Every few years, the internet remembers, or learns, that Vice President Joe Biden is responsible for the existence of Fall Out Boy, by way of being responsible for the existence of the band’s bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz.
Most recently, the Fall Out Biden discourse has found itself back on Twitter, and various music blogs, and even within the hallowed Slack chats of Discourse Blog. This is just one of two known “famous war criminal” family connections that Wentz has — his maternal grandfather, the late Arthur Winston Lewis, who President Ronald Reagan nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone in 1983, was cousins with Colin Powell. So Pete Wentz and Colin Powell are third cousins.
According to a more recent article from Us Weekly, Wentz revealed the family connection via a guest post from his father on his now-defunct blog, on Nov. 4, 2008:
“So I guess its a big day for everyone — one way or another no matter what you are thinking,” Wentz, now 35, wrote on his personal website at the time. “I don’t really want to force my views on anyone. I’m just some guy in a band who doesn’t spell that great much less have a degree in anything. So I turned to my dad (has a couple degrees and spells much better, besides he’s a hero to me). Blech enough of that… Here’s what he had to say…”
“‘I have spent the weekend and now working on the Obama campaign,” Wentz continued, quoting his father, Pete Wentz Sr. “‘Mom and I met in Washington when we were both legislative assistants to Senator Biden when he was in his first term. I had worked in his campaign and your mother had been in the Foreign Service. We started out as friends and the rest is history.’”
According to a 2008 NME post, Wentz told the Associated Press a few things along these lines that day, too:
“I would not be standing here actually in reality at all because my parents met working for Biden,” Wentz told the Associated Press.
“They met on the campaign, so they have this particular affection for Joe. He came to their wedding. If it weren’t for Joe Biden, I would not exist as a human being.”
Wentz placed his vote at his assigned polling station in the garage of a private home in Beverly Hills, CA and explained his feelings on the importance of having his say in today’s historic election.
“I don’t usually go out of my way to indoctrinate people or tell people, ‘you should do this because of me, or you shouldn’t do this because of me,’ but I think it’s important for people to get out there.”
Anyway. This is not new information to me, but I am always pleasantly (?) surprised when this bit of trivia makes the rounds again. Not because it is interesting — it is, but a kind of interesting that’s less inspiring and more questionable — but because I first learned this information somewhere around the 2008 presidential election, the same date that Fall Out Boy’s fourth album Folie à Deux was supposed to drop.
I think the reason this information, and the album rollout I’m about to delve into, has taken up so much real estate in my mind and bothers me enough to revisit it is because it was such a weird culture flashpoint, and helped shape my understanding of politics at the time. And now that I’m older, and better understand power and politics and capitalism, I think I feel let down by the whole charade, but not surprised. In the end, I’m left parsing together metaphors between this Wentz and Biden connection, the politics of empty political gestures, and what all of this ever really meant.
I was in the ninth grade (sorry, sorry) and buzzing off of having spent middle school obsessed with the band. I personally don’t remember the details of the admission, really, but the fact itself stuck with me because I was 14 and still obsessed with Fall Out Boy, and the band had launched some big weird political viral marketing campaign to garner attention for this fourth album. Also, the election cycle was very confusing to me because it was the first one I was vaguely paying attention to and I didn’t get why all the seniors in my marching band liked Obama while everyone my parents watched on Fox News griped about his pastor, and something called ACORN.
Regardless of my reluctance to understand these distinctions — I was a freshman in high school and my biggest priority was memorizing my music for aforementioned marching band — it was really Fall Out Boy’s weird viral marketing campaign that made me think, maybe there’s something more to this Obama guy than what I’m seeing! Well, it wasn’t so much the campaign itself, but specifically a mixtape called Welcome to the New Administration, hosted and produced by DJ Clinton Sparks, and featuring mixes and clips from Fall Out Boy and other bands. (Lucky you, you can listen to the whole thing in the video below.)
It’s got an intro from Ludacris and songs from bands like Panic at the Disco and the Cab and Gym Class Heroes, and packed with sound effects like glass breaking, and explosions, and a baby saying “get familiar!” — the Clinton Sparks equivalent of airhorns — as well as several reiterations of the phrase “the new administration,” because don’t forget, there was a presidential election to come.
I look back at that time and recall feeling that so much of Fall Out Boy’s PR ahead of that fourth album was excitement for Obama, and that they were really trying to get young people to tell their parents about him, or at least consider him as a solid candidate for the future of the country. But listening back to the mixtape itself, aside from short soundbites here and there, there’s only one glaring, embarrassing track on the tape’s 45 minutes — a song by the Hush Sound titled “We Believe In (Barack Obama).”
The lyrics are vapid and hollow, but they rhyme (“We believe in Barack Obama / He loves you and he loves your mama”). It’s incredibly embarrassing and vulnerable to be so excited and earnest about anything whatsoever, but especially so if your excitement stems from getting “Barack and all of his crew in the White House so they can prove that in their hearts they know what to do.”
I digress. The viral campaign that the mixtape was released under was also heavily rooted in disillusionment and change and themes of that sort, as was the actual album Folie à Deux. The campaign, called Citizens for Our Betterment (CFOB), first tried to simulate some sort of Big Brother-y overtaking of the website for Fall Out Boy’s label (the Fandom page for the album says the campaign was inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) and involved other online hints and IRL twists (at one point Wentz dressed up as a man named “Vlad” and delivered donuts and merch in a van with the moniker “Fresh Only Bakery”).
A Wayback Machine archive of the site itself is pretty stripped down, except for the text posted on one of the days of the campaign:
Do you ever look in the mirror and say, ‘I will never believe in anything again!’ Do you yawn at these speeches that only pay lip service to real plights? This is your chance to shake that person in the mirror, to give that speech yourself. Change is here. It is yours if you want to take it. November fourth will be a day to remember. vote with us. Vote for us.
And then there was Fall Out Boy’s music video for I Don’t Care, a single off that upcoming album that featured a Sarah Palin lookalike at the very end peeling off her face to reveal herself as the band’s critic. (Is she the villain? Is she an insider? Who is to say!)
Wentz even hosted a fundraiser in Chicago for Obama — which, if I can just pause to lol at this illuminating quote he gave to MTV about it:
“To me, the goal of the event is to expose Obama to people who may have misconceptions about him. For example, someone on our Web site said, ‘I heard if he’s elected, he’s going to bomb the Middle East,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, no … that’s what our [current] president did,’ ” Wentz said.
It all seems very political, very pro-Democrats and pro-democracy, except for the fact that it really wasn’t. Wentz himself emphasized in news reports mentioned above that he’s not trying to “force his views” on anyone. And despite the “Citizens for Our Betterment” campaign seeming like it was vying for a regime change — for Democrats to take over after years of Republican warfare — the whole thing being “big brother-esque,” as if being nefariously headed by a counterinsurgency with the intent to convince listeners into submission, doesn’t much fit that narrative either.
The only inherently political line I remember hearing as a teen in Folie à Deux was from the track “20 Dollar Nose Bleed,” an obvious reference to the Presidents Bush:
It feels like fourteen carats, but no clarity, when I look at the
Man who would be king, the man who would be king
Goes to the desert, the same war his dad rehearsed
Came back with flags on coffins and said, “We won, oh, we won”
And even then, despite wanting to inject the album, and the viral campaign that promoted it, with political themes, Wentz seems to have toed the line of political without actually having to commit to politics. From the Fandom page for the album once again, emphasis mine:
Stump tagged Folie à Deux as a “message record” that takes aim at “the materialistic dance between any two parties obsessed with each other, whether it’s teenage girls and handbag makers, politicians and lobbyists or tabloids and stars.” Folie à Deux also dissects how self-motivated American culture is, and many of the lyrics are intended to be satirical. While the album does contain political overtones, the band wanted to avoid being overt about these themes, leaving many lyrics open to interpretation for listeners. […]
In keeping with the record’s socially aware nature, the band felt that the term [Folie à Deux] was relevant to the candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. […]
The band confirmed that it intended to release the mixtape in conjunction with the “Citizens” campaign, and felt that it was relevant to not only the themes of the album, but the 2008 election as well. Wentz explained “The whole campaign is part of the record and people can call it whatever they want, but the mixtape was part of that campaign, and we’ll see what happens from here…In creating this autocratic organization, we created a democratic campaign, because people have made it go the direction they wanted it to go.”
Taking all of this into consideration, I really just look back at this whole weird pre-release Folie à Deux era as a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Perhaps that is the thing about making “political” work without adhering to a politic — it’s an interesting artistic technique, but it doesn’t necessarily make your work inherently political. It might be “thought-provoking,” but ultimately it’s just directionless and hollow, if not reaffirming of a status quo, because not taking a position is taking a position in itself.
It’s almost like that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, if you will. It’s a harsh comparison to make, but they’re both examples of “apolitical political art,” points along the same spectrum, meant to mean something by saying things that sound like something but are really nothing. Let this be an isolated critique — I still greatly appreciate the band and the joy they brought me, but political minds they are not. They merely staged a political-ish campaign to sell records.
That brings us back to Fall Out Boy and Wentz gunning for the Obama administration, which begat Vice President Joe Biden, which may now lead to President Joe Biden, a man who is running a presidential campaign that says things that sound like something, but are really nothing, and is also possibly singlehandedly responsible for the existence of Wentz and Fall Out Boy in the first place. Is this all a conspiracy? Is this but the bourgeoisie’s world and we’re all just living in it? I’m just connecting the dots here, but I have no answers because Fall Out Boy gave me none.