The cover of Har Mar Superstar (Kill Rock Stars, 2000) shows an ancient radio. On the back cover is a mirror image of the superstar himself: a puffy-faced 22-year-old Midwestern hipster in headphones, wearing ostensibly new clothes meant to look vintage. He strikes that whack onanistic pose that some hip-hop and R&B artists use to hype themselves. Other photos show him in similarly eye-catching poses: shirtless, exposing his moobs while still wearing his cans and looking pensively at the ground; standing in a dirty window beneath finger-written initials—HMS—"reading" Playboy; and standing, hip cocked, with his coiled headphones cord tucked into a zippered pocket, as though he's a human stereo. Really, he looks like another white, suburban clown with a shtick.
The first minute of "Baby, Do You Like My Clothes?" intriguingly complicates the image. Over a swinging beat, Har Mar Superstar—born Sean Tillman in Marshall, Minn.—talk-raps: "Baby. It's, like, 11 o'clock. You know we gotta get over to the mall. Because I can't lie to you. If you want to stay with me, you got to change your wardrobe." What at the outset appears to be hipster fashion snobbery couched in the most superficial of music, unfolds to reveal layer after satisfying layer as Tillman—in a strangely smooth yet rather nasal voice—engages in musical misdirection.
"Baby, do you like my clothes?/ 'cause I sure don't like yours," at first seems to mean, "Eeew ... What are you wearing?" The ensuing lines—"unless they're lyin' on the floor/ with your body next to me"—shift this to, "Oooh ... Why aren't you naked?" Henceforth, in the next verse, he blends insult humor, lechery, puerility, elitism and social commentary, crooning, "Hypercolor tells me where my baby is hot/ 'cause I can see your sweatpants gettin' dark in the crotch/ someone please, get her out of that Tommy gear/ I saw that shirt at TJ Maxx, double-X earlier this year." In other words, he's romancing and insulting a chubby girl with horrible fashion sense and, it appears, overactive glands, while making fun of a fad and a discount store at the same time—and commenting on our superficial society.
The other songs are just as lyrically deft, balancing the absurd with the serious, touching on the consequences of one-night stands, having "beef" with a dude or dealing with infidelity. In contrast to his lyrical themes, the music—composed by Tillman with a cast of punk and indie-rock bands (The Busy Signals, The Joggers) and a DJ/producers (Chocoroach, Ric Diculous)—is surprisingly faithful, albeit lo-fi, and diverse. "The Honorable Judge Har Mar" bulls-eyes the goofy simplicity of old-school rap beats and rhymes. "You Are The Sunshine In My Soul" is, ironically, the heaviest doo-wop song this writer has ever heard. It's this complexity that elevated Har Mar Superstar above being a simple novelty act, making him a cult figure as beloved for his music as for his antics, which included performing in skimpy briefs, looking like Ron Jeremy, Jr. (The Hedgehog II: Gone Wild!) as he'd grind the stage.
Tillman continued to work the suburban hipster/R&B loverman dichotomy on his next three albums: You Can Feel Me (Record Collection, 2002), The Handler (Record Collection, 2004) and Dark Touches Dilettante Recordings, 2009). On these, he expanded his already broad musical palette, bringing in disco and electro-pop, and attracting higher-profile collaborators such as The Gossip's Beth Ditto and Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Simultaneously, his proven pop chops landed him songwriting gigs with Britney Spears and The Cheetah Girls, and his performance skills found him in films like Whip It and Pitch Perfect.
Then, on his fifth album, Bye Bye 17 (Cult Records, 2013) Tillman appeared to grow up. The music shifted to the comparatively mature neo-soul sound—and the lyrics got serious. Tillman had already demonstrated a capacity for mature music with his indie-rock persona, Sean Na Na, but this had been eclipsed by his success as Har Mar Superstar. Once more nailing every nuance of his chosen sound, he asserted his value as an artist while not failing to deliver crowd-pleasing humor and onstage horseplay, like singing—passionately, sans irony—while standing on his head.
His current album, Best Summer Ever (Cult Records, 2016), is meant to be his greatest hits if he'd been active since the '50s. Thematically, it's wistful, still looking back, only years later instead of the morning after. Stylistically, it's all over the place, with vintage Otis Redding/Sam Cooke soul ("How Did I Get Through The Day?"), '50s sock-hop balladry ("Confidence"), '80s new wave/synthpop and 2000's dance rock (the sublime, poetic anthem "Anybody's Game"), art-rocky disco on "It Was Only Dancing (Sex)," and Stooge-y punk rock with "Famous Last Words". It would appear that Tillman has come full-circle back to the old radio on the cover of his debut album.
Only now, the poses he strikes reflect someone else: A 38-year-old man with a keen eye, deep soul and sharp mind who has, so many years later, truly become a human stereo—and who might still show his moobs onstage.