Every youth culture needs its anti-Man. The amateur anarchist whose "Fuck Capitalism" T-shirt was bought with allowance money given to him by his Bank of America-veep Mom. Or the lone high school brainiac who asks all the tough questions in econ class and knows that Chomsky is not just an emo band from Texas. But perhaps Generation Why needs a capital-critiquing hero more than those generations born before the Reagan era. Four years ago, today's drinking-age crowd watched hopefully as their older brothers and sisters got dot-com jobs as college-graduation presents. When little sis graduated, she got a recession.
It's hard to feel good about the American government when Bush is telling your broke ass that you're not a patriot unless you max out all of your credit cards at the nearest supermall. And it's hard not to love Conor Oberst for speaking out against the double bind of the Dubya decade, as he does on Desaparecidos' debut Read Music/ Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek). "I want to pledge allegiance to the country where I live/I don't want to be ashamed to be an American/But opportunity, no it doesn't exist/It's the opiate of the populace," the screeching singer, who moonlights as Bright Eyes, preaches on "The Happiest Place on Earth." The song finds punk ethos growing out of emotional conflict--and in combining the two, it differentiates itself from the two genres that most indie bands call revolution these days. There's emo, which is too often all pain and no anger (i.e., you're too busy crying over Oliver Stone movies to get enraged about Afghanistan). And then there's contemporary punk, which is too often all anger and no pain (i.e., you want to take all the pent-up aggression you feel toward the government and throw a Molotov cocktail at the nearest Gap.)
Don't get Oberst wrong, though: He's angrier than he used to be, and he hates that whole "Do you want socks to match that pocket tee?" thing just as much as you do. On "Mall of America," he screeches, "There are no art forms now, just capitalism/So send the National Guard to the Mall of America/ And they can dress dead bodies up in tight designer jeans/Diesel! Prada!!!/It looks good. It looks good." Um, Prada? The rally cry is so emphatic that you almost don't have the heart to tell him: If he's gonna attack the Minnesotan monolith, he might have to settle for dressing the corpses in Eddie Bauer.
Still, you can forgive Desaparecidos if they ain't exactly familiar with all the Saks Fifth Avenue locations across the country: The band keeps its album rooted in the Midwest, clearing space for every broken-down Kum and Go, every sad, empty parking lot, every dimly lit drive-through diner in Greater Omaha. (The album's liner notes even take the form of an "Omaha City Planning Department Recommendation Report.") And their creed matches that of other righteous young malcontents: Think globally, act locally, and when that cliché doesn't work, mess with geography in any way you can--say, by naming your album Read Music/Speak Spanish even though you come from one of the whitest states in the nation and have only one Spanish word on your record. Though its efforts may occasionally be misguided, the album feels like an optimistic attempt to rearrange the cultural landscape--especially coming as it does with an Omaha singer who spent the past few years dragging hipster music cred from coastal metropolises back to the country's heartland, refusing contracts from major labels along the way. Regardless of whether you can read Neruda in his native tongue, you know that takes real cojones.
And maybe it takes even bigger cojones to pretend to be a girl while you're spreading your message. On "Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)," which almost reads like a response to Gang of Four's take on the consumer libido, Oberst believably explores the commodification of marriage ("I'm a contract you can't break") in a wife's first-person voice. Before the song was recorded, Desaparecidos drummer Matt Baum visited college campuses in the Midwest, posing as an NPR reporter, and asked young women what they looked for in a boyfriend--all purely for "research" purposes, we presume. More than half the subjects mentioned a high salary or nice car. You can hear recorded samples of their answers on the intro to "Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)," the fictitious husband's version of the wife's story. Maybe one of those college girls slipped Baum a copy of The Feminine Mystique: The band seems to understand that in America's suburban geography, physical separation of co-workers and friends makes it difficult for any widespread movement, be it union organizing or feminism, to succeed.
"The word is LOVE. The word is LOSS. The words are DAMAGED GOODS," the heroine of "Man and Wife, the Latter" screams at her husband. And Oberst speaks her language. He's seen the bored housewives miserably sifting through shopping bags. He knows the men and women who withstand immense financial pressure just to keep up with the middle class. He blames the economy for it. And, in part, he blames himself: "Now you emptied your heart to fill your bank account/ But I should talk, I'm just the same/You can buy my records down at the corporate chain." The word is EMPATHY. And don't it make your Bright Eyes blue.