The short and bizarre diplomatic tenure of Andrew W.K.

November 26, 2012

The announcement on Andrew W.K. site that he would travel to Bahrain at the State Department's invitation.

On Friday, American rock star and eccentric person Andrew W.K. announced on his personal Web site that "The US Department of State in partnership with the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, has invited Andrew to visit the Middle East to promote partying and positive power." It continued, "Andrew will begin his journey sometime in December, 2012 and will visit elementary schools, the University of Bahrain, music venues, and more, all while promoting partying and world peace."

The news was difficult to fathom: The Kingdom of Bahrain is now in its second tense year of turmoil, with activists from the country's majority Shia population protesting the Sunni monarchy, U.S. support for which has drawn criticism in much of the Middle East; W.K. is best known for his outlandish behavior and songs about partying and related activities. It was not an obvious match, and Middle East-watchers greeted it with deep skepticism, as music blogs trumpeted the news.

Andrew W.K. tweeted late Sunday, "Shocked by the confusion over my trip to the Middle East? It's NOT fake! I really am going there to party!" The Huffington Post reported he would be a cultural ambassador; W.K. later hinted that preparations had been ongoing for a year.

It now turns out that there was actually some truth to W.K.'s claims, though the State Department's version of events is significantly different, and perhaps more plausible. It's difficult to tell for sure, but it appears that what may have begun as a quiet event got blown out of proportion by a rock singer new to the subtleties of diplomacy, probably dooming the event, if it hadn't been canceled already. 

"And here I thought we were going to get through this whole briefing without that point coming up," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland sighed when a reporter asked this afternoon about the W.K. confusion. "So we had a Bahraini entity that approached the embassy about co-sponsoring a visit by this guy, who I take it is pretty popular there in Bahrain," she said. "That was initially approved, and then when more senior management at the embassy took a look at this, the conclusion was that this was not an appropriate use of U.S. government funds."

The Hill reports that W.K. had been invited as part of a "cultural speakers" program, which "apparently resulted from a request within Bahrain." Taken with Nuland's statement, it doesn't sound very consistent with W.K.'s initial claim that he was going to "share his music," which presumably means by performing it. 

Though W.K.'s announcement and subsequent tweets seemed to playfully exaggerate his role, it's not clear how much of that was the winking satire that's often a part of his public persona. Though his repeated statements about partying and promoting world peace are probably meant to be understood as jokes, his references to visiting elementary schools and the University of Bahrain are awfully specific. It's possible, perhaps, that this tour was set up by the U.S. Embassy, by the "Bahraini entity" that Nuland cited (a government organization? a student group?), or even by W.K. himself. But now, with the trip canceled, he won't be visiting any of them.

W.K. seems to be taking the news a little hard. His site announced, with a touch of sulk: "The US State Department has unexpectedly canceled their plans for Andrew's trip to the Middle East this week, after changing their minds and deciding that it was 'a mistake and not appropriate.' " He tweeted, "I'm just blown away. After a year of planning, the US State Dept. just canceled my Middle East trip because I'm too party."

The rocker's penchant for outlandish statements included a two-year episode in which he raised, and then quelled, doubts about whether he was a real person or merely a rotating cast of actors. He announced at one point in 2008, "Andrew W.K. was created by a large group of people, almost a conference of people, and they met, and I was there, and we talked about how we could come up with something that would move people, and it was done in the spirit of commerce, it was done in the spirit of entertainment, which usually goes hand in hand with commerce, and I was auditioned alongside of many other people to fill this role of a great front man, a great performer."

After months of battling the resulting rumors that he might not be a real person, W.K. held an awkward-sounding 2010 "press conference," modeled after Tiger Woods's public mea culpa, at a nightclub he co-owns. He was finally able to put down the rumors, but it had taken an enormous effort and many months. His tenure as a U.S. cultural ambassador and Middle East party-promoter appears to have been much shorter, but the State Department was happy to help him end it.

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Caitlin Dewey · November 26, 2012