Billy Bob Thornton and the New Surrealism (video)

[13 April 2009]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

In case you didn’t know, Billy Bob Thornton’s music career hasn’t exactly taken off. Though often marginalized in the same way that Russell Crowe, Bruce Willis, Kevin Spacey, and Keanu Reeves’ musical ventures have been, Thornton at least made a stab at something a bit more legitimate when he decided to form the Boxmasters: a swinging country-pop group that relies heavy on nostalgic “golden age” country production without giving too much consideration for the present. The result? Our own Charles A. Hohman gave the Boxmasters’ debut album the much-dreaded 1/10 score.

Some Hohman’s score this stems from the fact that Thornton—the band’s principal songwriter—often relies on base, juvenile humor to get his point across, unrelenting with the sheer number of vulgarities at his disposal, all in the name of supposed humor.  Naturally, a “celebrity band” is going to take quite a drubbing from the press, and, as such, it’s up to the celebrity in question to do whatever he can to raise the profile of the group in order to get exposure.  Now a few days after the QTV interview, many people know of the Boxmasters—but for all the wrong reasons.

Appearing on The Q Show on CBC, host Jian Ghomeshi happily introduces the Boxmasters, noting how the group has put out three albums of the past 12 months—two of which were double-disc affairs—and soon finds out that the band has at least three more discs already in the can. Things start off like a normal interview, but then, of course, Thornton has to open his mouth. Some of his stories are completely unrelated to the music-oriented discussion that Ghomeshi is leading the band towards, and Thornton, at times, becomes livid over the fact that Ghomeshi mentions his acting career. Best of all, however, is when Ghomeshi makes passing mention about how Thornton is passionate about his music, to which Thorton fires back, asking if he’d ask the same question to Tom Petty.

Confused yet? The world is right there with you. Ghomeshi, it should be noted, does his best to handle things, but also makes sure that the questions he’s asking—the ones that deal with the music, specifically—get answered. Thornton had absolutely no reason to become as introverted and cryptic as he did, which has lead to much widespread speculation that this strange interview (which achieves an Office-level of listener discomfort) is on par with Joaquin Phoenix’s infamous encounter with David Letterman a few months earlier.

The real question, though, is why Thornton chose to act the way that he did. Being irritated over something like mentioning his cinematic achievements is slightly forgivable (we’ve all had bad days, haven’t we?), but going on about building models for a magazine contest without once answering a question about the music he listened to when growing up—it’s curious, to say the least.

Yet was Thornton conscious of his actions? Does he know that behavior like this tends to generate more negative publicity than good word-of-mouth? (Or, to put it another way: does this appearance make you want to actually go out and see the Boxmasters live?) Strangest of all, however, is that the Phoenix and Thornton interviews are both based on the same thing: a noted Hollywood actor turning to a music career and doing a media appearance to promote it. It would be more of an epidemic were it not for the fact that Zooey Deschanel, Jason Schwartzman, and
Scarlett Johansson have all pulled off the transition without this wave of media-crazy—those albums have all achieved respectable amounts of acclaim, even.

So what is Thornton accomplishing with his antics?  More importantly: why do we care?  Until we get some answers, we can at least take solace in the fact that this train wreck is admittedly pretty fun to watch ...

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/72942-billy-bob-thornton-and-the-new-surrealism/