Trite Eyes

By

Late last month, as President Bush's approval ratings hovered near
an all-time low and the number of Iraq war dead continued to rise,
the singer- songwriter Conor Oberst came to Washington to perform
at Constitution Hall. Depending on which music critic you ask,
Oberst is "the next Bob Dylan," "the new Bob Dylan," "the indie
rock Bob Dylan," "the Bob Dylan of Generation Y," or "Dylan for the
prescription drug generation." The 25-year-old has been eliciting
plaudits ever since he was a precocious teenager in Omaha,
Nebraska, who warbled folk-tinged, verbose songs of love and
betrayal. But it was only in the last few years, after he changed
the focus of his music from teenage heartbreak to political angst,
that critics began affixing the Dylan halo to his head.In the run-up to the war, Oberst started performing a song called
"Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come," in which he hisses,
"They say we must defend ourselves. Fight on foreign soil. Against
the infidels. With the oil wells. God save gas prices." Early this
year, his band, Bright Eyes, simultaneously released two albums
whose songs dwelled heavily on the war. And, shortly after that,
Oberst put out a new single called "When the President Talks to
God." The influential Portland, Oregon, alternative paper
Willamette Week subsequently hailed it as "this young century's
most powerful protest song. "

So, without further ado, here are the opening lines of the protest
song of the century: "When the president talks to God, are the
conversations brief or long? Does he ask to rape our women's
rights? And send poor farm kids off to die? Does God suggest an oil
hike when the president talks to God?" Yes, the lyrics are that
bad, and the instrumentation--provided by a lone, off-putting
acoustic guitar--isn't much better. And then there's the problem of
Oberst's voice: It is fey and timorous, which may be good for
lamenting lost loves but is ill-suited for stopping a war.

Although some excitable critics have likened "When the President
Talks to God" to Dylan's early protest songs, such comparisons
serve only to highlight Oberst's shortcomings. Dylan's "A Hard
Rain's A-Gonna Fall," for instance, is not only a churning anthem
that captures the listener's attention; its lyrics are also
remarkably literate, with an opening--"Oh, where have you been, my
blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?"--that
evokes the opening of the seventeenth-century ballad "Lord Randal."
"When the President Talks to God," in contrast, is a plodding dirge
filled with cliches and juvenile put-downs; were it not for its
nasty comments about Bush, the song would amount to little more
than white noise. Where Dylan's protest songs awe and maybe even
frighten you with their power, Oberst's make you want to give him a
hug and tell him everything's going to be OK. Dylan was an angry
young man; Oberst is a whiny boy.

Some of Oberst's shortcomings can be laid at the feet of the culture
to which he's singing. Dylan both came out of--and was informed
by--his travels in New Left circles, which enabled his music to
strike a deep and immediate chord with the countercultural youth
movement that, in the early '60s, was in the midst of being formed.
As Todd Gitlin explained in his book The Sixties, "Dylan sang for
us: we didn't have to know he had hung out in Minneapolis's
dropout- nonstudent radical scene in order to intuit that he had
been doing some hard traveling through a familiar landscape. We
followed his career as if he were singing our song; we got in the
habit of asking where he was taking us next." Today, because there
is no draft--and hence no powerful motivation like self- interest
to serve as an organizing principle--there is no broad-based
antiwar or countercultural youth movement to influence Oberst, much
less to look to his music for anything more profound than
entertainment.

But, even if there were such an audience, it's unlikely that
Oberst's words would be sufficient to reach it in the same way that
Dylan's words resonated with people in the '60s. As Dylan
demonstrated, a good protest song is not simply political, nor is
it narrowly confined to the issue that it's protesting. The best
protest songs provide historical and artistic context for an
alternative worldview and, in doing so, give legitimacy and a
powerful sense of inevitability to the protest; even if the target
of the protest never hears the actual song, he's ultimately unable
to ignore its message and the followers that message inspires. "A
Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"--which Dylan wrote during the Cuban
missile crisis--never specifically mentions war. Instead, it uses
apocalyptic imagery--"I've stepped in the middle of seven sad
forests, I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. ... I saw a
black branch with blood that kept drippin', I saw a room full of
men with their hammers a-bleedin'"--to convey the horrors of war
and, in the process, transcends its topic. As David Hajdu wrote in
his book Positively Fourth Street, the song "provoke[s] feeling and
thought as well as action."

The only thing that's provocative about Oberst's celebrated protest
song is its insults. "When the president talks to God, do they
drink near beer and go play golf?" Oberst sings. "When he kneels
next to the presidential bed, does he ever smell his own bullshit?"
Indeed, "When the President Talks to God" is so literal and narrow
in its concerns--with its talk of "women's rights" and "voter
fraud" and "which convicts should be killed, where prisons should
be built and filled"--that it hardly differs from the anti-Bush
screeds you might read in a magazine or a newspaper. Far from being
a lasting commentary, it's utterly ephemeral.

At a basic level, then, Oberst is less a protest singer than an
editorialist. And, when he performed at Constitution Hall last
month, he took advantage of his proximity to the White House to do
plenty of editorializing. According to The Washington Post, Oberst
introduced one song with the explanation that the tune was "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." And, when
Oberst came out for his encore, he played "When the President Talks
to God." Before launching into the song, Oberst made an
announcement. "I want to wake up the [expletive] who sleeps across
the street," he said. Alas, as the Post noted, Bush was in Asia at
that moment. But, even if he had been home, it's certain that the
president, much as he ignores the newspapers, would have paid the
singer absolutely no mind.

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