Conor Oberst is a lot like Stephenie Meyer. Both created insular worlds that were (and remain):
- Focused on bringing to light the predation of forces that were forces in the first place primarily to control the people who would invariably (and loudly) demand changes to those forces because the forces seemed to be unimpeachable and thus, around forever—which would then, of course.
- Result in more texts from the writers who constructed the worlds that were pointed at the activity that now needed to be fixed, which…
- Divided the literary and musical worlds of audiences that felt a part of something meaningful during a time in their lives that meaning was important.
In Twilight, it was (and is) the conditioning of a generation of girls who came to understand the conditions as being a balance of flimsy female gender performance that would, hopefully, one day, be recognized as okay if only that performance manifested itself, at least once, in bossing around a vampire (in other words, if a stereotype acted like the right stereotype, that stereotype would be recognized by another stereotype as workable, but only if the first stereotype was able to get appropriately masculine, if only for a second).
For Conor Oberst, it’s always been capitalism; capitalism in different forms (immigration reform, the neoliberalizing of “intellectual” discourse, desire, etc.), but always capitalism. In his various incarnations (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk, Mystic Valley Band, solo), Conor Oberst has always written a kind of call-to-arms to fix America’s (and Americans’) fetishizing of economic upward mobility, and Oberst has always (at least by the sect of his audience that looks to him for the answers) made it a point to make it clear that his art is capable of doing that.
But what has happened to both Meyer and Oberst is that their art, rather than galvanizing audiences to make their desired textual activism somewhat universal, has divided readers and listeners. People hate them (people love them, of course, but it is public enmity and especially public mocking that halts activism, and quickly). The hatred both writers provoke is due to popularity and especially the way that both Meyer and Oberst have so fundamentally changed the experience of consuming their art. In many ways, Oberst is one of the primary reasons that indie music (this is arguable, but not that arguable) became another way of saying music that smart people must buy to be seen as smart by other people who think they’re smarter than you—in other words, Oberst fundamentally changed the way people found music that many people think should have forever stayed underground—in other other words, Bright Eyes bore Pitchfork (and people hate Pitchfork).
Meyer, in a similar kind of way, absolutely changed the way young readers were allowed to read Young Adult fiction, because now bookstores all over the world must have a section for Paranormal Romance and Paranormal Romance is just another way of saying derivation of Bella. You can’t read a YA novel anymore without knowing that novels in a post-Twilight world were written in many ways because of Twilight; and that makes a lot of people very, very mad, because it limits the way audiences can choose how to consume art. What happens as a result is that the fandoms of these kinds of texts become vocally and often aggressively protective of the texts as a way to take some control of the rhetoric that the people (aggressively) dismissing the text as trite (or worse) likewise think they should control. So when texts call for activism while being surrounded by this divisiveness (and all of Oberst’s records do), the activism becomes insular, and it is activism about the text that is calling for activism. In other words, the activity is seen in the form of protection of art from outside sources who want to diminish the art that called for global activism in the first place. You can see this happening at any Oberst show. They are spaces for Oberst fans to scream activism (led by a maestro on a low stage) to each other. It’s a problem.
Oberst shows in whatever form are largely made up of men and women who have some kind of (maybe, probably genuine) interest in the musical possibilities of (what people once knew as American postmodern) literature. It’s an uncommon way to situate a band that is, by Oberst’s repeated admission, interested in changes to an evil populace, because those changes can only happen if readers/ listeners are a large enough body to show the force necessary to make changes felt. Oberst’s records are dense, sometimes profoundly so, and that density delimits (on purpose) the accessibility of the art that calls for no limits to its reach.
So it’s a conundrum that Oberst has always had—his music is consumed by an audience who know that they, the audience, can actually understand the lyrics written by a guy who is at times a linguistic savant, and this in turn makes the audience proud of that fact in and of itself. We are all very, very smart; and we know it. So who has time for activism when there are so many (long, polysyllabic subtitled) books to be read?
Conor Oberst has created a world for himself and for his listeners that is about positionality—the us versus the not us the we are at the top of something and you don’t understand tops because you’re down there and no I will not even try to explain how to get up here because it’s too late in the game there are too many albums to explain to you now and see you should have listened a decade ago when I said this kid is gonna be something big I mean Rolling Stone compared him to Dylan what more did you need just keep listening to Nirvana it doesn’t mean anything anymore anyway I don’t know why it just doesn’t I have a graduate degree so I know this is about mythos look it up.
It’s a hyper-real commentary on the consumer’s (the consumer of activism) singular (but shared, always shared) notion of his or her own self-importance within a highly mediated subculture of literary (what was once called indie rock) semiotics (Conor has long hair now, and he has to). It is a semiotics that Conor Oberst largely invented during a time post-Pavement when a new generation of readers who might have borrowed Wowee Zowee from a neighbor then said huh? needed a text, a material artifact around which they, the new generation of readers, could gather to form some kind of important statement about a world that they would shortly think they were in charge of (the rhetorics of youth demand a gathering of those who want to lead, feel entitled to leadership, at least insofar as (angry) rhetorical leadership means anything).
In other words, when (especially) Conor Oberst released Lifted (as Bright Eyes), we were raw from 9/11, we were angry, we were young, and we were actively determined to become less passive in the face of agreed upon targets (so, so many targets), and Conor Oberst was there to lead the way. On Lifted, he sang about the meaninglessness of citizenship because, as has become commonly ideological over these last couple of decades (Conor’s deep investment in graduate school literary theory on Lifted helped his deification within this discourse), “we are all the same, it’s just language.” Then came his screams.
When Oberst released Read Music/Speak Spanish as punk outfit Desaparecidos in 2002, it was absolutely necessary. At that point, Oberst already had a growing army of listeners conditioned to believe in a brand of lyrical articulation pointed directly at institutional prejudices—Bright Eyes had released a number of albums that, by 2002, gave Oberst a cultish position within the indie folk rock hierarchy that allowed him to do pretty much whatever he wanted, so long as he delivered songs that dripped a learned kind of pathos that forced multiple listenings in order to understand the gravity of his aesthetic and message.
So when Desaparecidos released the album it was shocking, and the album is still shockingly great. The songs, particularly ‘Greater Omaha,’ ‘Mall of America,’ ‘The Happiest Place on Earth,’ and ‘Survival of the Fittest/It’s a Jungle Out There’ said to listeners: go there and fix it. They were targeted, and they were specific, prescriptive, demanding that consumers of Oberst’s art knew that he was about something bigger than his art, so go and do some damage, guy. Each song on the album, while nodding to the requisite amount of apathy in any “active” movement, saw the possibilities in removing the qualifiers of punctuation to get a place that transcended passivity. Read Music/Speak Spanish is, at its heart, Oberst’s most optimistic album because it came out when optimism was a lost art, when irony was only beginning to become the privileged lens through which to view the world.
As a result, the album remains fixed in that time, a cultural artifact in the truest sense of the term artifact. So really, Desaparecidos’ new album, Payola, was a gamble in that Read Music/Speak Spanish was (and is) ostensibly meant for a highly specific group of people—for new activists during a time when activism (political, social, gender, environmental, somewhat homogenized as one thing) was needed most. At the same time, anything Oberst releases (and this has been true since at least Lifted) is at least halfway consumed as a part of the Oberst mythology, the insular mythology that inevitably comes with a vocal, divided, and sometimes belligerently loyal fandom (I among them, as I have three Bright Eyes tattoos), and then whatever’s left is consumed as an actual record. And since Read Music/Speak Spanish was so beloved (fans of Oberst often compare it to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album that is almost too perfect), it was a risk for Oberst to revisit the band (he absolutely knows this is the case, thus the waiting over a decade for new material). At the same time, now more than at any time since 9/11, young audiences are desperate for a voice of active social leadership in the form of a rock god, and Desaparecidos has always been the band within indie circles to have answers to questions about appropriate activism. So it was natural, it seems, for the band to release a new album.
And Payola was worth the wait. It’s an amazing piece of art, and it absolutely belongs at or near the top of the Oberst canon. But if the intertextuality of the cover art (erasure in poetics) of the album means anything at all, it means that everything we might have once known about this band is gone, erased; and it can only make sense when viewed within the larger scope of the Oberst mythos—lyrics placed on top of other lyrics and fused with others, here and then here, back to then and now then but not then. Desaparecidos’ call for activism has gone from a desire for direct action to an acceptance that listening to Oberst’s music is in itself a kind of activism, and that is maybe the best we can hope for now—to surround ourselves, as fans, with the commonality of interest that fandom perpetuates—to, while listening to Desaparecidos, realize how bad things are out there, so why don’t we just scream about it for the next hour or so; there’s something profound in that, but also something sort of empty.
On ‘The Underground Man,’ Oberst sings “You were calling out from the underground/You had lots of big ideas/but no one can hear them now/They riddled you with guilt;” and that’s how we all feel, isn’t it? And not just Oberst/Desaparecidos fans, but fans of most forms of art that hope for activism. It usually doesn’t work, because it’s hard to be active when that desired activism sprung from spaces that now seem illusory: the grand idea of global or national change depends upon a fairly gigantic amount of people all thinking the same way (mostly) at the same time, thrust outwardly in a common display of social and political desire. That’s just not as possible anymore, or as wanted—social media being (obviously) largely to blame, as Oberst makes clear on Payola. When that realization hits home, it leads to guilt, and guilt over time manifests as apathy, back to guilt, more apathy. Payola explores these traces of disinterest as seen in the very people who showed the most interest in change when Read Music/Speak Spanish was released; and for that reason Payola is, without question, the most interesting piece of art that Oberst has ever written. It’s an album about the result of the inactivity that the band’s previous album hoped for. Desaparecidos is singing about its own failure, and Oberst is, as expected, kind of indifferent about it—it’s just something that happened. On ‘The Left is Right,’ he sings that “change is hit or miss,” and that fact is proven again and again, every day in America—so what to do with that information? Oberst here seems to suggest that the recognition of that fact, that it is hit or miss, is change; and he’s right. It’s all abstraction (well, mostly all, except for a couple of songs; ‘MariKKKopa’ being the most obvious nod to the band of old), and that is not the Desaparecidos we’ve long known. But it’s not a problem, because they are a band that has always been the aggressive arm of Oberst, and that is still here, on this album. Payola is basically a loud Bright Eyes album that plumbs the depths of the consequences of ego in its search for a soul, and Oberst still knows his meaning in all of this, as bandleader to a mass of searchers, of the Nietzscheans, the wannabe Marxists.
On ‘Backsell,’ the song that is most representative of Oberst’s acceptance of his own untouchability in the what he seems to know as the Bright Eyes-centric micro-economy of subcultural indie pop, Oberst makes it clear that bitterness toward markets is okay, but only okay so long as the result of that bitterness means that you can still make a somewhat genuine form of art, and Desaparecidos is that form for Oberst. And that untouchability is what makes his delivery of lyrics so potent—their potency is what created the divisive world that the Oberst army protects with so much vigor—which in turn, if only for a moment, makes people believe in what art could do if things were different, if social forces didn’t make it so difficult to offer real solutions for change. And Payola has that in droves in songs like ‘Ralphy’s Cut’ (health care), ‘Search the Searches’ (American surveillance), and ‘10 Steps Behind’ (predatory gender roles).
But, more than anything, it is an album that addresses the inevitability of the unbreakable walls surrounding the issues Oberst made clear were there to be broken on Read Music/Speak Spanish. In other words, as he sings on ‘Slacktivist,’ “Just ‘like’ this and the problem is solved/I want to start to kick back and get involved/Everyone is selfless it’s so much fun/Donate a dollar with my coffee and save someone/Calling all friends I loosely know/We’re a tight knit clique in the virtual.” So no, we are not “anonymous”; we are at best mere fans; at worst Conor Oberst supplicants. And that’s okay, because when the result is an album like Payola, there seems to be only thing left to do if one wants change, and that’s to remain quiet. And listen.
Follow Brandon on Twitter: @bhernsberger