“To some,” a magazine recently declared, he “is the Antichrist; to others, he’s a savior.”
Who is this controversial and divisive figure? A politician—Kim Jong Il or Hugo Chavez? Could it be Charles Manson? Maybe L. Ron Hubbard? Rupert Murdoch? No, the polarizing potentate is the bassist and lyricist of the rock band Fall Out Boy.
Actually, that’s an inadequate description. Pete Wentz’s mightiest instrument is the Internet, and his true job is provocateur. Black-haired and five-foot-seven, usually photographed wearing eyeliner, he is the first web 2.0 rock star: A constant presence online, he has created an interactive relationship with fans enthralled by word-mad songs that sob or elate and comment constantly on their own emotionalism. Self-portraits of Wentz naked with cock in hand dominated the Internet in March 2006 and generated suspicion that he had issued them himself to create buzz. Wentz, 29, even met his wife, 24-year-old pop starlet Ashlee Simpson, via e-mail.
Androgyny has always inflamed fans’ hormones (“I’m pretty much half gay,” Wentz once said), but eyeliner alone isn’t the basis of Wentz’s stature. Fall Out Boy’s style of music, emo, has surged into the mainstream in the past several years because an entire generation hears its own experiences described in the genre’s diaristic lyrics about tortured romances and crippling self-doubt, and it prizes these scars like priceless jewels. Emo bands don’t merely wear their heart on their sleeve—they lift up their sleeve to show the bloody wounds underneath.
The oldest of three kids, Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, a prosperous Chicago suburb. He seems to have had a typical suburban childhood: He was a talented soccer player, lost his driver’s license for repeatedly speeding and enrolled at DePaul University while living at home. Like most suburban tales, Wentz’s involves hedge-hidden troubles: a variety of mental-illness diagnoses, a forced stint in boot camp and a medicine cabinet full of prescribed uppers and downers.
After time in several hardcore punk bands, Wentz formed Fall Out Boy—a fan suggested the name, which comes from a passing joke in an episode of The Simpsons—with singer-guitarist Patrick Stump, guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley. They put out their first album in 2003 (Wentz now calls it “embarrassing”) and followed it with Take This to Your Grave. Island Records noticed their underground following and, coincidentally, had a deal with the band’s label, Fueled By Ramen. Their two most recent albums, From Under the Cork Tree (2005) and Infinity on High (2007), have sold six million copies. While Fall Out Boy was recording its fifth album, Playboy sent contributing editor Rob Tannenbaum to Wentz’s L.A. house for an interview.
Wentz has created his own suburban idyll in Beverly Hills. His wife, Ashlee Simpson, copiously pregnant in her second trimester, walked around the house doing arts-and-crafts projects with a friend to pass the time.
The first day we talked for five hours, sitting in matching armchairs overlooking the hills. When it was over Simpson said to her husband, “I don’t think I’d be able to talk to you for that long.” The next day we had another five-hour talk in the same spot. “You guys have to be best friends by now, right?” she asked me.
She also periodically texted him from the kitchen. “Let me see if I’m in trouble,” he said, checking for a message. Even though the couple try to keep their careers separate—“We don’t do too many interviews together,” he warned—Simpson gave up her crafts project long enough to talk about what she craves during pregnancy and why she made Wentz chase her so relentlessly.
WENTZ: I can definitely admit to the different things people like and don’t like about me. I’m probably the most outspoken rock musician of my generation. I pretty much say what I’m thinking. And people come up and tell me what they don’t like about me.
PLAYBOY: Really? We can’t imagine Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen having the same problem.
WENTZ: Life as a famous person in rock is vastly different now in the camera-phone culture. You know, there was no camera phone watching the guys in Led Zeppelin. There’s something about the MySpace-Facebook culture that makes me seem more accessible and easier to talk to.
PLAYBOY: So when people say what they don’t like about you, it’s as if they’re posting on your MySpace page. What’s the connection between Fall Out Boy and MySpace?
WENTZ: The biggest connection is that we came up around the same time. We embraced MySpace early on. We were definitely the first band to reach a million friends. We’ve had astounding successes based on MySpace and Facebook.
PLAYBOY: Do you think MySpace has enabled a generation of exhibitionists?
WENTZ: Everybody wants to be MySpace famous, to have more friends than other people, to have that angle that makes you look hot. It’s so out of hand and ridiculous, and I’m sure we contributed to this culture. I have to point a finger at myself for being one of the people who sat there with the building blocks of it. Backstage at shows, fans are far more interested in getting a photo with us than in having a conversation. We live in a Photobucket-Flickr culture where people are constantly documenting their experiences. I’m acutely aware of cameras now, to the point of paranoia. Do you see that big house across the hills from us? I swear I can see a telephoto lens in the window. That’s how crazy I am.
PLAYBOY: You don’t sound enthusiastic about a camera-phone culture.
WENTZ: Ten years from now we’ll know what it did to a generation. Like when our country was Ritalin-obsessed and then 10 years later decided, “Oh, Ritalin’s pretty much like speed. That might not have been a good idea for everyone to be prescribed Ritalin.”
PLAYBOY: But you’re as much of an exhibitionist as anyone.
WENTZ: I have four blogs. Sometimes I update them five times a day; sometimes I don’t update them for a month. I try to present myself as an open book. That’s the great thing about the Internet—it has leveled the playing field. So if some tabloid writes that Ashlee and I have broken up, I can take a picture of us hanging out and post it online. Or if I read something online, I can respond to it in my blog.
PLAYBOY: That’s the great part of the Internet. What’s the terrible part?
WENTZ: The terrible thing is that someone can sit there and write whatever they want. A lot of bloggers aren’t that funny, and the comments are pretty vapid. They’re just “This dude’s fugly.” The guy who wrote that is probably posting while picking all the marshmallows out of his Lucky Charms.
PLAYBOY: You say you have four blogs, but there are lots of bloggers who claim to be Pete Wentz.
WENTZ: There are just insane levels of impersonation. Some of the sites will let a Pete Wentz impostor go, and people will talk to him. These guys should probably be on To Catch a Predator. Anyone can go online and be like, “It’s Pete Wentz. You should send me naked pictures.”
PLAYBOY: So if our readers get an IM from “Pete Wentz” asking for naked photos——
WENTZ: Do not send the pictures!
PLAYBOY: One distinctive thing about Fall Out Boy is that the music is part of a larger cultural identity. It goes with a style of dressing, a way of viewing the world.
WENTZ: It is a culture or a movement. It’s a giant pop-culture idea, but it’s still weird and different. That’s what the culture of Fall Out Boy has always meant to me.
PLAYBOY: What do emo bands and fans have in common? What are the connecting traits?
WENTZ: You get the trait of this swoosh haircut over one eye and eyeliner on guys and tight jeans and 18 million blogs. The music has emotionally honest writing and lyrics that are pretty narcissistic and this idea of opening oneself up and pouring it out, which people then take further to suicidal cultures.
PLAYBOY: Are you happy to be so closely identified with emo?
WENTZ: All these magazines call us “the kings of emo.” I happen to like the way my eyes look when I wear eyeliner. We made fun of the idea of emo in so many ways on our last album, but people didn’t really catch on.