Conor Oberst Takes on Amy Coney Barrett and Trump Trolls
The Bright Eyes frontman on supporting Planned Parenthood, being forced to have a bodyguard, and the sad state of the Republican Party.
Last week, as the travesty of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings flickered across our screens, yet another rock star weighed in and put his proverbial money where his mouth was.
Conor Oberst, the Nebraskan-born leader of alt-rockers Bright Eyes, released his band’s collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, “Miracle Of Life,” in support of Planned Parenthood, and to raise awareness that under a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court—and, God forbid, a second Trump Administration—the right to choose would be under grave threat.
So while he could be promoting Bright Eyes’ excellent new album Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was—the band’s first in nine years—Oberst took time out of his lockdown in Los Angeles to talk with The Daily Beast about the origins of the song, and why, no matter the personal risk, he thinks it’s his duty to speak out about right and wrong and injustice, most especially as we head into the most important Election Day of our lifetime.
Let’s talk about “Miracle of Life.” Obviously, I want you to feel free to talk about the politics of it, and your support of Planned Parenthood and why it’s an important organization to help, but when you were creating that track, were you thinking in terms of, “Well, this is going to reach a bigger audience just because of the nature of the times we’re in and the cause?” It’s not like you were writing “We Are the World,” but you had to be aware that you were writing for an audience beyond your core audience.
The story is so weird, because I actually wrote that song during the Kavanaugh hearings. So it was one of the songs I had written for the new record, but then, because we obviously recorded more songs than we wanted to put on the record, it just didn’t feel like it fit. It felt out of place on the record. Obviously, I think reproductive rights are always an issue, but at the time it wasn’t such the hot button as it is now, with the new Supreme Court justice. So it was sitting on the shelf. And then, when Amy Coney Barrett was nominated, our label said, “We should put that song out now.” We’ve always given a dollar of every ticket sold to causes we support, so we’ve always given Planned Parenthood money anyway, but it was a really random coincidence that it existed and that we hadn’t released it yet. So it seemed like an appropriate time to put it out there.
I have to imagine that your audience is largely like-minded politically. But do you ever have any concerns about voicing your politics in public, or being allied with causes that are important to you?
I guess I’ve been doing it for so long that it doesn’t bother me anymore—or I don’t think about it too much. Obviously, with the Desaparecidos project, our first was recorded two weeks before 9/11, and then we went on tour after that. We were on the road when the Pentagon was still burning, and we were playing essentially anti-capitalist, anti-American punk rock songs. It was the worst time to do that. Then we made another record in 2015, which no one really paid attention to at all, but when I think about those songs, what we were singing about is so relevant today. So people can pick and choose.
But I do get blown away sometimes. If you’re a fan of any of my music, how could you not understand my politics at this point? But people don’t. I put up a thing on the official Bright Eyes Instagram the other day saying, basically, please vote for Joe Biden, because Trump’s such a piece of shit that we all need to set aside our progressive ideals and just do it. That pissed a bunch of people off! There were more Trump people commenting on shit like that than anyone else. I thought, “What the fuck? You support Trump but you’re following the official Bright Eyes? That’s just crazy to me. How would you not know where I stand?” I don’t know if they only know “First Day of My Life” but that’s so crazy to me.
It’s probably just trolls. There are just people who find those posts because of the words and the hashtags. I did an interview with Henry Rollins a couple of years ago, and he tore Trump apart. It got picked up by Breitbart, for that very reason. We got loads of hate mail. It’s mostly easy to ignore, but some of the stuff people write, they’re not messing around. And it can feel dangerous.
Well, we organized a show in Omaha in 2010 called Concert for Equality, because they were basically trying—I don't know if you remember SB 1070, the Arizona “show your papers” law backed by Sheriff Joe and all that shit—but they were trying to make it illegal to be a Mexican in fucking Arizona. Good luck with that. And they were trying to pass a copycat law in this little town called Fremont, Nebraska, which is outside of Omaha. So we teamed up with the ACLU and raised a shit ton of money and sued Fremont to the point that we were going to bankrupt the fucking city. They had to give up. Basically, they couldn’t enact the law, even though they’d passed it. That was a triumph.
But during that time—because my mom is friends with Susie Buffett, Warren Buffett’s daughter, and she’s a very progressive activist—I was getting literal death threats put in my mailbox in my house, so for the three days we were down at the festival, the Buffett family loaned me their Navy SEAL bodyguard! I had this guy, who was nice, but he was hanging out with me day and night with a fucking gun in his belt as I went around and did all the shit for the show. It felt very real—because there were people protesting outside, and it just takes one crazy person to shoot you in the street. At the same time, if you believe in something and you have a platform to express that—and I never feel like artists are obligated to do this—but if you are compelled to do it for your own conscience, then fucking speak up and do your part!
Both as a writer and a musician, I have a small platform. You obviously have a much bigger platform. But either way, people do pay attention. And I find that when I do speak out, I get more mail that is from people who feel the same way, who feel emboldened to express those feelings in their own lives than they may have otherwise. If that’s the smallest thing we can do, and certainly you have a much bigger platform, then it’s incumbent on us to do that, right?
Yeah. Totally. I live in the stereotypical liberal bubble, in the sense that I lived in New York for 13 years, and now I’m in LA. I’ve basically only lived in LA and New York. But also Omaha, where I grew up, which is obviously a very different place. But even in Omaha, I hung out with the fucking liberal arts people. So I have a skewed version of reality, no doubt. But I also have traveled this country and the world so many times that I’ve been around all kinds of people and I’m always blown away by the fact that there’s more people that don’t think like me than think like me. That’s sad, but I think that way of looking at the world is also crumbling. Plus, it’s a good thing to be aware of other ways of thinking. And it’s not their fault. It’s not that they’re all bad people.
Well, essentially since Reagan, Republicans have been defunding education and consolidating the media, playing this nefarious game so that people are undereducated and underinformed. Plus, they play the gerrymandering game and all these other blatant forms of voter suppression that make those votes more powerful than those in California and New York. So maybe Joe Biden’s going to win by six million votes. But he still might lose. That’s the scary thing about it: It’s minority rule. Because what’s Trump’s real support? 30 or maybe 35 percent?
Yeah. He lost by three million votes!
And it’s going to be by much more this time, and yet we’re arguing over Pennsylvania and Florida, and they may and up winning in court.
By using their newly appointed Supreme Court justice! It’s fucking crazy. But I think you’re onto it with the education piece. I love-slash-hate—because I just think it’s hilarious—conservative talk radio, when they’re all up in arms about kids at Vassar College being “indoctrinated” into left-wing politics at school. I’m like, “Dude, it’s embarrassing to say, but it’s true.” But on the other hand, I didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre until I watched fucking Watchmen on HBO! I was like, “What?” It’s mind-blowing. How the fuck is that not taught to every kid? Obviously, it’s horrific, so maybe wait till kids are in eighth grade or something, but if you’re learning about the Holocaust in Germany, shouldn’t you learn about the Tulsa massacre? It happened in our fucking country! That is a big part of I think where we’re at, at this point. People are literally living on different planets, and it’s sad.