Bright Eyes and Brilliant Commentary

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Nov 21, 2005 10:41 AM

Bright Eyes performed in D.C. this weekend. Bright Eyes is the stage name for 20-something musician Conor Oberst and his back-up musicians. Oberst is a luminary of the mopey music crowd. His lyricism makes him a respected indie musician; his matted hair and sensitive, kicked-puppy eyes make him an unlikely, skinny heartthrob.

I saw Bright Eyes perform in Germany in 2001. Oberst was good, if a little gloomy for my taste. He has a lot of things going for him. One of them is not his grasp of complex political issues.

In the Post's write-up of Bright Eyes' Friday performance, we find that "Oberst's lyrical concerns aren't limited to gloomy personal issues...(He's) also developing a powerful political voice." Oh, but which way does he lean? The suspense is killing me.

"I haven't played this song much lately because it started feeling like shooting fish in a barrel," Oberst said as he stood alone onstage at the beginning of the encore. But, he said, "I want to wake up the [expletive] who sleeps across the street." Thus Oberst began singing the virulent "When the President Talks to God," punctuating the caustic lyrics ("When the president talks to God/Does he ever think that maybe he's not?" ) by emphatically strumming his acoustic guitar.

But Conor has more to teach the youth of America:

Earlier in the show, there was also this: "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)," which Oberst introduced as a number "about a protest that happened in New York right before we went to war for no . . . reason. No, that's not true: We're at war so rich people can be richer. And poor people can be poorer. Or dead."

I have no problem with Oberst voicing his opinions (though I'm sure many of his politically neutral and conservative fans would prefer he just sing), but must we pretend they're profound or new or interesting? Discussion of Oberst's political views and statements take up half of the article, throughout which his voice is referred to as "powerful," "impassioned" and "hopelessly brilliant."

Actually, Oberst's comments (particularly that last one) are downright ridiculous. And, if the Post's writer thinks they're important enough to spend half the article writing about, why aren't they also important enough to ask Oberst to explain and defend? For instance, "In what way, Mr. Oberst, do you believe the war is designed to make money for rich people and to kill poor people, and do you believe those goals are the intention of U.S. policies in Iraq?"

Now, an answer to that question would be interesting, but the standing policy among music journalists is that the political views of left-leaning lyricists are always worthy of being copied verbatim, but never questioned. For reference, see Bruce Springsteen on NPR.

Can anyone remember the last time Toby Keith or Clint Black was referred to as an "impassioned," "powerful political voice?" Then there's Johnny Ramone, whose position as lifelong Republican and legendary symbol of punk rock warrants only one paragraph in his NYT obituary, despite the fact that an iconic, conservative punk-rocker is a bit more of a story than yet another emo kid who hates President Bush.

From another Post music journalist, who did a chat with readers during CMA week, we learn that the right-leaning country music industry is not home to "powerful political voices" like Oberst's, but home to squelchers of liberal expression:

Burke, Va.:...Do you think country music will accept the [Dixie] Chicks and other artists that are outspoken liberals or will they continue to be blacklisted? Won't that hurt country music in the long term, artistically if not by numbers of fans?

Bill Friskics-Warren: I'm with you re: the Chicks, and likewise appreciate their outspokenness and where they're coming from politically. Word has it that Tim McGraw is a democrat, and Merle Haggard has lately spoken out against the war in Iraq. All of which is to say that there are more left-leaning people in the country music industry--especially among record execs and other behind the scenes folks in the business--than most people think. The trouble is, these liberal voices aren't the loudest and their messages tend to be subtler--and thus harder to get across--than those who identify more with the right. A group here called Music Row Democrats has sought to address this perception, and to elevate the level of political discourse within the industry, but I'm not sure how effective they've has been.

Let's hope they don't "elevate" the discourse to Oberst's level. If that message is "subtle," then Toby Keith is a modern-day Faulkner.