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Andrew W.K. — A Philosopher for Our Times

If you’ve not been reading Andrew W.K.’s life advice column at the Village Voice, you’re really missing out. Since the start of the year, he’s been taking weekly questions from fans, and dispensing some fascinating and thoughtful answers. In particular, he’s garnered a great deal of attention for his response to “Ask Andrew W.K.: My Dad Is A Right-Wing Asshole,” wherein he chided the questioner for defining his father as a political viewpoint and not a person. It was rightly lauded, and was also greeted with a measure of surprise: wait, the guy who wrote “Party Hard” also wrote this? The thing is, though, it’s always been worth taking Andrew W.K.’s ideas seriously. And reading through his column again this morning, it struck me: in Andrew W.K., we have a philosopher for these crazy times.

The very first thing I want to say here is that I’m 100 percent serious. Of course, there’s plenty of potential for ironic appeal here: the dude with long hair and blood running down his face, the one who’s always talking about partying… yeah, he’s a GREAT philosopher for the 2010s. But the one thing Andrew W.K. has never been is ironic. He’s a refreshingly sincere presence in culture, and has been for his entire career. Indeed, it’s because of this that people have never quite known what to make of him — we’re so used to the knowing wink, the self-awareness, the faux self-deprecation, the snarkiness of modern culture that the sight of a man who speaks earnestly and eloquently about life is kinda bewildering.

He’s been doing this for so long, there are theories that the entire Andrew W.K. project is essentially performance art aimed at promoting this world view. Crucially, it hasn’t been entirely — or even mostly — via music. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that for reasons that remain cryptic, his career encompassed a stage when he wasn’t releasing any music at all.

During that time, he reinvented himself as, of all things, a motivational speaker. It seemed hilarious: motivational speaking? The preserve of asshole management consultants, self-help snake oil salesmen, and retired politicians looking for one last payday? What were they gonna make of Andrew freaking W.K.?!

To add to the strangeness, there was a sense that Andrew W.K. wasn’t exactly abandoning music of his own accord. He touched on this in the one and only interview I’ve done with him, a fascinating discussion a few years back that touched on the strange history of his career, when he told me, “There was a moment there where I had a choice to make about what direction to go in and what to do. It got to a point where I was advised that giving up music would be for the best… It was like, ‘Hey, this New Age thing, this is what you were meant to do, and it was always the whole thing, and we were just setting it up for this.’ It was a very disillusioning time, and a very upsetting time.”

I don’t want to go too much into the weirdness that’s surrounded Andrew W.K.’s career here — if you want to investigate the conspiracy theories about Steev Mike and how there’s allegedly been more than one Andrew W.K. and so on, knock yourself out. None of it really matters either way; the focus is the message: “I realized [motivational speaking] could be an effective way to generate some excitement and joy, much like music could. So then I felt a little better about the whole situation, that even if it was forced upon me in a way, and I didn’t think it was going to work, it actually did. And it opened up all these doors.”

One of those doors eventually lead to the pages of the Village Voice, where he’s been expanding on his party-centric philosophy ever since. The fullest expression of it came when one of his new, post-Glenn Beck fans asked him what the whole partying thing was all about: “With all due respect, I just don’t understand your obsession with ‘partying.’ The juvenile antics, unkempt image, and ‘partying’ themes cheapen the quality of your ideas and, to be frank, make it very hard to take you seriously.”

In his answer to the question, Andrew W.K. took the opportunity to set out his views on life: “I take joy very seriously, and partying is the formal pursuit of celebration itself.” He argues that expression of joy is fundamental to our nature: “Believing that joy is wrong is the most violent disrespect to our inherent nature as loving, pleasure seeking creatures. Let us elevate ourselves and embrace our highest and mightiest capacity for happiness.” And, ultimately, he suggests that it’s from this that one can derive some sort of meaning for existence: “This life is our chance to unleash as much joy onto the world as we can.” Y’know what that is? That’s philosophy.

Of course, we tend to think of philosophers as a series of stereotypes: old men with white beards and jackets with those leather elbow patches on them, downcast French existentialists pondering the meaning of existence over a coffee and a Gitane, bespectacled political theorists posing in front of shelves of books. But philosophy is for everyone. I mean, shit, I studied philosophy, and this was one of my fundamental problems with it: it shouldn’t be a rarified discipline, confined to universities and obscured by jargon. Why are we here? What does it all mean? What is right? What is wrong? Everyone asks themselves these things at some point.

Occasionally, someone comes up with some pretty convincing answers. If you want to put it in philosophical terminology, I’d call Andrew W.K. a secular humanist. His idea of partying recalls the pleasure principle one of the very earliest humanists, Epicurus (although, in fairness, Epicureanism would probably frown on partying ’til you puke). There’s also a healthy dose of existentialism in there: when he asks “What’s all the rest of this madness for otherwise?”, he’s confronting the concept of the absurd, and in suggesting that the meaning we derive from our lives is “to remain at play and in awe, not to mock the severity of our collective plight, but to truly stay engaged in the bewildering and ferocious grandeur of this adventure we’re on together,” he’s come up with a strategy that sounds a lot more fun than embracing Kierkegaard’s answer (religious faith, basically) or resigning yourself to pushing a Sisyphean rock up a hill for all eternity.

But anyway, the point is that Andrew W.K. is addressing very similar questions to those that get addressed in philosophy departments around the world every day — and he’s doing so for a much larger audience (including, by the way, that of the student union at Oxford University, where he gave a talk titled “The Philosophy of Partying” a couple of months back.) I look forward to the day when someone writes a PhD thesis called, “We Do What We Like and We Like What We Do: On the Philosophy of Andrew Wilkes-Krier.” In the meantime, you guys, party hard.

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