Concerts

Bright Eyes Helped Keep the Protest Song Alive

Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst (center) hasn't been afraid to get political in his songs.
Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst (center) hasn't been afraid to get political in his songs. Photo by Shawn Brackbill
While things have been relatively quiet when it comes to stateside protests since Joe Biden was elected president, it wasn't too long ago the protest song was booming. For the first time since the 1960s, it seemed like every other song on a playlist was offering political commentary. From YG and Nipsey Hussle's blunt "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)" to Fiona Apple's more subtle "Tiny Hands," musicians of every genre were adding their two cents about the man in the Oval Office.

But if you take a little trip in your time machine, you can find another blip in the 2000s when protest music was popular. And right in the center of it was Bright Eyes.

Bright Eyes is the indie-rock brainchild of Conor Oberst, a Nebraska native who got tagged early on as "the next Bob Dylan," thanks to his neofolk way with lyrics. While Dylan had Vietnam and the Masters of War to rail against, Oberst found a foil in George W. Bush and his misadventures in Iraq.

Now historical revisionism has reinvented Dubya as a "good" and "civil" Republican. But anyone who lived through the period can remember his reign was just as cruel as Trump's (if more polite).

The country singers formerly known as the Dixie Chicks received death threats when vocalist Natalie Maines said the group was ashamed to be from the same state as Bush and wrote a Grammy-winning song, "Not Ready to Make Nice," about why they'd continue to speak truth to power. Green Day garnered kudos for its concept album American Idiot, about the moronic imperialism and warmongering that Bush was championing.

But the most biting musical critiques of the Bush regime came from Bright Eyes.

In 2005's "Land Locked Blues," Oberst sings a duet with proto-Americana legend Emmylou Harris. Between the sad blares of a horn, they recite poignant lyrics that could be antiwar or anti-fighting with your lover, depending on your interpretation. With a refrain of "If we walk away, they'll walk away," the song offers a simple solution to stop bombing the hell out of a country and sending others to risk their lives.

But it was the track "When the President Talks to God" on which Bright Eyes really let out the rage.

What kind of hubris does it take for a man to claim he makes his life-and-death decisions only after a personal conversation with an all-knowing creator, as President Bush once stated? With the lyrical wit and wisdom not heard too often since The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Oberst asks: "Does he ask to rape our women's rights?/And send poor farm kids off to die?/Does God suggest an oil hike?/When the President talks to God?" And later: "When the President talks to God/Do they drink beer and go play golf?/While they pick which countries to invade/Which Muslim souls still can be saved?"

With that kind of pointedness and fury, Bright Eyes served as a step-by-step primer for all the commentary that was sung or rapped a decade later, mixing personal disses with policy critiques. From Death Cab for Cutie's "Million Dollar Loan" to Kendrick Lamar's "The Heart Part 4," protest singers got a template for how to go strong.

Oberst continues writing and singing about injustices and hypocrisy even into these Biden years. In 2020, with the accompaniment of Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes released "Miracle of Life."

"Lay down on the hard cold ground/Crying's such a soothing sound/Get cured with a coat hanger/Girl, you're in America now."

It's a catchy song that has you humming along. But like all the best protest songs, when you parse the words you're singing along to, it breaks your heart into smaller pieces each time you hear it.

Bright Eyes.
8 p.m. Friday, May 27, at the Fillmore Miami Beach 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $42.50 to $58.50 via livenation.com.
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland