I wanted to develop further something from the last post while again exploiting the media frenzy over Conor Oberst. Oberst is someone who is regularly lauded or mocked because of his sincerity, which nicely illustrates David Reisman’s prediction that popular culture will become preoccupied with personalities rather than performances — that is, fans care more about who they think the performers are (celebrities, they’re just like Us) than what they actually do. We want to live vicariously the experience of celebrity or the experience of overwrought emotion celebrities are licensed to exhibit more than we want to enjoy music or film or whatever on its own terms (and please, don’t ask what those terms are — that;s a whole other theeoretical can of worms). Emo, which has finally found a standardbearer in Oberst to carry it into the mainstream, into this week’s New Yorker for instance, is obviously the culmination of this sincerity fixation. Everyone knows what “real” sincerity feels like, thus everyone feels qualified to judge and/or enjoy the work of someone whose main achievement is conveying sincerity. Being sincere is an art that anyone can understand, teenagers (who are morbidly fixated on the problem of how to be honest in a capitalist world of institutionalized dishonesty) especially. But what is “sincere” is similar to what is “real” — it seems universal and fixed, it seems ontological, but in fact its always contextual, always a matter of what is being rejected in favor of it. And thus any sincerity/reality purveyor has a brief shelf life, as some new way to signify sincerity or realness will come along on schedule and obviate him. This suits the people who make money on music just fine; it keeps the wheels of novelty spinning. When what one wants out of music is sincerity of feeling, one will always have to keep buying new records, because old ones will inevitably begin to sound conventional, formalized, and thus false.
If Oberst is truly the great songwriter his touters claim he is, he will start to undermine his own image with a vengeance, and betray and confuse his teenybopper exegetes. This may eb the only way for people to hear his songs as songs and not as documentary exhibits of his feeling heart. Right now he’s attracting a lot of attention that is clearly in bad faith — he’s praised for his talent and his writing, but clearly this is only because he’s handsome and he so readily symbolizes a newly marketable component of youth as its presently reconfiguring itself. He is the new “young” and he must certainly be coming to realize that this is what the whole “voice of a generation” bullshit is all about. He’s not saying anything for them, but he’s affording a stylistic language marketers can use to speak to them and about them to those older generations who desperately want to cling to what it felt like to be young, the very thing Oberst so compellingly conveys.