Reality check

I was working on a cheery best moments of 2013 post that I started last night, but I guess I never feel so motivated to write anything as when it emotionally affects me seriously.

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Today I learned that one of my long-time very favorite musical artists, Conor Oberst, has been accused of raping a teenage fan when he was in his 20s a decade ago; he has publicly denied the allegations.

I was shocked to see this news, then sickened and saddened.

Immediately, everyone seemed to be picking sides. That seems pointless to me; no one other than the alleged victim and Conor know the truth. Either way, his career as a musician is tarnished. And most likely — because OK, I’m prone to believe her accusations — some poor girl has suffered the worst possible violation of her dignity as a human being short of having her life taken from her.

I have never idolized Conor Oberst in a role model sense. He has clearly suffered from both alcoholism and drug addictions, as well as what seems to be clinical depression. Sadly, at the height of his musical career — what I would peg around 2005 with the double-release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn — he was quite a mess on stage. The guy clearly needed professional help, and no one was offering it because all of us deluded young fans thought it was “inspiring” or whatever you want to call it to see someone “suffer for their art.”

What I’m saying is that the notion of this guy being capable of rape, especially involving an infatuated 16-year-old fan, does not seem like any kind of impossibility to me.

But it is not fun having to re-imagine one of your musical idols as a monster. All across the Internet (well, OK, the strange indie-fueled hurricane that is tumblr), I keep seeing other 20-somethings sharing similar sentiments.

conorIt sounds soooo cheesy to write down, but Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst’s primary musical project) has been a huge part of life. Loving Bright Eyes in high school shaped my musical taste into what it is today: a fierce devotion to independent labels and artists, with a special soft spot for the folksy alt-country/singer-songwriter revival scene. And the boy’s a poetic genius; I still contend that. I mean, come on, “We must blend into the choir, sing as static with the whole/We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul/And in this endless race for property and privilege to be won, we must run, we must run, we must run”? I think that’s pretty clever.

I discovered Bright Eyes when I was 15, and truthfully, I’d never stopped listening to the albums. My friends and I wrote Bright Eyes lyrics on our school binders, listened to the latest singles on MySpace (MySpace!), and I even cut out a couple photos of Conor from a music magazine as part of a collage on a storage container. That I still have and use!

I have treasured every handwritten “thank you” I’ve received from Saddle Creek Records, the Omaha-based label Conor co-founded, in response to an online order. Bright Eyes songs found their way onto many a mix CD I gave to Sean when we first started dating; we contemplated “First Day of My Life” as our first dance for the wedding. A framed Bright Eyes at Radio City Music Hall poster features prominently in our living room. We must own five of the Bright Eyes album in MP3, CD, and vinyl format…and the whole catalog digitally, at least.

Bright Eyes was the quintessential mopey teenager music: hyper-emotional, hyper-sensitive, and dramatically real compared to the autotuned stuff you heard on the Top 40 radio station. Conor was again and again hyped as a “modern-day Bob Dylan”; I didn’t even know what lavish praise that was, or who Bob Dylan was really, I just knew Conor’s lyrics spoke to me in a way no music has communicated to me previously — about figuring out your own identity, wrestling with the troubling idea of the divine, the delicate balance between loneliness and self-imposed isolation. I did a lot of growing up listening to those albums. They were my companion on cross-country road trips from my hometown to college, during final exam cram sessions, and many a lazy summer afternoon.

And of course, Conor was at my first concert: Monster of Folk, an indie supergroup, at Stubb’s BBQ in Austin. And I saw Monsters of Folk again and later, for my birthday, Bright Eyes … on what was rumored to be their final tour, no less. I have a whole post of Bright Eyes-loving here. I had songs picked out that I would have to share with my future children one day and say nostalgic things like, “This is the song I listened to on repeat on the bus one snowy morning our first winter in New York that made think…” Short of having my favorite lyrics permanently etched into my skin, it’s hard to separate my life from those albums.

Maybe I care too much about music, but I feel betrayed, in some way.

I don’t think that having such allegations surface means that impact the music had on me and so many others is negated. But it is very difficult for me to separate the man fully from the music. The primary reason I was drawn to Bright Eyes is how deeply personal the songs sounded: you could hear Conor’s sighs and emotionally wavering voice (god, he had the sensitive heartbroken thing down).

I think the hardest thing about this whole ordeal for me has been realizing that as cynical as I am about our celebrity-obsessed culture and idol worship, I seem to have fallen a bit for it myself. I fear turning into a crazed, defensive fan, Michael Jackson fandom-style, rejoicing as he exits the courthouse following the “not-guilty” verdict. Apparently my weakness is not the beautiful faces that grace magazine covers, but rather, the comfortingly familiar voice coming through the headphones.

Anyhow, as a logical person and a woman, I think it’s absurd to automatically dismiss the allegations and disgusting to place the blame on a victim or brush it off as a mere cry for attention. I mean, really? Who blames a little-known singer-songwriter who is admittedly past the prime of his “popularity” (in quotes, because I know he only picked up in certain circles) for a crime that allegedly happened a decade ago…for the sake of ATTENTION? Doesn’t it seem much more plausible that a 23-year-old soaking up praise from music critics and listeners alike, visibly struggling with a number of addictions and mental illness, just might unacceptably cross a line?

You see, that’s the trouble.

Maybe I don’t like Conor Oberst so much at all. I mean, if this is all true.

But it is so hard to end a 10-year relationship.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reality check

  1. May I just give you a virtual hug? I don’t know what this feels like but I sort of imagined what music meant to Eleanor and Park and then a teenage Rebecca carrying that into adulthood and relationships/marriage and then this and I kind of want to cry with you.

    And I appreciate that you recognize there’s some reason this girl had these accusations and that we need to be concerned for her at least as much as we may be concerned for Mr. Oberst.

    And also, I found this very honest interview with Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails and some soundtrack work) really interesting and it might sort-of apply here maybe?: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/19/143834396/trent-reznor-the-fresh-air-interview

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