hell out of me. They have the personality of a lobster. He’s a seedy shyster, but he’s got personality.”
Some of the songs are more-or-less normal: “My First Love” is a tear-jerking piano ballad that, outside this insane context, holds up as competent top-40 country-pop, albeit with a bizarrely smoldering video to go with it. But their work on “Here Kitty Kitty” must have come from an extremely uncomfortably specific set of lyrical notes: namely that Exotic’s foe and big-cat activist Carole Baskin murdered her husband and fed him to tigers on her own property. The video, where a Baskin lookalike feeds meat made to look like human brains to a caged tiger, is without peer in the dark crevasses of YouTube (and, to be fair, she has her own issues with the documentary).
But Johnson and Clinton wrote, performed and shipped the song off with complete conviction, and while it’s not quite up there with “Two Sisters” or “Cocaine Blues” in the annals of great murder ballads, it will live on a testament to the absolute unhinged vision of Joe Exotic.
Maybe Johnson and Clinton will get some Nashville work out of this in the end after all, or some wiseacre will eventually cover “I Saw a Tiger” at Stagecoach. In this time of madness and quarantine and total failure of leadership, Joe Exotic is the country star America deserves.