Nobody ever went broke selling hummable romantic agony to teenage girls. Not Justin Timberlake, for sure, and not Conor Oberst either. Granted Oberst--an Omaha indie songpoet who composes his bands from a loose conglomeration of pals and still puts out records on his own label--is financially and ideologically light-years from the Britney-shtupping, TRL-schmoozing Timberlake. But try thinking of them in the context of the great high school that is American pop music: Oberst's the wiseass who mouths off about how grades are bullshit but aces tests without studying, and Timberlake's the blandly likable kid who's all things to all people--not really a jock though maybe he played JV soccer, not really a brain though he'll get into a good state school. They inhabit vastly different cliques, but judging by their recent recordings they both seem to be wondering what happens after graduation.
As well they should. Last spring 'N Sync and Oberst's main project, Bright Eyes, hit Minneapolis (where I was living at the time) within a couple months of each other. Justin and the boys played a basketball arena, and, aside from the occasional gay couple or harried dad, I was the only man in the audience. But though the din at the Target Center was of the same pitch and volume as when I'd seen the band there in '99, the tone seemed off. The older girls acted self-conscious, as if nostalgic for how they'd screamed for Justin or Lance or Joey when they were younger, and the little sisters they were instructing in the ways of concertgoing emptied their lungs as if nothing were at stake, as if luxuriating in noise for its own sake. There was no such lack of devotion in evidence at the small theater where Oberst performed. There were also more guys, though those bespectacled and besweatered fellas hardly seemed as transported by Oberst's undeniable dishiness as their dates. But some quick research on my part before the show suggested similar fan attrition. I mentioned to a friend, a 22-year-old indie-rock type, that I was going. "Conor's cute and all," she said, "but I'm really glad I grew out of that stuff." Later that same day, another friend told me almost the same thing. She was all of 21.
That's the danger for pretty boys who make their names early, but it's nothing a clever lad can't rise above. Both are currently on tour--Oberst plays Metro on Thursday, Timberlake hits the United Center in July--and both are growing up in public. It's a process the former started on his first solo record, Justified, the latter on the latest Bright Eyes album, Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.
It's about time. Though Timberlake just turned 22 this year and Oberst turned 23, both have been at it for a decade. Each of these discs is the testament of a not-a-boy-not-yet-a-man groping toward maturity--which, whether they realize it or not, means coming to grips with how one relates to women-not-girls.
For Timberlake, maturation is a calculated career move--since his album dropped in December, he and his flacks have been pumping the story of Lil' Justin All Growed Up to anyone with a running tape recorder. In Oberst's milieu such blatant machinations are unseemly, but his more assured sound is the leap of someone aspiring toward adulthood, and his lyrics, drained of maudlin kiddie ickiness like "I sing and drink and sleep on floors / And try hard not to be annoyed / By all these people worrying about me / So when I'm suffering through some awful drive / You occasionally cross my mind / It's my hidden hope that you are still among them" (from "Oh You Are the Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place," on 2001's split EP Oh Holy Fools), are restlessly forward-looking. "I don't know what tomorrow brings / It's alive with such possibilities," he sings on "Method Acting," though on "Big Picture" he's not so optimistic: "If you want to see the future / Go stare into a cloud." But it's not a question of whether his glass is half-empty or half-full--the point, as he later adds, is "I'm just too afraid of all this change." Since both artists have maintained their following--even increased it--with their latest records, the ways they navigate the rituals of maturation are hardly incidental. Each has found an image of manhood that strikes his audience as authentic and recognizable and acceptable. Oh, and sexy. Definitely sexy.
Both Timberlake and Oberst pass off their familiarity with sex as proof of maturity--a sure sign of immaturity in the real world, but a trait that signifies a certain amount of manliness in the realm of pop. For Oberst this is nothing new. Disillusionment with sex is his indie-rock birthright; he was probably writing about the emptiness of romance before his first nocturnal emission. "Love's an excuse to get hurt / And to hurt," he moons on "Lover I Don't Have to Love," a tale of casual sex that's anything but casual. Timberlake, on the other hand, struts his bedroom savvy, and with more of a sense of play--toward the close of his first track, he announces, "Gentlemen, good night. Ladies...good morning," then chuckles boyishly. On the chorus to his current single, "Rock Your Body," he promises, "Gonna have you nekkid by the end of this song."
Yet you can't jump from dry kissing to smack-it-flip-it-rub-it-down without risking a chorus of eeews from skittish fans. Which is where Timberlake's Michael Jackson adulation comes in--his performance at the MTV Video Music Awards crossed the line from homage to imitation, and almost every song on Justified takes some vocal cue or another from Jackson. Always a hypersexual performer, Jackson's gentleness and androgyny made him a safe lust object back before megalomania and freakishness became the whole of his public persona. Timberlake doesn't have the preternatural self-assurance to truly assimilate his idol's tics, but he does exude a healthy sense of entitlement. When he declares, "I used to dream about this when I was a little boy," on "Like I Love You," he may mean sex or he may mean stardom--but whichever it is, he seems to know it's in the bag now.
He irons out the sexual neuroses Jackson flaunted, stripping them of any subtext about the claustrophobia of megastardom and the paranoia it breeds. (Notably, he has the inverse racial hurdle to surmount, and blunts his ths into ds.) According to the flacks, heartbreak is the catalyst that's propelled him to manhood. (His heart's been broken three times, Rolling Stone laments.) The video for "Cry Me a River" shows an obvious stand-in for Britney cheating on Justin, and he counterattacks by giving her a video of him making it with another girl. There's a similar nastiness to the lyrics, but Timberlake's tone undercuts it; his meanness is paradoxically tender, and makes me feel sorry for him. (Well, as sorry as you can feel for a guy who's had his hand on Kylie Minogue's ass.) Compared to even the best of 'N Sync's puppy-dog weepers, "Cry Me a River" sounds recognizably grown-up.
Oberst's defining change is a new political awareness--Lifted closes with a wide-ranging protest number, "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (to Love and to Be Loved)," to which he's added a chorus explicitly about Iraq when he performs it live. These sentiments were foreshadowed on Read Music/Speak Spanish, the early 2002 release from Oberst side project Desaparecidos, a crunchy emo unit that sounded like a grunge Weezer. Read Music/Speak Spanish is almost a concept album about suburban sprawl and gentrification destroying Omaha. Like plenty of underpaid artists before him, Oberst links the evils of capitalism with the perfidy of women--the album begins with testimonies from gals who consider romance without finance a nuisance. ("I like a man that has money," one says with a vapid giggle.)
This is curious, because Oberst rarely relies on the depressive singer-songwriter trope of blaming ex-girlfriends for his misery. Nasty bits of obsessive love-hate like "The Calendar Hung Itself," from 2000's Fevers & Mirrors, are the exception. His main subject is the unbearable fragility of contact between humans, as a solution for which he's often encouraged us-against-the-world snuggling: "Now that it's June, we'll sleep out in the garden / And if it rains we'll just sink into the mud," he sings on "The Difference in the Shades," from 1998's Letting Off the Happiness. His songs are the typical reports from a bohemian dating scene where the boundaries between befriending and fucking blur uncomfortably.
Bohemia's sexual politics have always been tricky to navigate. When I saw Bright Eyes last spring Oberst was accompanied by an all-female band. The idea was probably to project camaraderie, but it looked like a warped indie-rock take on Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. There was also plenty of flirting as he gadded about the stage, and my friend Melissa said he seemed to play them off one another. But on the Desaparecidos record, Oberst locates the threat to his gender-balanced scene in the world outside. The male-narrated lead track, "Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)," is balanced by the woman's perspective on "Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)"; together the songs examine how economic insecurity and work-related stress crush relationships, cramming partners into the stereotypical gender roles they thought they'd wiggled out of. And on Lifted, rather than cuddling in the dirt, Oberst rouses a chorus of men and women to sing along with him. On the softer numbers, when the girls murmur in harmony, they sound more necessary than ever.
Neither Oberst nor Timberlake is coming up with any new sentiments, but neither perspective seems received--what they have in common are flexible responses to the boy-girl conundrum at the center of pop. Oberst has rallied his tiny community in a crusade against some distant, unlikable father figures. Timberlake has intertwined unthreatening sexuality and a cocksure swagger. He wants to make his growth seem graceful, inevitable, while Oberst tries to make it look like a struggle. Neither is totally persuasive. Timberlake's spontaneity and Oberst's pain both sound acted--not outright false, but an aspect of a role that each is feeling his way into. In fact, that sense of role playing, of trying out new ideas of manhood, is what makes their forays into adulthood sound so honest. Oberst's political pronouncements ("The approval rating's high / And so someone's gonna die") are all the more believable for being so callow, Timberlake's promises all the sexier for sounding like cheap come-ons.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven Klein, Ryan Fox.