When the N.E.R.D. “Rock Star” video came out, I was glued.
MTV and BET blared constantly in my room, but this song was rare. It had the typical platitudes of the hip-hop genre, but the sound was cheekier. The look was fresher. I’d never seen a guy so smooth. He jumped in skater clothes and stripe socks, and Pharrell Williams was gorgeous. I wanted to be him more than I wanted to be with him though. The song was like sticky poison. Involuntarily, my body dipped.
The anti-bully anthem gave me my first obnoxious pop music fantasy. Pharrell was doing revenge rap for the little guy in a high school gym, and he was hypnotic. What he offered was an alluring invitation. It was about turning the tables on oppressors. I blasted it enough to make my landlady curse in Italian. Repeating the words “I’m a rock star” is usually a dead giveaway you aren’t one, and I wasn’t. As an awkward people-pleaser, the closest I came to being a rock star was announcing the people who needed to get their shots on the loud speaker. But it gave me my first lick of premature adolescent swagger when I was angsty and yearning for freedom. I imagined he’d probably pick me up from school in a stolen cop car that week. Or hopefully the one after.
Pharrell was too cool. Britney Spears said he was the one who brought the sexuality out of her for “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Without him, teenage girls wouldn’t know what she looked like all sweaty in a fake gang bang at a yoga resort. He seemed too defiant for all of this, but his success was ruthless, like a drug-sniffing dog. If you look at pictures of him a dozen years apart, he looks the same. Now I find myself surrounded by the guy, his collaborations, his album, his perfume and his hat, and I’m not into it.
I interviewed him after a free live concert at the Billionaire Boys Club during one Fashion’s Night Out. The place was packed to the gills with a few hundred cagey girls desperate to buy a t-shirt so they could wait in a humid line to take photo evidence of a hug with him. He wouldn’t stay for everyone. A few of them cried.
He might have cried for Oprah, but for a lowly party reporter he was just disappointing. I had the beat of “Grindin’” tucked into my memory like a secret note with me when I flew my way past the stoic security guards in the neon-lit stairs to him. A huge white guy loomed next to him, his security guard. The year before, the police had shut down the event because of uncontrollable crowds. Pharrell looked unfazed by such concerns.
I was secretly giddy to talk to him. I had interviewed hundreds of celebrities I wasn’t excited about. I learned to peel back my theories that hilarious actors would be cool in real life. I never expected them to be as charming or winning as their onscreen personas. I get that I was hassling them. This should be fun though, I hoped. It wasn’t because I was star struck. I was curious about how he thought, and I was naïve to hope he’d be cool and smart. He was wearing khaki and he looked wiped out. That night, he was absent to the point of blandness.
I had the annoying agenda of fire poking the tired performer into talking fashion while the smell of young female lust was everywhere. His handshake was limp. I asked him what musician should do a fashion line that hasn’t. He stared blankly at me smiling long enough for the screaming girls to start liking jazz.
Finally, he answered, “Julian Casablancas He’s got good taste. He can dress.” Done, an editor would snatch a famous person talking about another famous person quickly. Still, he was willing to answer my questions because I knew what I was talking about.
I made him laugh, but he was detached and immature. When I asked him about how men should pick out clothes, he thought about this for exactly one full minute, and with spacey eyes, delivered this Mr. Rogers answer:
“You gotta think about how you feel in the morning and what you’re doing and what the weather is like.”
“LAST QUESTION,” his huge white bodyguard, boomed. I ignored him and so did Pharrell, who looked like he would have been at home at a nursing home in a rocker.
“What did you think about today when you got dressed?” Another solid one-minute interval of reflection.
“I can’t tell you,” his words slurred, a cocky smirk appearing.
It turned out, he wasn’t that interesting, and I felt stupid for wanting him to be. I may have played it cool because I was there on official business asking him about his complex fashion decision-making process, but I wasn’t too different from those girls. I was a fan. They just put it out there. I hope they weren’t expecting him to be an ounce as cool as he seemed though.
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