With his bottle-blond mullet, tacky shirts, and this-close-to-offensive catchy songs (like “Pretty Woman Lover”), zookeeper-country singer Joe Exotic looks and sounds like he emerged from country’s less-polished past.
And for that, as quarantined viewers who are as captive as Exotic’s own lions and tigers, we’re oh-so grateful.
The narcissistic star of Netflix’s big-cats-meet-crime-docuseries Tiger King, unleashed on the streaming service just as the world went into self-isolation, believes in himself as much as he does in his wild beasts. Along with serenading them in on-the-nose country anthems like “I Saw a Tiger,” he also uses them as props in a series of can’t-look-away online screeds, calling out his haters (namely PETA and one specific thorn in his side) while pacing a cage just a bite’s distance away from the cats he’s raised since they were cubs.
In a display of just how unwavering Exotic’s self-belief grows over the course of the seven-part Tiger King, he ends up running for president in 2016, then governor of Oklahoma in 2018 — and takes 19 percent of the vote to finish third in the governor’s race, proving that just because you’re out of your mind doesn’t mean you can’t come close to being elected.
But unlike our current delusionary-in-chief, Joe Exotic actually seems to possess some discernible talent. While running his GW Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, with his ragtag staff of misfits, he recorded two albums’ worth of country songs about his complex, checkered life. Shockingly, they’re not terrible. In fact, they’re even quite good. Like Hank Williams Jr. sang before him, he’s living out the songs that he wrote, re-creating his outrageous exploits in high-concept, low-quality music videos on YouTube.
The twangy shuffle of “Pretty Woman Lover” recalls the bravado of Nineties muscleman Aaron Tippin; its lyrics are peak Confederate Railroad, with Exotic boasting about being “an ugly woman’s dream.” In the gloriously cheeseball power ballad “I Saw a Tiger,” he’s straddling the hood of a snow-leopard-white pickup, imploring poachers to lay down their arms. And in “My First Love,” Exotic goes full “Indian Outlaw” Tim McGraw, sporting a big black hat and wraparound shades. “You were my true love,” he croons, “the one that was supposed to last.”
But it’s “Here Kitty Kitty” that reigns as king of Joe Exotic’s country jungle. A swampy murder ode, the song takes aim at Joe’s archenemy, Carole Baskin, a big-cat advocate from Florida who’s committed to shutting down the roadside zoo. The dark lyric — “Here kitty kitty/You can’t find this taste in the zoo” — exemplifies Exotic’s accusation that Baskin killed her former husband and fed his remains to her big cats at her own animal sanctuary to get rid of the evidence. (Baskin denied the charge in the series.) Exotic, inexplicably dressed as a priest, even found a Baskin look-alike to re-create the gruesome tale in the video. It all makes the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” seem like child’s play.
Murder fantasies aside, Exotic’s songs, like the best of country music, tackle some tough subjects, many of them via firsthand knowledge. He sings about child abuse in “Guardian of the Children,” recalls a bout with cancer in “This Is My Life,” and details an accidental shooting in “How Was I to Know,” a spoiler that’s too head-spinning to reveal here.
Let’s not forget that Exotic is an out-and-proud gay polygamist. Tiger King includes footage of a three-way wedding to husbands Travis and John, the latter the inspiration for “My First Love,” a surprisingly heartfelt and well-crafted same-sex country ballad. Even if it weren’t sung by a currently incarcerated entertainer-zookeeper, it’d still be way too progressive for country music — a format that hasn’t allowed an openly gay man anywhere near the Top 10 of the country radio charts, be it today or in whatever era from which Joe Exotic magically appeared.
It’s all part of what makes Exotic so unapologetically himself. Whether he’s singing about his love for toothless John or a sharp-fanged tiger, there’s an earnestness and, dare we say, an authenticity to his music that you just can’t fake.
Or can you?
Since Tiger King premiered, musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton have come forward with claims that Exotic was lip-syncing songs they wrote, sang, and produced. According to a Vanity Fair interview with Exotic’s former video producer Rich Kirkham, this is all true.
Still, in desperate, sometimes hopeless, times, you have no choice but to believe. In cats and in country music.