Posts Tagged ‘conor oberst’

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survival of the fittest

March 11, 2010

I have another blog that’s more current to add, but one time I wrote a paper about a band. Academic, but I dig it. do you?

In 2001, Desaparecidos, an indie rock group from Saddle Creek records in Omaha, Nebraska was formed. The group consisted of Conor Oberst, Landon Hedges, Casey Scott, Matt Baum, Denver Dalley, and Ian McElroy. It was a side project, as Oberst, McElroy and Baum performed in Bright Eyes, and Hedges was the drummer of The Good Life – all bands on the Saddle Creek label. Their only album, “Read Music/Speak Spanish” was recorded in a week, and a reviewer noted that it “has a live rock feel. You’ll hear the white noise of distorted guitar, as well as subtle things,” such as recorded conversations between band members and friends (McMahan, 2002). This album departs from each of the member’s other bands lyrically, as it is not deeply personal or introspective. “Read Music/Speak Spanish” expresses social anxieties about imperialist capitalism in our nation, gender roles, and modern commodification. Through the use of physical symbols and imagery, “Read Music/Speak Spanish” demonstrates the ways in which we have become alienated by our own “American” lifestyle. This expression is relevant because music can be seen as an outlet for social protest and creative change.

The band’s name translates to a forced disappearance, and a deprivation of liberties. The term Desaparecidos specifically refers to disappearances that often led to torture or death in South America during Operation Condor (NSA). Condor was a radically violent attempt to eradicate socialist influence and all potential threats to the government, claiming more than 60,000 victims. The United States has been linked to support of Operation Condor through State Department files that have been declassified. The band’s choice of this term can be read as critique of the Cold War administrations and U.S. intervention in South America. When art forms are persecuted in ways reminiscent of the McCarthy era, musicians feel pressure to censor their art. Tricia Rose explains corporate control of art in an examination of hip hop; “artist freedoms are actually constrained and channeled by media corporations; claims about freedom of speech are made to defend the bottom line, not artist’ rights to speak freely” (Rose, 155).  Punk music has often been seen as a subculture of resistance, and Desaparecidos fits into this genre not only in sounds but actions – such as producing on an independent label. Arguably, this is what allows the band to make some of its critiques of capitalism, as well as singer Oberst’s success as a solo artist in addition to co-founding Saddle Creek records. With this background, we can begin to analyze the symbolism implanted in the names that the band has chosen. Comparing this to the title of “Read Music/Speak Spanish” we can see that Desaparecidos sympathizes with the disappeared in South America, recognizing the threats of imperialism. To “read music” implies that they express their dissent through art work and the means by which their art is produced.

The album’s content takes on rebellion not only in the symbolism of title, but its lyrics spew and scream critiques of contemporary society. McMahan elaborates in a 2002 article that, “though it’s not a concept album, “Read Music/Speak Spanish” is held together lyrically by reflections on modern-day consumerism, urban sprawl, and the frantic pace of America’s never ending hunger for more, more, more.”

capitalism

The goal of any direct action or protest against the ruling class should be to expose the power structure’s agenda. This album contains these protests in the screeching vocals and shrill sloppy chords. The lyrics use dry humor and satire “based on the state of affairs in America” in order to showcase the downfalls of capitalism. (McMahan, 2001). The sixth song on the album, “Happiest Place on Earth” invokes much of the questions of significance, language and myth. This can best be analyzed in the methods of author Roland Barthes’ “Myth Today”.

Oh God, good God shed greed on thee, your shining sea turned a dirty green from the industry off the shores of New Jersey.

This phrase plays upon ‘God shed grace on thee’, from the anthem ‘America’ and standard themes in what many have come to call a ‘Generica’ – a consumerist shell of a former ideal, exposing the deterioration brought by industrialization and globalization. Barthes would call ‘shining seas’ the signifier that America’s liberty, spread across the country- from ‘sea to shining sea.’ This liberty has become a consumer good to be sold across the country and globally. Barthes explains that myth is a type of speech (Barthes, 109), just as the lyrics hold a sarcastic tone and play with the meaning of traditional examples of American nationalism. The commodification of all goods and childhood memories through the Disney Corporation is highlighted:

Oh God, my God, give strength to thee, these amber waves, purple majesty, are nothing but backdrops for Disney. Well look up close. It is superimposed, on a blank blue screen. It is fantasy, fucking magical. The dream floats like a chemical through each snapped synapse. Our television past that is beautiful no more.

The last two lines draw an image of brainwashed addiction to consumption of goods and mass media. The band seems to contrast Stuart Hall’s stance that popular culture can be political, and instead views consumption of mass culture as brainwashed worship (Hall, 186).

Track 8, ‘$$$$’ explores globalization and relationships to goods and production.

If you’ve got a special interest, there is influence I could sell. Just like water takes the shape of where it is held. I’m overflowing with ambition but I got to keep in mind the bottom line is the dollar sign. And big, bright lights. Inequality franchised. The next location is mine.

The perspectives of the lyrics show undying loyalty to profit and further investment regardless of fairness or equality. This draws relation to two class essays, by Benjamin and Halter. In “Author as Producer”, Walter Benjamin explains that a poet must choose a position in their art, insisting that all art is political. Since it is reproduced and commodified, it becomes “an ever –increasing process of rationalization…The phonograph record, the sound film, jukeboxes can purvey top-quality music…canned as a commodity” (Benjamin, 231). Alan O’Connor explains that not all punk music requires a political message “[f]or some people, punk must have an oppositional political practice. Others reject leftist and anarchist politics as an imposition from outside” however, we can clearly see Desaparecidos requires and demands a level of politicization (O’Connor, 226). In this example, Oberst has taken artistic license and satire to portray the interests of the bourgeoisie class. To have overflowing ambition but be constantly focused upon the cost and profit underlies the greed that accompanies access to the means of production. Second, Halter’s piece titled “From Community to Commodity” illustrates the way minority groups are specifically targeted for marketing purposes. In the 1980’s “one toy company executive declared: ‘How can you ignore these ethnic streams of revenue? You can’t. The color of money is green, and you get it from whatever skin tone has got it”’ (Halter, 25). This often offensively over generalizes and quantifies the worth of ethnic groups so as to pander to a “special interest.” Any bit of individuality is used and analyzed by marketing departments to best target each subculture or minority. Even if these minorities access popular culture differently, they will be segmented shamelessly for the sake of profit, so that their inequality becomes revenue.

In his early career, philosopher Karl Marx argued that in a capitalist society labor becomes quantified so that “the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities” (Marx, 70). When one becomes separated from the means of production, they are in turn forced to sell themselves and their effort as a good. Marx goes on to state that the separation from the means of production creates alienation. “The fact that labor is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind” (Marx, 74). The seventh song, “Survival of the Fittest/It’s a Jungle Out There” vividly paints an image of working class alienation and enslavement.

The news cameras capture Guerilla warfare. Eagles into buildings crash landed. Despair is all that there is now. In a cubical cage that smells like a Rat, whose smile gets bigger along with your debt. Don’t take it personal. It’s just business.

Modern labor conditions of offices can often seem like a cage or an uncomfortable encasement for the worker. The very concept of a cubicle, forcing workers into tiny spaces for long periods of time, is alienating. The mantra of those who own the means of production (i.e. cubical farms) is repeated as if to somehow offer reassurance – “it’s just business”. Furthermore, the title makes an allusion to Charles Darwin’s premise of natural selection. The idea that those who are more ‘fit’ continue to reproduce and thrive has been replicated by advocates of capitalism. Those who are “the diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal elite” prosper, while the rest are “lazy rascals, spending their substance and more, in riotous living” (Marx, 431). A capitalist would argue rodent-like working conditions exist because the worker did not reach to their fullest potential, where as a Marxist analysis explains that there are inequalities built into the political economy which forces workers into these conditions. Expressing anger about the capitalist system’s inequalities through song is a form of both education to the masses and of dissent.

gender

Gender issues in “Read Music/Speak Spanish” appear in their relationship to the overconsumption and subsequent labor required of working class people. The two songs that most prominently display an example of gender roles are “Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)” which “documents a couple’s false dreams and struggle to call themselves ‘middle class’” (McMahan, 2002). The next of the pair alters the first title, but carries on the theme with “Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods),” now the couple has grown far apart, gaining material possessions, but blocking each other out. Oberst changes the tone in the two pieces from a masculine, patriarchic tone, to a defeated, apathetic and weaker spouse in “the Latter.”  The “Former” illustrates a nurturing need to provide

I just wanted to provide for you. But if you want to make a run for it my love I’d cover you. And if you need money for bills, my lover, I could cover you.

The tone changes and is more bitter and cutting in “Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)”:

So you want to change. You read a letter from a lawyer. Want to take me out to dinner. Want to bury me under a mound of shopping bags. Like it would really make a difference, or make up for your disinterest. I’m a bill you pay. I’m a contract you can’t break.

Benjamin would argue that Oberst as a “producer” is making a social commentary that material goods and commodification detract from the values of human relationships. In the “Former” it is implied that a lover could buy affection, but in the “Latter”  the protagonist is only further estranged by gifts. Both songs describe a relationship that in itself has become commodified.

“$$$$” makes a comment about standards of beauty specifically for women, that are quantified and normalized through common but unreachable images conveyed by mass media and celebrities. This can be clearly focused with an examination of the pressures for thinness.

I know there’s all body types but we have just one size. I don’t care if it’s tight. It’s the dollar signs and the big, bright lights. Inequality franchised.

This “franchised” inequality in the passage is multifaceted through layers of race, class and gender. This is illustrated in the need to be skinny; many cases of women idolizing celebrities have been accompanied by excessive behavior that Joli Jenson blames upon the media. A fan, seen often as hysterical with obsession is “seen as being brought into (enthralled) existence by the modern celebrity system, via the mass media” (Jenson, 10). Some of these obsessions can manifest themselves into serious eating disorders in order to fit into the only size offered by a standardized concept of beauty. This too is “inequality franchised”, because women who are seen in the typical and unrealistic view of beauty are objectified and deemed to be worth more, often given better service or treated differently than those that don’t fit the ideal. This also draws in themes from Rosaldo’s theory of cultural citizenship. In order for the female to assimilate into the popular culture, she must fit into society’s framework. In this case, if she does not have the same body size as the models or celebrities that represent women in popular culture, she does not have citizenship into society. This implies that a normal and average female cannot be represented in popular culture and must choose to either mold to normative constructs or stand different.

While these points can be drawn from “Read Music/Speak Spanish”, it should be noted that the album overwhelmingly draws from a male standpoint and normalizes this perspective. This can be simple to understand in the fact that all members of the band are male, and more abstract when taken in the construct of the more progressive dialogues about class mentioned in the album. It does not appear that they have left out female perspectives because they are not worthy or irrelevant, but instead that the perspective has not been taken into account.

The easiest way to see a connection made between commodification and gender are the very first words spoken on the album. The song “Man and Wife, The Former (Financial Planning)” begins with two female voices in conversation. The first states “um…as far as supportive, he would have to support me financially” and the second replies, “um… I like a man that has money (laughs) um… that has goals in life”. By starting the album in this manner, Desaparecidos seems point at commodification taking over human emotions, such as love. It even points some blame to women, over generalizing all females as ‘gold diggers.’ It is through this commodification of emotions that brings destruction to the album’s couple in “the Latter.” In Phillip Vaninni’s essay “Will You Marry Me?” he explains how modern love has been commodified, culminating in the act of proposal. “Romance, as every relationship in a capitalist society, has been permeated by the logic of exchange” just as the relationships exist in this album. “As production and consumption have expanded, mass communication has been transmitting to the public a visual idea of love as spectacle. The romanticization of commodities occurs when media portray certain products and services as romantic” (Vaninni, 171). This also implies all females are driven by greed and possessions: love is no longer relevant. Popular culture and modern society often denies that a female perspective is inherently different from a male’s. Though it is not to say that the album cannot be enjoyed by females, they may instead recall Rosaldo, and not see themselves completely represented within the lyrics and music.

commodification

The most undeniable and easily recognized theme in the album is commodification and overproduction of an imperialist country. We see this at the macro level, through globalization, and at the micro, through the commodification of love in both of the “Man and Wife” songs. On “the Latter,” a defeated spouse seems to moan and cry out about the commodification of emotions;

I’m growing out my hair, like it was when I was single. It was longer than I’ve known you, I had no money then, I had no worries then at all. Such a high standard of living, I just feel like I am dying.

Here, the band is clearly making a statement against commodification and a focus on goods over relationships. When the spouse was single and without many possessions he felt care free, but with a “high standard of living,” he expresses a desire to die, and leave a world of burden. Once again expressed an alienation from the modern capitalist society.

One of the more “subtle” elements of conversation occurs before the song “Greater Omaha”, which describes urban sprawl. A conversation between band member Conor Oberst and a friend, explains that one feels the small town of Omaha needs some chain stores “maybe a Starbucks or something,” to which Oberst mutters an explicative “I don’t want to shop.” Throughout the album, Desaparecidos expresses a theme of Marxist-style alienation caused by modern commodification and separation from the products of labor. Because the labor to produce goods is external to the worker, they may not be able to appreciate it and are increasingly alienated by it.

Cynthia Enloe explains how goods often serve as a representative of a lesser nation to an imperialist importer, just as bananas served as a bridge from Latin America to the U.S. In Desaparecidos example, Starbucks is a representative of a large city mass culture to a rural small town population. While some welcome the acceptance of popular culture, others are separated by its imposition. Most of the band’s members are a part of Saddle Creek Records, an independent label formed in Omaha, Nebraska. Middle America has experienced industrialization differently from California, for example. Major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have become the epicenters of commodification and urban sprawl. The modern American epic of Manifest Destiny is no longer the journey out west, but the journey to build upward throughout the country. California, New York and other coastal cities have experienced this growth more quickly than the Middle America.

The album’s artwork itself shows how urban sprawl has crept its way into the Midwest. A transparency that features rows of cookie-cutter houses placed on top of each other can be lifted to see a color picture of a hot tar highway bordered by fields of orangey grain. The empty skyline of blush is all the more pleasing by comparison to the grey planning style transparency. The inside of the lyrics booklet is formed in the style of a city planning report that details a new estate that would include endless tracts of homes. In between the lyrics for each song is information about the “grading and drainage” or “parks and open space,” showing the meticulous planning involved in the transformation of rural America to suburbia. It is interesting to note that the final analysis of the plan states:

“As proposed, this development has a debt ratio that is a little too high. This is largely attributable to the park, boulevard and school that are included in the project…. As designed, it will be difficult to maximize the large area park on adjacent properties and connect the boulevard to the 192nd Street at the _ mile point.”

The analysis mirrors common policy to regard education and public space as unimportant or an unprofitable investment. Rather than looking at the community benefits of a school or parks, those who drafted the analysis only see the bottom line cost to profit ratio.

We further see commodification of artwork and the creative process in “Mall of America”. Oberst is making a statement about participation in Desaparecidos (the disappeared) while being the singer of another folk band.

They say its murder on your folk career to make a rock record with the Disappeared. We’ll let to police helicopters pull stereos out of the lake. There is no image that I must defend. There are not art forms now just capitalism. So send the National Guard to the Mall of America.

The lyrics express feeling of pressure to produce and commodify art into the form more popular and profitable. There are political decisions made by artists about how they assimilate into commodification and mass consumption. Ryan Moore explains in his article “Friends Don’t Let Friends Listen to Corporate Rock” how this kind of exclusion or “murder” on one’s career can be meaningful, because indie and punk subcultures can be seen as “enclaves of resistance to ‘hegemony,’ a form of covert opposition to be taken for granted ideologies embedded in symbols, rituals and popular culture” (Moore, 439). The song has loud chugging guitars that are dragged along by a wailing voice dripping with disdain. The disregard for precision of sound and fast paced playing style seem to mirror that “there is no image” to defend. Moore would agree with the next line of the song that capitalism encompasses even creative spheres of production; “no field can be completely independent…[from] the influence and pressure of class, power and markets are they are ordered in the overarching social system” (Moore, 439).

Mass marketing means – creative expression and imagination are products in themselves. To produce art and create something for an audience, artists must conform, market, and sell their creative output. Just as workers must sell their labor, the musicians of the band have commodified their production of music. The abrasive sound of the guitars, buzzing bass lines and Oberst’s screaming voice, all convey the alienation that these artists feel from commodifing their artwork. Music can be seen as a site of protest, and the artists in Desaparecidos have taken protest through their creations and actions on an independent record label.

conclusion

Desaparecidos lyrics are stinging satire and a social commentary on an imperialist and capitalist America that has squandered its promise. Benjamin argues that popular culture must have some level of political awareness; here we see that a political statement exists and shapes the art. The themes of the nation, gender roles, and commodification all serve as sources of anxieties for the working class citizen. “Author as Producer” argues that a poet must choose their class side; here we see an expression of working class struggles and manipulation. The overall goal of projects such as “Read Music/Speak Spanish” is to raise awareness and in the best case scenario, create action among listeners. There is one example however, that gives voice to an empowered working class of equal peoples. “Manana” offers the hope of a true grassroots change:

What you learned, what you read in their books, all they offered. What you saw when they to look, a final offer. Well today we are giving birth to a new future. Yes, today we are giving birth to our own future. We will learn. We will love. We will work to change each other. We will spread. We will cover the earth like air and water. Tomorrow is blank. We’ll just fill it in with our own answers. If we are stopped, we’ll just start again. That is the new offer. That’s it. That is our final offer.

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