Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Taste Has Never Met Shame: I Love You, Conor Oberst!

Seven or eight years ago, when I wasn’t yet old enough to feel embarrassed about it, I saw Conor Oberst play at a bar downtown. Before he went onstage—a stage that was really just a foot-high platform with a stool—he sat drinking in a booth with some friends. Having been drinking myself, I made my way to his table, where I stood as if I were a waiter, and, realizing too late that I ought never to have come over at all, I sputtered some combination of the words love and music and so much. He gave me a much friendlier look than I deserved, signed a scrap of paper for me, and turned away, mortified on my account.

My shame that night was of a particular, botched-encounter variety, but in the years since, the feeling has broadened into something more general, until it’s become one of the main emotions I associate with his music. Sometimes I think there ought to be a coat of arms for all of us who listen to Oberst's band Bright Eyes past the age of twenty-six. WITH LOVE AND SHAME, the motto would read. The handwriting would be the cramped and tortured scribble of a high school freshman.

At various points in the past few years—when, at more recent of his concerts, I’ve felt, amidst the mascara-streaked faces, like a childless man lingering at the edge of a playground—I’ve imagined that my love for Conor Oberst was finally preparing to die a respectable death. But lately, as I’ve been waiting for his new album, checking Amazon a couple of times a day to see if, by some freak accident, it’s slipped into the world early, I’ve given up. Years from now, when I’m wandering through life bald and L.L. Bean-jacketed, I’ll probably still be listening to him tremulously describing his beloved high school girlfriend combing her hair, and I’ll probably still be both ashamed and covered with goosebumps. But why the shame? And, come to think of it, why the goosebumps?

The long version of an explanation for my love would include defensive references to Elliott Smith and Bob Dylan, as well as an anxious discussion of his surprising way with lyrics, his disarming voice, his shockingly steady output (ten-plus albums, beginning when he was fifteen) and a dozen other things.

The shorter and more honest version, though, would amount to not much more than: play “Light Pollution” starting at about 2:10 and listen for at least thirty seconds. Does that part at 2:26 when his voice kind of lifts off from the line he’d been singing, as if some booster-rocket of emotion had deployed, do anything for you? If so, I’ll see you at Radio City in March.

If not—or if what it does for you is akin to what a bite of Thai food does for someone with the cilantro-hating gene—then no amount of argumentation is going to convince you. Not for you is my insistence that his last few albums are actually considerably less mawkish than his early ones, or that his satisfyingly screamy side-project Desaparecidos is worth a listen. Oberst is one of those musicians that some people hate in a visceral, biological way. From his first albums, in which he sounds like someone’s clinically depressed little brother who’s gotten hold of an answering machine, to “Lua,” that weirdly successful single from a couple of years ago in which he sings “I know that it is freezing” in a voice so fragile that it sounds as if he may himself freeze like a baby bird left out in the snow, these people find him not just bad but laughable and somehow offensive. Do his eyes really need to look quite so wide and unguarded in almost every photograph? Couldn’t he at least brush his hair out of his face?

And the thing is, I don’t need to look outside myself for a person who feels this way. The eye-rolls are coming from inside the house. This is the peculiar burden and shame of the no-longer-young Bright Eyes lover: within him is a Bright Eyes hater, only he can’t be heard over the shouts of “I love you, Conor!” coming from upstairs. I know very well that to admit to loving Bright Eyes is to admit to having an overgrown brain region devoted to self-pity, sentimentality, regret and a handful of other not very appealing emotional states.

And yet: there’s no musician I love more. “A Line Allows Progress…” is the kind of song that Macaulay Culkin might sing if The Good Son were ever turned into a Broadway musical, but that part at 1:05 when his voice wobbles on “stumble ‘round the neighborhood…” has been, on dozens of cold afternoons when I’m running errands ‘round the neighborhood, more dear to me than my winter coat. “First Day of My Life” is, in its way, as syrupy as any Michael Bublé serenade, but it happens to be a syrup perfectly engineered to flood my emotional circuit-board.

This stubbornness of taste is one of the things, as I approach thirty, that I’m learning to accept. Our senses of taste couldn’t care less about our carefully plotted visions for ourselves. I would love to love Saul Bellow, but by page fifty of Herzog, something within me has wandered into another room. Taste doesn’t work for reason; reason is a skinny underpaid clerk in the office of taste. Taste occasionally dumps a heap of papers on reason’s desk and says: Here! I like Face/Off but hate both Nicholas Cage and John Travolta! Explain that! And so reason stays late constructing tenuous arguments, while taste goes home to watch "King of Queens."

But here, anyway, is one of the arguments my reason has come up with while my taste has been counting down the days until "The People’s Key": we ought to be grateful to Conor Oberst for daring to be so embarrassing.

It must feel bizarre, at almost thirty-one, looking out from the stage each night and seeing this ocean of loving adolescent faces. He must be tempted to make an album that wouldn’t occasion such goo, something cold and brainy or something soulless and slick, anyway something that wouldn’t have so much of his own feeling in it. But year after year, album after album, he puts his undisguised, quavering self on public display.

And that takes a weird kind of bravery, in a culture like ours. Look at the Huffington Post or TMZ or Gawker. Look at the percentage of stories that are about people getting SMACKED DOWN or BUSTED or HUMILIATED IN A LIVE INTERVIEW, or else are about people falling on their faces (sometimes literally) or being photographed at inopportune moments. Think how bad it feels, being laughed at. Feel how tempting it must be, as a musician, to pull your head back into your shell and record an album of electronic trance music that Pitchfork would give a 9.4.

But enough with reason.

Nabokov, in one of his many smart and crabby lectures, said that the only important organ for evaluating an artist is the stretch of flesh between the shoulder-blades. “That little shiver,” he said, “is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained.”

Well, going solely by the flesh between my shoulder-blades, Conor Oberst has been the most important artist of my adult life. More important than Alice Munro, more important than Philip Roth, more important than the Beatles, the Coen brothers, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Updike, Joyce, Nabokov himself—these giants, these heads on Mount Rushmore, these warranters of two-full-page-obituaries, have each caused me fewer moments of neck-hair-raising bliss than a sulky, elfin, musically undistinguished guitar-playing kid from Omaha. My frontal lobe may as well get used to it.

Ben Dolnick lives in New York. His new novel, You Know Who You Are, comes out in March.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

saythatscool (#101)

Your frontal lobe may get used to it, but trust me, your vagina's never going to get used to getting kicked by random strangers for liking Little Blue Smurf Boy.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Thank you for writing this.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I love Desaparecidos ("Survival of the Fittest"!!!!) and I thought this piece was very beautiful too.

kleptopaul (#9,361)

Potentially Jewish white dude likes tons of other (mostly male) white artists and thinks his derivative tastes are interesting enough to be listed on a website besides Facebook and okcupid. He deigns to include Conor Oberst in this thoroughly uninspired taxonomy and somehow convinces other white people somebody will read his novels.


boyofdestiny (#1,243)

So hip.

deepomega (#1,720)

Love that there's a Kanye Bear attached to this. Meta-meta-meta.

Alex Balk (#4)

"Potentially Jewish" would be a good name for a band.

kleptopaul (#9,361)

Yeah, and this guy can team up with Gary Shteyngart and hit all the right Brooklyn spots with their unique brand of existential literary electronica filled with oblique references to Kaballah and Albanian folk tales, mayan mysticism and expensive scotch. I picture a mandolin and keyboard duo with an old drum machine. One day the bros from Das Racist will stumble into the wrong bar, look perplexed and walk out.

iantenna (#5,160)


Tully Mills (#6,486)

Potentially shitty internet commenter types too much before yawning.

ComradePsmith (#4,477)

Can we stop pretending that Pitchfork gives reflexively good reviews to actual experimental or challenging or even vaguely obscure music? Because they don't, at all. Here are the people who got above a 9 in 2010: Kanye West, Deerhunter, Big Boi, Ariel Pink, LCD Soundsystem, Joanna Newsom, Beach House.

Also: Desaparecidos is the only thing that Conor Oberst has done that's worthwhile.

John McGarry (#5,590)

The people who got above a 9 for a new album, that is. The other 16 records with 9.0+ scores are reishes. I don't quite know what, if anything this has to do with your comment (since 'Pinkerton' or 'Disintegration' hardly fall into the experimental or challenging bins either). Just another aspect of p4k raising hurrahs for safe choices while pretending to champion something more subcultural. They've begun to cover less mainstream-indie stuff lately, but those records almost always get good (if somewhat shallow) writeups, but middling scores and never a 'Best New Music'.

lbf (#2,343)

as long as they BNM everything that comes from Sweden, I'm not questioning them. Sweden rules. Except the Knife, ugh. {back to listening to Broder Daniel}

gumplr (#66)

Kiddies were streaming onto the floor from every portal, Bright-Eyed (what a fucking youth-congratulating name for a band, Katz thought) and bushless-tailed.

The bit part in Freedom probably didn't help.

jfruh (#713)

Someone here once pointed me at a fantastic Ralph Ellison quote:

What a group of people we were, I thought. Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked.

"We" here is of course black people, but this piece made me think of it. Speaking as a 36-year-old who likes Conor Oberst fine, if not with your trembling intensity, I say, enjoy it already. Not all of one's aesthetic sensibilities are meant to be measured on some complex hipness matrix.

John McGarry (#5,590)

This article is proof that at least one member of the hip city literati didn't read Freedom all the way through. God, I hated those scenes at the Bright Eyes concert.

That being said, 'Fevers & Mirrors' was one of my favorite albums in high school, and still remains rewarding. Could never really get into his later stuff though. Desaparecidos are great, but then I have a big soft spot of anthemic Midwestern emo.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I will defend to the death your right to like Conor Oberst, though I would chew my own leg off to escape one of his shows.

Asa (#1,055)

I like Bright Eyes too, and I'm a little older than Mr. Oberst himself. I've never believed in "guilty pleasures"; like what you like and don't be ashamed of it.

I'm listening to the No Doubt singles collection in the office as we speak, in fact.

Eugene Langley (#9,363)

"That part at 1:05 when his voice wobbles on “stumble ‘round the neighborhood…” has been, on dozens of cold afternoons when I’m running errands ‘round the neighborhood, more dear to me than my winter coat".

Does that mean you really like your winter coat, or?

joshc (#442)

I am feeling this all. And yet! The recent albums! You're right about their maturity. And the Mystic Rivwr band? Not to mention the redeeming Desaparacedos stuff! And do weeping teens still flock to Oberst? Didn't NPR give him a big hug and entrust him to the grown ups a few years ago?

These questions and justifications, even as I realize their lack of necessity, they still flow freely.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

Never been to a show, but I love Bright-Eyes shamelessly. I also loved the Beach House album. God, my terrible tastes! (I even like some of the Monsters Of Folk album.)

I know other people who love him shamelessly and we all get together and talk about our emotions and have honest conversations. It's quite disgusting really.

Maybe Bright-Eyes and Ke$ha could do a collaboration? Who needs honesty when you can have a HIT SINGLE!?!?!

Tania (#9,400)

I love this story and I love the recent albums. Love love love. Conor Oberst is one of the best songwriters of our time. SORRY.

ninaignaczak (#9,428)

Love this! I'm worse than you. I didn't start listening to Conor until a couple of years ago, when I was 34! I randomly picked up I'm Wide Awake its Morning and I felt like my heart was going to leap out of my chest. It was like what I imagine the first shot of heroin, or hit of crack, to feel like. His lyrics and voice induce a visceral feeling- shivers, goosebumps, all of it.

Emily Dickinson said: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

That is what his music is- poetry.

brighteyes_311 (#79,173)

Thank You for this article. I have always felt that no one should be apologetic for the music that they enjoy, since that is what music is for. With that being said I love Bright Eyes shamelessly and am 26 now. I have loved the music/lyrics since 16. Just saw them live for the first time this weekend. Just to point out, at the show I saw no teens mostly 20-30 something’s and a handful of adults. It was amazing, almost surreal. Yes the words are often sad, but life isn’t a pop song. His voice is raw, honest, soul shaking, untouched by auto tuners and such. His voice is incredible. It is much easier to sing about the fluff of life but to speak what you feel, know, believe, ect takes guts and to share it with world… wow. I am surprised that the age of a fan would have anything to do with the music, never occurred to me that there is a timestamp on this. His voice is awkward and off but perfect in every way. Just sit and listen. The words can truly touch you if you let them. Conor isn't afraid to say things that make people feel uncomfortable. It makes him an amazing singer, songwriter, poet, artist, ect. There is a big difference between hearing his music and LISTENING to it. So listen.

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