Tag Archives: Conor Oberst

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.


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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Musical forever-favorites, and new ones, too

I’m going to write a random music-related post this evening. I was listening to Bright Eyes earlier today at work, and realized it had been a while since I visited their music. Bright Eyes is one of my forever-favorite bands. What I mean by that is I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of them. Since Bright Eyes — which, let’s face it, is just singer-songwriter Conor Oberst and his accompanying musicians — has been producing music since Conor was in high school, there’s a song or an album for ever stage in life, every mood, from angsty to mellow to joyous.

My beloved Conor O. I’ve confessed to Sean multiple times that this is the only other human being on earth I’d want to marry. He seemed to be OK with this truth.

I remember the first Bright Eyes song I ever listened to. I was a freshman in high school, and I noticed some interesting lyrics handwritten on my friend Annie’s binder: So I’ll keep working on the problem I know we’ll never solve/Of love’s uneven remainders/Our lives are fractions of a whole. And I asked her about it. She told me it was from the song “Bowl of Oranges” by a band called Bright Eyes. I went home that night and listened to it on the Bright Eyes MySpace page (ha, MySpace!).

I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, I purchased the Lifted CD from which that song and those lyrics originated. Bright Eyes’ dual 2005 releases of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning followed shortly thereafter. I listened to them on endless cycles of repeat, memorized the lyrics, and had them running on a memory loop throughout my high school days.

It might sound cliche, but that music changed me. It wasn’t foreign, because Conor — being an Omaha boy himself — incorporates many of the same classic folksy instruments I grew up hearing on the popular country music radio stations my parents love. The acoustic guitars, the fiddles, the slight twang was all there. But at the same time, it was like nothing else I’d ever heard before.

First off, Conor couldn’t sing very well. At least, not in the traditional sense (he knows this, see lyrics from “Road to Joy”: “I could have been a famous singer, if I had someone else’s voice/But failure’s always sounded better”). In fact, this unique trait combined with his phenomenal song-writing skills have led him to be declared a modern-day Bob Dylan by more than one music journalist. His singing was always raw, unrefined and fraught with emotion. It felt unproduced; more importantly, it felt real.

And the lyrics? Some are tongue-in-cheek, some harrowing, all are honest. And almost all of them are quotable, too, which is how you know they’re really good. I can credit Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes for introducing me to the wonderful world of indie rock — more specifically, the singer-songwriter folk revival movement. And I never want to leave. There’s just something so wonderful about talented, slightly troubled individuals making music, making art because they can’t imagine living life in any other way. It’s not about selling albums or concert tickets, so much as expressing oneself with the feeble hope that you’ll provide a little more clarity to someone else’s life. I love that.

I have now seen Conor Oberst perform three times live, all in Austin: twice with the supergroup Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and M. Ward of, well, M. Ward — how could you go wrong with that combination?!?) at Stubb’s and ACL, and again for a Bright Show at Stubb’s. That last show, which was a 22nd birthday present, is something I will never forget.

Here’s a photo I took of Conor Oberst and M. Ward performing in Monsters of Folk at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2010.

Of all of the Bright Eyes albums (and I have 10 of them!), I think I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is my absolute favorite. I love it as much now at 23 as I did when I was 16 and it first came out. I think it has extra-special meaning in my life now: Conor wrote the album chronicling his life and thoughts when he moved from Nebraska to the East Village in Manhattan. All of the stories relate in some way to morning: morning as a beginning, and morning as an ending. Conor Oberst was 24 years old at the time of recording it.

I’m Wide Awake perfectly captures a place and time in Oberst’s life. It chronicles his first memories of staying in New York City, and the metropolis rarely gets a folk singer to chronicle its streets this lucidly, at least since the hootenanny days; he frequents its parties and stumbles down its streets like a midwestern transplant instead of a jaded hipster, sings about chemical dependency and the endless pains of love, while capturing as a backdrop the build-up to a foreign war. I’m Wide Awake weaves the personal and the political more fluidly than most singers even care to try, and the consummate tunefulness just strengthens those moments where he pinches a nerve– the songs that still give me chills every time, like “At the Bottom of Everything”: “Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair/ We must stare, we must stare, we must stare.” (from the Pitchfork review)

The beautiful album art for I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

I’m sure part of the reason I love this album so much isn’t just about the musicality of it; it’s also about the memories I have behind it. I included the song “First Day of My Life” on the first mix CD I ever burned for Sean, when we were just friends. We even considered it for our first dance at our wedding (and with lyrics like “Yours is the first face that I saw/I think I was blind before I met you/Now I don’t know where I am/I don’t know where I’ve been/but I know where I want to go,” can you really blame us?), but we ultimately decided against it because it’s a folk song and we couldn’t figure out how to slow-dance to it in any sort of rehearsed manner. I did manage to incorporate a Bright Eyes song title into the title of my honeymoon photos album on Facebook (“June on the (North)West Coast”).

I hope I still love this album as much when I’m 63 as I do at 23. I hope it always reminds me of what it was like to figure out life while living in the Big City, and reminds me that it’s OK to never fully figure it out.

And who knows? Maybe we’ll even have the “modern-day Conor Oberst” by then. One can only hope.

To conclude, a YouTube video of one of my favorite Bright Eyes songs from that album. Please listen to it if you get a chance, or better yet listen to the whole album on Spotify for free. Or best, buy the album , and support  some musicians!

“Poison Oak”:

Since we’re on the topic of music, I finished reading Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist yesterday. So cute! And what a fun experiment in collaborative writing — a female author wrote every-other chapter from Norah’s perspective, and a male author wrote the others from Nick’s point of view.

And I am able to relive on the of the MOST FUN musical experiences of my life through YouTube: Grouplove performing “Colours” at Terminal 5 last Friday night. I was there! I found confetti on my person for the remainder of the weekend. This was a fantastic show. I mean, it began with the members running out on stage to Kanye West’s “Monster” and ended with CONFETTI! Could it get any better?

No, no, it does not. (To make things even better, I watched Gossip Girl that weekend, and they played Grouplove’s “Slow” during a wedding scene. It redeemed the scene show for its utter soap opera-quality.)


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