It’s been a big week for Cee Lo Green. On Sunday, the singer performed as a rather noticeable part of Madonna’s sizable backup crew at the Super Bowl halftime show and, immediately after the game, returned to his regular gig as a judge on NBC’s The Voice — that other singing-competition reality show with the more futuristic-looking set. We caught up with Cee Lo during a break at his recording studio to talk about homophobia, rewriting John Lennon’s lyrics, and whether it’s a good thing to be the McDonald’s of music.
Eric Spitznagel: I have this theory that you took the job on The Voice just for the big, swiveling chair.
Cee Lo Green: I definitely enjoy the chair. It’s nice and squishy. When the show ends, I think I’ll have my chair dipped in bronze and keep it. Nobody else should be allowed to sit in Cee Lo Green’s chair.
Is your house filled with oversized, swiveling furniture?
If I could live anywhere long enough, you’d probably be right on the money. But I’m kinda not living anywhere.
No, no, no. Like most artists, I live out of a suitcase. I’ve been a touring musician for nineteen years at this point. That’s almost two decades worth of traveling. It’s such a second nature at this point.
One of the things I learned about you from watching The Voice is that you’re apparently a Misfits fan.
I love the Misfits!
Last season you wore that Misfits skull t-shirt in almost every episode. I don’t know why, but that really surprised me.
It surprised a lot of people. I met [Misfits lead singer] Glenn Danzig once, and even he was surprised by it.
No way — you met Danzig?
We were in an elevator, I forget where, and I immediately recognized him and said hello, told him how much I respect his work. He seemed very shocked and a little confused that I had any idea who he was.
How well do you know Danzig’s songs? Could you sing a few lines from “Where Eagles Dare”?
What, right now?
Oh man, don’t put me on the spot!
So you’re refusing?
I’ve actually got a bit of a sore throat.
Okay, fine. But I think that song would be perfect for you.
It’s a great song. Great lyrics.
Weird, disturbing lyrics. “Her mouth of germicide seducing all your glands.” Only you could sing lyrics like that and make it sexy.
[Laughs] I wouldn’t bet against me, that’s for sure. I’ll sing anything by Danzig or the Misfits. I covered Danzig’s “Mother” at Lollapalooza last summer.
Growing up, did you go to a lot of hardcore shows?
I didn’t. The punk scene in Atlanta was a very small, insular community, and I was more involved with hip-hop. But I’d always been a big listener and admirer of that scene.
If you went to a punk show, would you be standing in the back, or diving around in the mosh pit?
It depends on who I was going to see. My insurance provider probably wouldn’t allow me to go into a mosh pit anymore. My brain is insured by Lloyd’s of London, you know what I’m saying?
You’ve been involved in some controversies lately.
Well, like last summer, when you responded on Twitter to a critic who wrote a scathing review of one of your concerts by asking, “I’m guessing ur gay?” In hindsight, do you regret using “gay” as a put-down?
I remember that incident very clearly. It wasn’t meant as a put-down at all. You want the whole story?
I’d love the whole story.
I’ll try to keep it short. I was touring with Rihanna, and I didn’t realize that she has a very particular following. You know what I’m saying?
I don’t think I do.
Let me be specific. Rihanna has a large lesbian community that comes out to see her shows. ‘Cause she does a lot of girl-on-girl kind of stuff.
She does? Wow. I need to get tickets to a Rihanna show.
It’s very racy and sexually charged. And I like that. I like aggressive and sexually liberated women. It’s hot to me. So we were doing a show in Minneapolis, and I thought I’d rev it up in my own way. I like to have fun. I’m definitely sexually liberated and all that good stuff. I was talking a little junk on the microphone.
What sort of junk?
I said to the crowd, “Hey, do you guys realize that I’m just foreplay, and Rihanna’s gonna come out here and fuck you?”
I was talking shit. And it turns out, the journalist who wrote all those negative things about the show was not a man, but a gay woman. I guess my overbearing testosterone was offensive to her. She was completely appalled by my behavior. But come on, some of these people who lashed out against me on Twitter, calling me a homophobe, that’s just wrong.
It’s hard to imagine a guy who performed at the Grammys in a rainbow-colored peacock costume would have a problem with gayness.
Exactly, yeah! I could never be homophobic in any kind of way, dude. I’m such a free bird.
And that silver chest plate with the six-pack abs? I think the gay community could get behind that.
And that’s great! I have no problem with that. I don’t judge people. I don’t even judge people on The Voice. I’m a coach. I’m there for constructive criticism and to aid and abet and discover new talent. When people say nasty things like that about me, it curbs my enthusiasm and makes me not want to talk as much.
You mean on Twitter?
Yeah. Twitter is a form of free speech, and I’m all for that. But if Cee Lo Green, a maverick of sorts, can’t get on Twitter and say something outlandish or outrageous, then what is the whole point of Twitter at all?
You could just not use it. That’s always an option.
It is, yeah. I’m not an avid Twitter user anyway. Every now and then I’ll say something if I think it’s interesting, or if I think it’s funny, or if I can shock you a little bit, or maybe make you smile. This, that, or the other. I’m in it now and again, but I’m not of it. You know what I mean?
I see people on Twitter constantly, and I’m like, “You got too much time on your hands, baby!”
You had another Twitter backlash not too long ago, after you covered John Lennon’s “Imagine” in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Yeah, that was bad.
You changed the lyrics from “Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” to “Nothing to kill or die for, and all religion’s true.” Some people got very upset.
From what I read on Twitter, it was mostly the atheist community that got rubbed the wrong way and was really speaking out about it. Which, of course, they have every right to do. I was a little confused by the reaction, because it’s such a peaceful and positive song. And people were being really nasty about it. It was ironic and a little disheartening, and I really didn’t get it. I was saying all religions are true, and that includes atheists.
Atheism is a religion? How so?
It’s a belief. You have to act in accordance to the guidelines of atheism to be one. If not, you are otherwise. You see what I’m saying?
I guess so. But all religions can’t be true, can they? If Catholics and Jews and Muslims agree about anything, it’s that everybody who doesn’t believe what they believe is wrong and is probably going to hell.
But that’s not the way it should be. I want a world where everything is welcome, everything is valid, everything is acknowledged, embraced, and accepted. To me, that’s a perfect world. John Lennon talked about imagining a world without religion, but you wouldn’t miss what you’ve never had. You know what I’m saying? Since there is religion and there is dissension amongst them, for us to accept each other would probably be a more realistic place to start, a more attainable perfect world for us to daydream about.
So you were just tweaking Lennon’s message?
Yeah, yeah. Whether it’s a world without religion or a world where religion is accepted by all, both of those are imaginary worlds. They’re just figments of our imagination. And that’s the point of the song, you know what I’m saying? It’s called “Imagine.” So let’s imagine the best scenario for everybody.
So here’s a hypothetical. Somebody does a cover of your song “Fuck You!” and they change the lyrics to “I guess the change in my pocket was more than enough.” Would that bug you?
[Long pause] I guess it would depend on the nature of the song. If it was a song about my dead dog that I took very personally, then maybe.
Is “Fuck You!” a song that you take personally?
Not anymore. As an artist, you realize that sometimes songs become bigger than you. You have to give them away. “Fuck You!” is not my song anymore. You know what I’m saying? It’s our song.
But it must’ve originated from a personal place. Who was “Fuck You!” written about?
It was about my relationship with my label at that moment.
Your record label? That’s weird, I could’ve sworn it was about a girl.
Oh yeah, in a literal way it’s about a girl. The storyline is fictitious for the most part, but we’ve all been there a time or two. I mean, not literally, at least not for me. I can afford to buy a Ferrari. You know what I mean? [Laughs] But when I was writing it, the message came from someplace different. I’d been recording for three years and I had over seventy songs, and I was ready to be heard. But my label was just sitting on it, and it was very disheartening, not knowing if what I was doing was good enough. It seemed like I couldn’t please anybody. So of course, figuratively, I was like, “You don’t like me? Well fuck you!” It was very cathartic.
Are you a swearer? In an average day, how often do you drop the “F” bomb?
Oh man, I couldn’t even count it. I curse like a motherfucking sailor.
That is fucking great to hear.
You know it. I just love saying fuck. I’ll say things like, “It’s such a fucking great day today.” It never gets old. Fuck! Fuck!
You performed at Disney World in December for their Christmas Day Parade TV special, and obviously The Voice is meant for a family audience. Do you ever get the urge to just shout out, “This is motherfucking awesome?”
No, man, I’m a professional. I try to be appropriate for whatever the age demographic is for a particular audience. But in my heart, I’m a rebel. This is rock ‘n’ roll, you know what I mean? I don’t do pop music. I’m an alternative to pop.
You’d describe your music as alternative?
It’s alternative to everything! I’m alternative to any other kind of pop song or pop artist that I’ve ever seen. I am the one and only Cee Lo Green! It’s about taking chances. I’m all about taking chances. You have to ask yourself, if you’re not taking any chances, are you actually even living? Every time you walk out of your door and you’re out in the world, you take a chance on not coming back. That is the danger and the dynamic of being alive.
You’ve said that you market your music and image as a brand, and you’ve compared yourself to McDonald’s. Isn’t that a dangerous comparison?
You really want to be the McDonald’s of music?
When I compare myself to McDonald’s, I mean in terms of quality and consistency and longevity and staying power. McDonald’s fries are as good as they were when I was born. As a kid, every third Sunday we would be allowed to go to McDonald’s, and it was a privilege. I would eat one French fry at a time just to savor the moment. They’re still as good today, even though I can’t eat them now ’cause I’m on a diet.
Yeah, but it’s not —
It’s exclusivity as well. When you get your mind set on a Big Mac, there’s only one place in the entire universe you can go. That’s supply and demand. If you want what I do then you’ve got to come to Cee Lo Green. Nowhere else can you get it. I will not go to Burger King looking for a Big Mac. I just wouldn’t. I know better.
But there’s a down side to that. McDonald’s can’t mess with their formula. If the Big Mac doesn’t taste like a Big Mac, people will riot in the streets.
Yeah, they will.
Isn’t that creatively limiting? If you’re the Big Mac of music, you can’t branch out and do something that doesn’t taste — or sound or whatever — like a Big Mac.
I believe that’s a lot to ask of me, to expect that I’d just do one thing.
But that’s what your analogy implies, doesn’t it? If you’re making Big Macs…
Okay, I hear what you’re saying. Maybe instead of McDonald’s, I’m a Ryan’s.
The buffet place?
Yeah. Maybe I’m a smorgasbord. Every time you visit, you can try something different. But the quality is always guaranteed. Eat as much as you want. We’ll make more.
Before I let you go, I have to ask you about Muppets.
You performed with Muppets at last year’s Grammy Awards. Were you a little disappointed that they gave you those no-name Muppets instead of the Electric Mayhem?
I came close to getting the Mayhem. See, here’s what happened. The more famous Muppets are owned by Disney, and they didn’t necessarily think at the time that it would be appropriate to associate the brand with a song like “Fuck You!” So we talked to Brian Henson, Jim’s son, and he set us up with an adult troupe of Muppets. But just before the show, Disney called us and said, “Hey, we’ve had a change of heart, and we want to be involved. Is it too late?” And it was too late.
I was this close to singing “Fuck You!” with Dr. Teeth and Animal. But we still did a great job with what we had.
It was a risk. When you’re dressed in a feather costume and performing with Muppets, there’s always a chance you’ll end up looking like an idiot.
That’s exactly why I wanted to do it. I like risks. That’s why a song like “Fuck You!” was so perfect for that moment. I was essentially saying, “Fuck what you think, fuck what you assume, fuck what you expect. I am Cee Lo Green! I am exceptional, and there’s no other way to say it!” Matter of fact, that was the best way I could have said it.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)