Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
There’s this scene in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan No Direction Home in which singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth is describing the standard ’60s hipsters used to rate a new artist. The question they asked wasn’t who produced the single or was that song in Girls last week. It was: “Does he have something to say?” I’m not going to be all get-off-my-lawn about this — I roll my eyes at those nostalgia junkies who think everything was fundamentally better before we were all born. But I do find it interesting how completely the paradigm has shifted from a youth culture that demands its artists be politically and culturally outspoken to one that discourages it.
No question, artists are still activists everywhere but on record, playing benefit shows, donating songs to charity CDs, and, during presidential election season, stumping for their candidate of choice. But when was the last time you heard a genuinely outraged, politically opinionated popular song? For the most part, that’s a good thing. Deliberately politicized music can easily feel condescending or at least naïve. But just as we’ve come to see “intellectual” and “elite” as put downs, reflective of an inherent holier-than-thou smugness, there’s now this sense that writing straight-up protest songs is tacky, reflective of an inflated sense of self and how much your opinions matter.
Omaha bred punk rockers Desaparacidos — and their ringleader, Conor Oberst — are an exception to all that. Formed in the early 2000s they put out their first and only record Read Music, Speak Spanish the winter after 9/11. It wasn’t great timing for an album that condemned drone strikes (“The Happiest Place on Earth”) and presciently warned of the deceptive joy of low-interest home ownership (“Hole in One”). They toured for a bit, disbanded, and moved on to other projects. But in 2010 the guys found themselves back at band practice in a basement in Omaha. They played a show and “it felt so natural and more fun than it ever did,” recalled guitarist Denver Dalley. “So that really pushed us to actually be a band again.”
It turns out that in the near decade they’ve been silent, kids who would have been in middle school when the towers fell were stumbling upon this lone record by this mysteriously named band and connecting to its anti-corporate message and sense of generational isolation. At a recent show at Webster Hall in New York, the crowd was filled with tightly wound, expectant dudes, the kind of faces you’d think you’d have seen at a Minor Threat show in 1982. “It’s truly inspiring when people tell us that they knew nothing of certain issues until they saw us play or started listening to us,” Dalley says. “It’s an honor to think that we inspired someone to research or even start a conversation.”
Considering the fact that our government has (once again) been brought to a standstill by fractious bickering I wouldn’t have tolerated from the seven-year-old boys I used to teach second grade to, it would be easy to yammer on about how timely Desaparecidos return is. And that is what I was thinking during most of the show, as Oberst screamed lines like, “Opportunity, no it don’t exist/ It’s the opiate of the populace/We need some harder shit now.” But after an ecstatically sweaty set, the band came back for an encore (“Spanish Bombs,” by the Clash) after which Oberst hurled himself into the crowd. “The most important thing is playing together to have fun,” Dalley told me later. “To do this because we want to, not because we are expected to.” As Oberst’s body was passed along the bed of outstretched arms it occurred to me that every rock show, every moment of defiant, aggressive joy, is an act of protest against an increasingly corporatized, monetized, and anesthetized world. Still, it’s good to have them back.