Conor Oberst has had a busy 10 years. He's released five albums with Bright Eyes and two solo roots-rock records, and has worked on a number of side projects. But he says taking a political stand is new to him.
"It's not something I did when I first started making music," Oberst says. "It's something I grew into the more I became aware of the world and what power musicians and public figures have. I don't do it lightly. It's not something I enjoy doing, but I feel compelled to do it."
Oberst has been outspoken about immigration laws in the country, and it became personal when one such law was proposed just 30 miles west of his hometown of Omaha, Neb.
Since 2008, citizens of the small eastern Nebraska city of Fremont have been trying to get a law on the books that would ban renting to or hiring undocumented workers. In the 1990s, the city became home to two meatpacking plants, which attracted Hispanic immigrant workers. Proponents of the ordinance say the town of about 25,000 has seen an increase in costs for law enforcement and schools.
"We have people that are here. We don't know their medical backgrounds; we don't know their criminal backgrounds, and that makes me nervous," says State Sen. Charlie Jannsen of Fremont. "I have two small children. They're people that could be handling my children and your children and Nebraska children, and we don't know anything about these people."
Jannsen introduced a proposal for Nebraska similar to Arizona's controversial Arizona immigration law. The city of Fremont is embroiled in two federal lawsuits over its own ordinance, which passed as a ballot referendum last year. To raise awareness of the issue, Oberst staged a 14-band benefit concert last summer on a street in his hometown. Proceeds from the sold-out show went to the ACLU, one of the groups that have sued the city over the ordinance.
The Power Of 'This Land Is Your Land'
On the bill that night were Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, a folk duo that drove from California. After a sing-along of the classic "This Land Is Your Land," Rawlings told the audience about buying a newspaper on the way to the gig.
"I saw Conor was on the cover of the paper," Rawlings said at the concert. "And then there was another woman who was a radio talk show host, and she said when musicians try to say things or try to be political in any way that they sound silly. I don't know. I don't think that Woody Guthrie was a silly man, and I don't think 'This Land Is Your Land' is a silly song. And I have a feeling people are going to be singing 'This Land Is Your Land' long after they forgot about that radio host and her professional political opinions."
Whether or not musicians have the ability to shape society's views is debatable. University of Nebraska, Lincoln music professor Scott Anderson has studied protest music and teaches a class on the subject. He says music can have an impact on society, and that you can look beyond protest songs to find how great that impact can be.
"Look at the power that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Stones — look at the power these artists had at shaping culture and the way we think about things," Anderson says.
One People, One Nation
But it was clear from the fans who came to Omaha from around the country that they were there primarily for the music.
"I really didn't care," says Clay Swanson of Arlington, Iowa. "I love these bands — loved them since I was a little kid. I saw Conor Oberst on the news, and he said a thing that rang true: that is, that being an immigrant is the most American thing you can be, and that's true. It is."
The band most of the people came to see was Oberst's sociopolitical punk group Desaparacidos, which hadn't performed together for eight years.
During the band's last song of the night, when Oberst made clear his position on the Fremont ordinance, even the most oblivious fans cheered him on.
"We want to say to our Latino brothers and sisters that we stand with you in solidarity, and when your dignity is compromised, our dignity is compromised," Oberst said at the concert. "When your rights are defiled, our rights are defiled. We are one people, we are one nation, and we will not let these bigoted crazy maniacs take our country from us. So are you with me? Are you with me?"
For a moment they joined him in his outrage. As for the new Bright Eyes album, The People's Key, there are no overt political messages, but rather a general theme of acceptance and unity.