Bright Eyes: Our Dylan or Guevara?
Despite the righteous indignation of a large handful of the songs that Conor Oberst played Sunday night, I don’t think that he is this generation’s poet laureate, our Bob Dylan, as has been suggested since his work adopted its fervent political stance in the past year.
I think if he continues on this route, Oberst will become not our poet, but another vital figure, our revolution’s sex symbol. Our Che Guevara, if you will, his image emblazoned on T-shirts and represented in record collections despite how his message is marginalized by either his own admitted hypocrisy or the misunderstanding of his fans.
To his credit, Oberst has always been very aware and apparently tortured by the conflicted relationship between his vanity and loathing, pleasure and torment, and other such seemingly incompatible bedfellows. He has found, as many others have, that the existence of one is often tied very closely to the other. The relationship problems that often find their way onto his records seem to stem, by his own admission, primarily from his own inadequacies. Oberst is extremely sensitive but not particularly empathetic. It seems that his anguish and self-loathing are generally products of his selfishness and vanity, something that he readily admits in his lyrics.
On Sunday, upon her first real exposure to Oberst’s music, my girlfriend declared that she wanted to find the girl “who was doing this to him and beat her up,” the prototypical female sexual reaction to his music. From a male point of view, I believe that I, along with too many others, take an uncomfortable comfort in the way this reaction seems to reinforce the stereotype that if you are self-centered and emotionally distant enough, it can only draw women closer. As Oberst’s music becomes more popular and, consequently, his persona becomes more one-dimensional to the public eye, his more personal work will be increasingly misinterpreted as sexist and negative.
Whether concerned with how his fame will affect the interpretation of his personal work, hoping to use his popularity to further his political cause or even finding himself in such dire times concerned with (gasp!) larger issues than his own insecurities, Oberst has chosen to steer toward simple, powerful protest songs weaving his omnipresent personal experiences with his optimistic and inclusive political vision.
It is inspirational that Oberst’s older, long-beloved material from his first couple of records fell somewhat flat on Sunday night while these newer, more political songs rallied the crowd. In a group that boasted the fewest tattoos per capita I have seen at a concert in a long, long while, Oberst’s image and simple delivery may be essential to the reception of his message.
While after at least six years of quite extensive performance the “golly, I’m so nervous to be here” routine has lost a great deal of its charm, it may help to build a connection between the performer and his slightly younger, probably far less experienced, audience.
Oberst’s practiced demeanor may have failed to make the Crystal Ballroom an intimate enough setting for most of his more personal work, not all of his songs suffered.
I swear to god that when Oberst screamed “You said you hate my suffering” from “Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh,” a glob of spit managed to fly over the heads of 30 people to smack me right in the face, and isn’t that the very essence of power?