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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    String Theory: The Virtue of Selfish Singers

    Before the Bowery Ballroom crowd on March 2nd, Conor Oberst is cheerily drunk. He’s talking to us, even joking. I’m relieved; I was nervous after a Canadian blogger reported the singer was moody and cold earlier on the Four Winds tour. As Bright Eyes ripped through tracks from their upcoming release, ‘Cassadaga,’ my mind was far away, churning through songs from their past while my eyes were on Oberst. I was looking for some sign that he was the total jerk he claims to be.

    On the train to Manhattan I had been trying to jolt myself into the proper state of mind to be utterly blown away by the night’s performance. In other words, I was listening to album after album in an effort to feel thoughtful and vaguely nostalgic. What struck me, though, was a reoccurring theme in Oberst’s lyrics; criticism and self-mockery in the face of his own selfishness.

    What comes to mind is the ‘selfishly sick and self-absorbed’ Oberst described in ‘Padriac My Prince’ from 1998’s ‘Letting Off the Happiness.’ Or how Oberst ‘thinks about himself too much and ruins who he loves,’ as told in ‘Gold Mine Gutted.’

    Young punks love to gripe about Oberst’s perceived self-absorption; they call it whiny. I recall one blog entry brilliantly refer to Bright Eyes’ sophomore album, ‘Fevers and Mirrors’ as ‘Fevers and Meeeeeeeeeeers’ amid five hundred words of streaming expletive. To them, he’s the worst kind of pop star; everything evil about the archetypical narcissistic lead singer wrapped up in tight jeans, neatly emo-cropped hair (alas, no more), album after album of tearful, ultra-personal storytelling, and an army of teenage girls with equally dumb haircuts.

    However, that’s too easy. They fail to acknowledge the complexity of Oberst’s character, and so their criticisms fall flat. Throughout all of his ‘whining’ he openly acknowledges his selfishness; he anticipates the argument. Or maybe he’s just genuinely unhappy with himself. Either way, the acknowledgement forces us to view his music in a different light – it creates an attitudinal undercurrent behind the sob-story, and changes its context. He is sobbing and, at some level, he’s ashamed of it. It provides a strange kind of immunity; to call Oberst’s music self-indulgent is simply to agree with a secondary message of the music itself, perhaps.

    Oberst might tell his critics, ‘Some sad singers, they just play tragic,’ like in ‘Lover I Don’t Have to Love,’ from 2002’s ‘Lifted.’ A brutal kind of honesty is at the heart of his defense.

    Honesty, after all, is the scintillating beauty of Bright Eyes; maybe selfishness is behind this one too. Maybe Conor Oberst is so good at singing about himself because he’s so good at thinking about himself. He has turned self-absorption into a talent – it spawns within him an acute self-awareness. Coupled with his poetic genius, it makes him the powerhouse songwriter he is.

    The fact that he knows himself so well is what allows him to communicate so effectively to some part of us. The choice is ours to either shy away guiltily, ashamed of his emo croon, or joyfully indulge. Or guiltily indulge, just like Conor Oberst.

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