Before all of this (vaguely gestures towards the window) social distancing business, it seemed unlikely that a fair portion of the world would become so heavily invested in the story of a colourfully dressed, gun-slinging zookeeper in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. But current times are strange, and now that going to the pub isn’t a viable option, Netflix’s Tiger King has filled the void.
The show’s main draw, Joe Exotic, is a complicated character: he’s tried his hand at politics, magic shows, TV presenting, and music. Amid the rest of the chaos, Exotic’s musical aspirations don’t get much of a look-in, but delving in opens up a whole other rabbit hole. Though Joe Exotic sings fronts countless videos on his YouTube channel JoeExoticTV, and credits himself as a songwriter, he didn’t write any of these songs. It’s not even his voice on the record. Instead, reports Slate, Exotic hired two musicians called Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton.
In the gift shop of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, you’ll find two full length albums for purchase – but for those who can’t be bothered with making the trip to Oklahoma, many of them are also on YouTube. So we did the only decent thing and reviewed this enigma’s music career.
In terms of aesthetic, Joe Exotic is unmistakable. Shunning the album-to-album evolution of Bowie or Madonna, the core ingredients to this Netflix iconoclast’s image are consistently as follows. Bleach-blonde mullet. Gigantic eyebrow hoop. Some form of headwear (either a baseball cap or a stetson) and a barely buttoned-up shirt flapping about his midriff.
It’s brave. It’s unique. Iconic, boundary testing and immediately distinctive. Full marks.
Claws out of five: five
Every pop star worth their stripes (sorry) has a certain signature flourish when it comes to lyrics. Lady Gaga loves repeating the same syllables oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-over ah-ah-ah-gain. Rihanna’s songs often fall within the realm of chaotic fun – she’s not afraid of darkness, but never stops being playful with it. Madonna adores a hefty concept (see: ‘Like A Virgin’ or ‘Like A Prayer’ and that bit about being “like an angel sighing”). Taylor Swift loves teasing her listeners with brief snatches of autobiographical detail, and Ed Sheeran really wants you to know that he’s just a regular guy.
The deranged country cousin of Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, Joe Exotic’s own standout diss track ‘Here Kitty Kitty’ shows the big-cat overlord at his most venomous. Unlike Swif t– who merely hinted that her own track was about Harry Styles, but maintained a sense of mystique – there’s no doubt surrounding Exotic’s target. He even took the liberty of hiring a lookalike of his arch-nemesis, Carole Baskin – who’s been accused of murder – for the music video. The level of rich autobiographical detail is astounding, though occasionally Exotic has a tendency to alienate listeners with specificity.
“So if you’re ever down in Tampa on a big cat refuge don’t pick a fight with your wife / Because it’s a big 40 acres, and if you’re not careful, you’ll be gone in the blink of an eye,” he drawls. It’s not especially relatable to non-converts to those unfamiliar with this big cat beef, though his deft grasp of the imperfect rhyme must be commended.
Similar themes of revenge and defiance in the face of criticism are also central to ‘Bring it On’: that said, Joe Exotic also has range. ‘I Saw A Tiger’ is surely the be-mulleted musician at his most sentimental: “I saw a tiger and now I understand / I saw a tiger and the tiger saw me,” he croons on his heartfelt plea to show the stripy creatures the admiration they surely deserve. One particular lyric about a nameless hunter killing all the tigers “in the Holocaust” remains a bit of a head-scratcher.
Claws out of five: 4
Visually, Joe Exotic’s work is challenging stuff – many of his music videos initially follow straight-forward narrative arcs, before dissolving into dreamlike cyclical repetitions. It’s not clear if this is an intentional stylistic decision, or one of practicality: either way, ‘How Was I To Know’ reuses the same juddering camera shot of Joe Exotic lying in a coffin about three times over the course of four minutes and nine seconds, and employs a nifty drive-through cinema metaphor as its main dramatic device.
Elsewhere, Exotic’s go-to director Jt Barnett makes constantly fearless creative decisions. ‘GW and Me’s video bashes every special effects button on Windows Movie Maker – in one segment, the whole video turns black and white, aside from a bunch of red roses. Twinkles glimmer in the fringes as Joe Exotic descends a staircase.
Joe Exotic is at his best, however, when he turns his lens onto his beloved fans, or casts his eye behind the scenes. On ‘This is My Life’ we see a candid Joe Exotic serenading a caiman – a kind al alligator to you and me – and taking a melancholy moment by the lake. ‘Because You Love Me’ meanwhile follows the rough template of a music video filmed on the road – though, in Joe Exotic’s case, he struts around his own personal stage, Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, instead. His adoring and slightly confused fans wave their arms along to this low-key banger on camera; a tiger (clearly not a pop fan) attempts to head-butt him. Moving stuff, without any bells and whistles.
Claws out of five: 4
The big man’s oeuvre is… not bad at all? NME has definitely heard far, far, worse. People bemoan the lack of big personalities in pop nowadays, and – say what you like about him – Joe Exotic is certainly larger-than-life. Is the big cat don the pop start we need in 2020? Possibly – or perhaps self-isolation is just really getting to us.