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June 29th, 2005 MARK BAUMGARTEN | Music Stories
 

BRIGHT EYES, BIG DITTY

     
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Conor Oberst
I don't expect Jay Leno to surprise. I do expect him to goof on politicians-as if their entire job is not to run the country but to be the butt of weak jokes-and I expect him to ridicule average Americans to the delight of other average Americans. But subversion? Never.

That's why the recent clip of Leno introducing Bright Eyes as the musical guest on the Tonight Show seems so odd. "Tonight he's singing his critically acclaimed protest song," the talking head says as the in-studio audience's cheers drown out the words. "Please welcome Bright Eyes." Wait. Did he say protest song? The screen fades to a shot of Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, and as the wiry 25-year-old singer plunges into the music of "When the President Talks to God," that question is quickly answered.

The song, a stinging indictment of the current president's hubris, starts with the lines, "When the president talks to God/ Are the conversations brief or long?/ Does he ask to rape our women's rights/ And send poor farm kids off to die?" From there, the screed only becomes more impassioned and incendiary.

All in all, the clip I'm watching is a great moment in social protest, an instant when an honest, gut-twisting appraisal of the political climate slips through the mainstream media filter to an audience of millions. That in itself seems odd. And what makes this moment even more powerful, and different from '60s-era protest songs, is that I'm watching it two months after it aired. At press time, the clip on ifilm.com has been viewed 130,000 times, and the number will continue to grow as the link is posted throughout the blogosphere and sent through email.

When Oberst's music faded, back on the Tonight Show stage on May 2, Leno appeared obviously shaken by the song he had introduced only three minutes before. He quickly shook the singer's hand and then flubbed his closing remarks as the credits rolled.

Maybe Leno and his staff hadn't actually listened to the song before taping. Or maybe Oberst pulled one over on the right-leaning host and switched the song at the last minute. Or maybe Leno knew the song and let Oberst play it anyway, the host's awkwardness simply a reaction to this young century's most powerful protest song.

Last year on July 4, before the election, it was easy to voice dissent, because the voice of dissent was everywhere. You could yell your beliefs from the stage or from the crowd and feel at once empowered and anonymous. Which is what made the hundreds of protest songs filling clubs and arenas seem, well, if not common, at least exploitative. This year, while the president's polling numbers are down, the crowds that once gathered in the public square-or at rock concerts-to shout down their ideological foe are, probably, sitting at home watching Leno or on the computer. Which is why Oberst and his words are even more important.

I've never bought into the idea that Oberst is, as some claim, "the next Bob Dylan," but "When the President Talks to God" does bear a striking resemblance to "With God on Our Side," the greatest protest song of last century. In that song, released back in 1964, a young Dylan sang to a country in the midst of the Cold War, "But now we got weapons/ Of the chemical dust/ If fire them we're forced to/ Then fire them we must/ One push of the button/ And a shot the world wide/ And you never ask questions/ When God's on your side."

That anthem has become a relic, something the protest generation always points to and asks: "Why doesn't anyone write a song like that nowadays?" Well, Oberst did. And for a single moment, the media guard dogs slept. Leno might never invite Oberst back on his show, but thanks to the Internet, he'll be introducing that song every day for the rest of his life.

See Bright Eyes perform "When the President Talks to God" at www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2670176


See Bright Eyes perform "When the President Talks to God" at www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2670176
 
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