In Conor Oberst’s empire of bands, Desaparecidos was a secluded, forgotten kingdom. With just one album in 2002, Read Music, Speak Spanish, it was simply a side project destined for footnotes alongside Commander Venus and Park Ave. But, spurred by a rash of legislation copycatting Arizona’s controversial SB1070, Conor Oberst’s punk band reunited.
Monday was their first non-festival Los Angeles appearance. The crowd at The Fonda ran a little older, and I considered them My People. We are those who came of age to the bands of Saddle Creek in 2000-2005: Azure Ray, Criteria, Cursive and, of course, Desaparecidos. If you’re at a Desa show in 2013, even if you were a latecomer, you’d have to be somewhat hardcore about them.
Joyce Manor was a great choice for an opener. Not just because they were LA county local heroes, but their style is a great compliment. They’re a little grittier, more of a beautiful mess, but they brought a visceral, youthful ire that lined right up with Read Music, Speak Spanish. Their songs are short, bite-sized bursts of energy, ideal for sprints of vigorous moshing. On a song like “Constant Headache,” it’s like the frontman is singing through gritted teeth. Apparently Desaparecidos are big fans too – Oberst came out to sing along to the song’s second half. The partnership is a beautiful thing, and Joyce Manor certainly deserves the rub.
When it was time for the main event, Conor Oberst came out in a simple black t-shirt and classic bowl cut. It was as if he knew there was a lot of nostalgia love and he got into costume. Desaparecidos in 2013, performance-wise, is just as dynamic and explosive as they seemed in their prime. A song like “MAÑANA” is so forceful and quaking that I have to capitalize it’s name. It is incredibly cathartic and liberating to sing the words, with a hundred other sweaty, broken people: “WE WILL LEARN / WE WILL LOVE / WE WILL WORK / CHANGE EACH OTHER.” That song can close festivals, I don’t know why they play it so early. It was the only time the pit knocked me off my feet.
In-between songs I often found myself a few steps away from something like a heart attack. It wasn’t the most relentlessly active show I’d been to (that title goes to Japandroids) but it was the most emotionally dramatic. There are so many climaxes built into their songs that every chorus feels like a mountain summit. It’s hard to keep up. Even a song like “Greater Omaha,” which gives you space to breathe, turns into something important when people punch the sky and gasp for air between every shouted verse.
Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen had a great line when observing their performance at 2012’s FYF: “From the looks of things, a lot of kids understood the themes of [Read Music, Speak Spanish] as teens… and relate to them now as adults.” It’s absolutely true about that album – but it’s less true about their new songs. “Te Amo Camila Vallejo” is a straight love song except they plug in Chilean revolutionary Camila Vallejo. “Anonymous” is a series of slogans from the hacker group whose branding has been appropriated by anarchist teens on Facebook making anti-Obama Grumpy Cat memes. “Backsell” is a song about how major labels suck.
It’s a bad sign when I, a lifelong Conor Oberst fan and someone who broadly agrees with his ideas, find myself cringing at the in-between song lectures.
Here’s the thing: political songs are hard. I know that. If you’re not Bob Dylan, you will more often than not turn out something lacking subtlety. Singing politics is harder than talking politics because you have no room for nuance, humility or complexity. It’s not a conversation where someone can go much deeper or admit fault, it’s just a chorus that makes sure your opinion gets in, even if you have to shove it in there. The suspicion of vanity is ever-present, because making art is inherently vain, but it’s more noticeable when someone appears to be showing off their righteous opinions. So I get it, political & protest songs are hard.
But they used to be so good at them. A common criticism was that their black & white framing made them seem intellectually limited, but they tempered it with a ton of heart. They went for the emotion, rather than the politics, and the message came as an aftershock. The pair of “Man and Wife” songs are some of the best anti-capitalist songs I’ve ever heard, and they didn’t have to tell you to smash ATMs. They just tap into the universal despair of economic struggle. “Greater Omaha” is a little more ham-fisted, but he sang from the position of a fallible person falling into the system. “You can work for us / but you gotta eat ‘em all up.” It was empathetic, humanistic, and made you look at yourself so that you might change.
It’s a bad sign when I, a lifelong Conor Oberst fan and someone who broadly agrees with his ideas, find myself cringing at the in-between song lectures. Not because he shouldn’t be expressing his opinions, or using his influence for the greater good – but because I feel like he’s expressing my opinions in a reduced, inelegant form.
There was a telling moment where, in order to introduce a song he went on a quick rant about “Disney sitcoms and Katy Perry songs that tell you how beautiful your white face and white skin is.” I laughed out loud and looked around at the other non-white faces in the crowd. Were we not part of the target audience? I appreciated the sympathy, but there’s something weird & amusing about an anti-racist statement that felt exclusionary. That’s, essentially, their greatest flaw as a protest band: they’re not really singing songs about me or my issues, it just features them. The songs are about themselves and people like them, to make amends for their privileges and assuage any guilt about their place in the hegemony.
Yet, maybe that’s why I liked them so much. Because for all my beliefs and conferences and protests and marches and workshops, I still have to give money to Nestle and Monsanto and Bank of America. Thrashing with Desaparecidos made me feel like I wasn’t hopelessly chained to this system. It was only on that night that I noticed, for a few moments, that we weren’t always thrashing together.
Conor Oberst says it himself in a true moment of self-awareness before “Man and Wife, The Former (Financial Planning)”: “This is a song about saving every penny you have,” he said. “Not me though, I’m filthy rich. But I sympathize with y’all.”
He comes off as a guy that would rather be in a small band with barely enough money & no fame, but since there’s no undoing the hits, he’s going to ride this populist-socialist line hard. Read Music, Speak Spanish came years before Bright Eyes got not-insignificant radio play and a taste of the Billboard charts in 2005. Sure, they sounded like their whole idea of political punk was based on Bad Religion, but I think I preferred that to white guilt-a-palooza. For people of color in the activist community, white guilt is among the least useful feelings for an ally to have. What’s really helpful is selfless support: giving up the spotlight, the stage or the microphone for people to life themselves up. Something where it’s not about the ally getting credit & applauded for their super progressive attitude.
But, again, that’s not something you can even do in a political song. It’s a form that makes people judge you differently. Conor Oberst made reference to Bradley Manning, instead of the more respectful (even by journalists) Chelsea Manning, and I remember thinking the guy should really be up to speed on that issue if he was really hardcore. My standards are almost certainly too high, because I wouldn’t expect that kind of engagement from anyone else. Fair or unfair, that’s what the protest song does to an audience. If you dare venture those grounds, people will hold you to a higher moral standard because we love to catch a hypocrite.
Oberst doesn’t have to really worry about that at a Desaparecidos show. I, and everyone else there, already buy into it and know to expect these kind of platitudes. God love ‘em. He’s preaching to the choir and the choir’s not going to go home displeased. The show was powerful and a rare occasion I will fondly remember, I just wish I couldn’t see behind the curtain.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter@wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.