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Conn Job

Christopher Myers
Strike a Pose: Bobby Conn and band celebrate and satirize the big rock show.

By Ian Nagoski | Posted 11/21/2001

Bobby Conn

Bobby Conn

2001-11-21-feedback

It was fun at the time, but in retrospect it was a grim spectacle at the Ottobar as Chicago's Bobby Conn, bedecked in purple pleather and a big gold medallion, peered into the audience and wailed, "There will be no revolution, no revolution here!" The club's PA obliterated most of the acerbic lyrics to his unsettling songs; the band's matching pleather suits, metal guitar solos, shimmy-shake grooves, makeup, and vacant looks onstage did most of the talking, speaking of the ridiculous, vacuous huff of helium that is white pop music. Not that it stopped anyone in attendance from eating up Conn's insidiously infectious show.

Conn's knowing spite is par for the course. On his new album, The Golden Age (Thrill Jockey), Conn attacks his generational peers' indulgence in drugged deliriums, their soul-killing dream jobs and escapist nostalgia, while referring to himself at various points as "confused" and "dumb" and "a whore." Golden Age's songs are a hoot, not so much for their lush, imaginative arrangements, but because it's exhilarating to hear the truth being told.

At the Ottobar, Conn took time between songs to mock show-biz sentimentality and people with enough money to own vacation property but not enough imagination to do anything but fish in their spare time. The few audible lyrics--lines about swimwear and white bread sung with earnest conviction--wafted like ammonia through the bar. The band mugged, striking rock poses in their ridiculous clothes, reminding the audience that they were participating in a sad, funny leftover fantasy grown amid the tract homes of America.

The line about swimwear comes from "Angels," a straight-faced story of a pathetic teenage coke party that turns first into a suicide attempt and subsequently a confused sexual encounter. Framed in thudding drums and disco-wah guitar, it sounds like the kind of dull, numbing rock that saves kids from the pain and isolation of their teens, but that also traps them in a permanent fog of pubescent fantasy.

While tunes such as "Angels" and the sarcastic samba "The Best Years of Our Lives" make Conn's suburban loathing clear, his performance complicates the issue. He and his band have the chops and style of sexualized rock messiahs, the Bowies, Morrisseys, Iggys, and Princes. Conn seems possessed by rock even as he criticizes it. At the same time, his indictments are straight-shooting and much funnier than the deluded, elegiac pop dreams that fill kids' ears. On the album's title track, he croons, "The market takes the best/ And punishes the rest/ And I wonder if it's really worth the fight." When the craze for telling the brutal truth while wearing synthetic purple pants comes, Conn will be heralded as the originator. Until then, the faithful few who appreciate his music will have to imagine the stadiums of screaming kids. And for those fans, Conn's shows help deflate the balloon of shallow pop piffle.

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More from Ian Nagoski

Notes From Home (4/1/2009)
A short tour of non-English-language music for sale in Baltimore

LEAF: The Twisty Story of a Baltimore Record (2/27/2008)

Life of the Party (8/21/2002)

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