Though Conor Oberst has been releasing albums as Bright Eyes for seven years, I’m probably not alone among those born before the Reagan era to be hearing him for the first time, impelled by the hype supernova (spanning from a New Yorker think-piece to covetous fawning in Billboard over his singles’ sales to the cover of Rolling Stone) into discovering the “best pure songwriter of the moment”. All this likely leads new listeners to be a bit suspicious. The more hype you hear, the harder it becomes not to dismiss his records out of hand. Expecting the voice of a generation, you’re much more likely to hear in his tortured vibrato only so much adenoidal pretentiousness. After reading that Oberst is the new Dylan, you’re much more likely to be underwhelmed by his coming-of-age tales of a flowering hipster.
In other words, it takes effort to remove his music from its marketing context and hear what it really sounds like. But it’s not clear whether this is even possible, even desirable. Despite Oberst’s melodic gifts and his way with a florid metaphor, his music is essentially beside the point of what he signifies. Listening to the new Bright Eyes albums, it’s primarily his media persona—his tweener-prodigy history (he started writing and performing when he was thirteen), his reputation as the emo standard-bearer, his cult of personality among fawning teenage girls, his emotional authenticity and unflinching sincerity, his handsomeness, his youth—that we’re hearing, and not the actual, specific sound of his music. Moreover, it may be that more satisfaction can be had from consuming his personality than his songs as songs.
In his classic study of modern American personality, The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman suggests that as Americans have become more “other-directed”, their consumption has become more thoroughly socialized. That is, we consume in order to be noticed consuming by others at least as much as we consume for our own sake and our sense of ourselves is bound up in what we consume and what others think of it. In this regard, pop music is crucial; it maps out subcultural boundaries more efficiently than virtually any other commodity. As Reisman points out in The Lonely Crowd, “tunes mean people: roads to people, remembrances of them.” Inevitably, this reshapes the meaning of musical taste: Pop music taste is not about notes and melodies and rhythms. It’s not even about sound. It’s about personal relationships and how well a song can evoke them. To Reisman, this means that we’ve become much more interested in songs that suggest a relationship to its performer than songs that can stand independently (a sea change from the days when popular music meant anonymous big-bands touring the country playing a shared repertoire of established standards).
Consequently, we’ve become very interested in a singer’s sincerity. The more real, the more emotionally vulnerable he seems, the more we can sympathize with him and feel as though a human relationship takes place as the music pipes through the headphones that seal us off from the people around us. Oberst, routinely depicted in the current media blitz as “wearing his heart on his sleeve”, clearly exploits this. And on record, Oberst comes on like the culmination of the sincerity fixation; every single track of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is in first-person, with many details apparently torn directly from Oberst’s recent move to New York. Many are recorded to simulate a first-take intimacy, including an opening monologue on “At the Bottom of Everything” where he pointedly pauses mid-sentence to take a drink and strays in and out of microphone range. The hushed admissions of loneliness, the strung-out confessions of drug abuse, the unpredictable mood swings, from desperation to ferocity to ennui—all this potently conveys honesty, particularly to a fresh audience unaccustomed to his voice and the emo genre’s set formulas for signifying deep feeling.
Everyone knows what “real” sincerity feels like, thus everyone feels qualified to judge and/or enjoy the work of someone whose main achievement is conveying sincerity. It’s a completely democratic aesthetic, one that requires no special training and one that can’t be questioned. Being sincere is an art that anyone can understand, teenagers (who are morbidly fixated on the problem of how to be honest in a capitalist world of institutionalized dishonesty) especially. But what is “sincere” is similar to what is “real”—though it seems universal and immutable, it’s always in fact contextual, always a matter of what is being rejected to define it. And thus any sincerity/reality purveyor has a brief shelf life, as some new way to signify sincerity or realness will come along on schedule and obviate him. This suits the people who make money on music just fine; it keeps the wheels of novelty spinning. But inevitably, when what one wants out of music is sincerity of feeling, one will always have to keep buying new records, because old ones will inevitably begin to sound conventional, formalized, and thus false.
Right now, Oberst attracts a lot of attention that alienates potential new listeners because it seems in bad faith: He’s praised for his talent and his writing, but clearly this is only because he’s handsome and he so readily symbolizes a newly marketable component of youth as its presently reconfiguring itself. He is the new “young” and he must certainly be coming to realize that this is what the whole “voice of a generation” tag is all about. He’s not saying anything for his generation, but he’s affording a stylistic language, verbal and visual, that marketers can use to speak to them and about them to those older generations who desperately want to cling to what it felt like to be young, the very thing Oberst so compellingly conveys.
If Oberst is smart, if he wants his songwriter reputation to last, he will start to undermine his own image with a vengeance, and betray and confuse his teenybopper exegetes. This would send the message that he was no longer “young” and had instead become “difficult,” the way popular culture likes its true artists. Perhaps when his persona becomes inscrutable enough, listeners will finally be able to hear his songs as songs and not as documentary exhibits of his feeling heart.