Scandal and intrigue surround Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, the central character of the hit Netflix docuseries Tiger King. Tiger King depicts the 57-year-old Oklahoman as something of an outsize character: He sports a platinum blond mullet, wears flamboyant sequined tiger-striped shirts, and always seems to wield a weapon. But he’s also possibly a misunderstood antihero, who makes it his mission to provide work for rehabilitated felons and save the endangered tiger species through rampant breeding.
Among this eccentric zookeeper’s many idiosyncrasies, Exotic tries his hand at country music. The series is interspersed with Exotic’s self-published music videos about his love of big cats (“I Saw a Tiger”) and his hatred for his nemesis Carole Baskin. Released in 2015, the gruesome murder ballad “Here Kitty Kitty” alleges that Baskin (the owner of Big Cat Rescue, to which Exotic owes $1 million), fed her missing former husband to the tigers: “Her husband went and disappeared … oh, here, kitty kitty / Mama’s got some treats for you.” The video originally received minor acclaim with tens of thousands of views, but that count is now over 5 million since the Netflix show’s debut.
On a recent episode of Vox’s podcast Switched on Pop, I spoke with journalist Robert Moor, who profiled Joe Exotic for New York magazine and in the podcast Joe Exotic: Tiger King. From 2015 to 2019, Moor followed Joe Exotic. He lived at Exotic’s zoo for five days in 2015; visited him again in 2017 and twice in 2019; interviewed him numerous times; and eventually attended Exotic’s 2019 criminal trial, which is also covered in the Netflix series. A jury went on to convict Exotic for attempting to hire an undercover FBI agent to kill Baskin.
We discussed what compelled Exotic to make country music and why his work has become so popular since the series’ release. While living at the zoo, Moor came to learn one of Joe Exotic’s biggest secrets: His country music wasn’t written by him at all, despite Joe professing it to be deeply personal. Instead, it was written and performed by at least one ghostwriter. In the interview excerpt below, we discuss how Exotic misused country music tropes to craft his public persona.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was Joe even “writing” these country songs?
By that point in his life [in 2015], Joe was pretty much doing anything he could do to get attention to make himself larger than life. He was a magician. He was into low-rent local wrestling for a little while. He was making a reality show. Then he started running for president. He started running for governor. He was doing anything he could do just to get eyeballs on him. And I think he thought that being a country singer was a good route to that.
Now, what’s funny is when I talked to Joe, he didn’t seem to particularly love country music all that much. When he was young, he said he loved Cyndi Lauper. He was into ’80s pop and new wave. He wasn’t really a country guy growing up but adopted that persona.
And yet it kind of makes sense that he pursues country music, because country of all genres is particularly narrative-driven. Throughout Joe’s most popular songs [like “I Saw a Tiger” and “This Is My Life”], there are clear stories that he’s trying to tell.
Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. And one of the things I’ve always found so interesting about country music is that it’s so often about mythologizing the American experience.
There’s one song I like called “My Front Porch Looking In” by Lonestar. It’s just about the singer, his wife, and his kid living in the suburbs, raising the banality of that experience up to something that feels almost mythic, because it’s in a song. It’s about taking the stereotypical American experience and middle-class suburban or rural experience and elevating that to something that feels larger than life.
What Joe’s doing is totally different. Joe is taking something that is outside of the norm. A lot of his songs are about being gay. A lot of his songs are about his love of tigers. Some of them are about odd subjects, like the death of Carol Baskin’s husband in “Here Kitty Kitty.” None of this is what you’d expect to hear lyrically from a country artist.
I also think it’s interesting to point out that [“Here Kitty Kitty”] is actually maybe one of his most traditional, because there is this rich tradition of country songs about murder.
Yeah, exactly, murder ballads, like Garth Brooks’s “The Thunder Rolls,” or Johnny Cash’s “The Long Black Veil.” There’s lots and lots of songs about jilted lovers killing one another, and this one has the added element of feeding the body to the tigers.
A good country song can take an ordinary story and make it seem extraordinary. And here, Joe’s making extraordinary songs using more ordinary music, and it creates this cognitive dissonance. We don’t really know what is true, what’s fiction, how the two blend together to create the best narrative.
That was one of the really fascinating things about being at the trial. Joe’s attorney tried to use all of these threats and present these songs as evidence that Joe didn’t try to hire a hitman to kill Carole Baskin, because who would be so stupid as to publicly make threats like this for years and then go and hire a hitman? He would be the first person everyone would come looking for.
You reported that Joe didn’t actually write his songs. He hired musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton to write and perform his music. Then Joe posted the lip-synced music videos to his YouTube channel. There’s so many people in the making. In some ways his songwriting process actually feels very much like contemporary country songwriting, a collaborative effort between songwriter, producer, and artist. In what he claims are his own songs, Joe Exotic is actually taking the role of the artist, except he’s sort of Milli Vanilli-ing this thing and not actually singing.
Yeah. I think that’s right. I mean, the other thing that is interesting is Joe listened to these songs, his own songs, obsessively. He had them playing in his gift shop on a 24-hour loop. He had them playing in his car all the time. He was only ever really listening to his own music. I never heard him listen to another country song [when following him for the piece].
Why do you think the documentarians behind Tiger King left that question of whether Joe was writing his own music out of the series?
I really don’t know, because the directors, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, must’ve known that Joe wasn’t singing those songs — the amount of access that they had, they must have known. There’s two plausible explanations. One is, there’s just too much stuff in this story that it structurally becomes a nightmare [to include every detail].
That might be it, but I think more than that, they were trying to build up the mythos of Joe Exotic as this larger-than-life figure. And when you reveal that he’s not singing those songs, it deflates that.
And I’ve seen that reaction on my Twitter feed. I created this long thread of all the things that the documentary left out. And the thing that grabs people’s attention the most and that people seem really disappointed by is that Joe didn’t sing those songs. It seems to reveal him in some fundamental way to be a fraud. And when that’s the case, it’s a lot harder to root for him. And I think that that’s kind of what the documentarians wanted you to do — to root for this antihero.