As a kid, I didn't really have celebrity crushes. I wasn't into boy/girl bands, and I didn't have posters of pop stars to gaze at. That being said, Conor Oberst was the exception. I'm going to swallow my pride to write this: I was a Bright Eyes fangirl. I listened to his most dissonant, vaguely audible four-track songs on repeat and snuck into 18+ shows when I was barely a teenager, squeezing my way to the front to lean against the stage and mouth every word. He had that androgynous allure that many of my future girlfriends would have: soupy bangs in his sorrowful eyes, tight jeans, and tangible angst. I had (still probably have) a kelly-green Bright Eyes T-shirt with a girl playing violin in the rain on it. Hey, it was the early aughts, okay?
I eventually grew out of this fanaticism, as one does. I hadn't thought about Bright Eyes in many years except to nostalgically turn the volume up whenever Oberst's barely on-key quiver emerges on Pandora. That is, until his libel suit against the commenter on XOJane accusing him of rape started to make headlines.
I never, ever thought that my feminist politics would contradict my history as a Bright Eyes fan. After all, he's a feminist too, right? Surely the man who in 2005 sang a song about George W. Bush on The Jay Leno Show, which included the lines "Does he ask to rape our women's rights / and send poor farm kids off to die?" could not himself be a rapist — nor could he be someone who would then, in turn, try to silence a woman speaking out.
It's shameful to admit it, but when I first heard about the accusation, I had to fight the urge to say that Oberst would never do such a thing. I was talking to my girlfriend about it, and she could tell from my face that I was shocked (I can't control my eyebrows). She asked me, "Why are you so surprised?" The answer on the tip of my tongue was, "Because I know him."
Of course, I don't know him, and that's where the danger lies. Regardless of whether or not he's guilty of rape, celebrities are humans, and humans frequently do terrible things. Yes, there are questionable aspects about the way this has played out: The comment was deleted but not recanted, and the woman who wrote it has claimed on Tumblr that she regrets speaking publicly about it because of the public outcry she's had to deal with (though that, too, has been deleted). It's far from a perfectly executed accusation. But, who are we to say that makes it less true? It's not like she had anything to gain from what she's claiming, since we live in a world that does not treat rape victims with respect. If anything, she's probably had to suffer more because she called him out — both from angry fans defending him and the libel suit that both punishes and silences her.
A statement by Oberst's publicist about the suit reads, "The only connection between Oberst and Faircloth was one of artist and fan – a fan who has posted laudatory comments about Oberst elsewhere online, including describing attending his band's concert as the 'Best memory ever!'"
There are a few issues here. First, the identity of his accuser is a bit muddied. While she originally commented under the name Joanie Faircloth, and linked to her personal Facebook page, she later switched to an anonymous username.* Oberst has filed his lawsuit against Faircloth, identifying her by name despite her switch to anonymity — which stirs up some other questions around anonymity and safe spaces on the Internet, but that's a discussion for a separate story.
So, going back to the statement, I have to wonder what the relationship between an artist and a fan is, anyway. When I was 16, the age the accuser was when she says she was raped, I would have done just about anything to be in the same room as Oberst. That's the thing about powerful music: It becomes so personal that it's impossible to separate the songs we love from the person creating them. That person becomes the perfect object for our projections, especially when they sing about pain that feels so real and so raw that we adopt it as our own. But, I think we need to talk about this idol worship that makes us forget that our idols are strangers, no matter how many poignant lyrics they mumble/scream that speak directly to our hearts. Just because we love them does not make them good people — whether it's Beiber or Woody Allen or a misanthropic indie singer.
I know I'm just one of many, many people who experienced this emotional transference with Bright Eyes at a young age, and I think that's part of why his libel suit is making such big headlines. No one wants to think that this sensitive person who created the art that got us through so many bad times could be capable of violence, because it feels like a personal betrayal.
Regardless of the verdict of the libel suit, there's no positive outcome for anyone, now that this conversation has started. I know I personally won't ever be able to listen to the music without thinking about this, without feeling guilty for endorsing a maybe-rapist. I've boycotted people's work for far less serious crimes than rape. Even as I write this, "June On The West Coast" is playing in my mind, and the melody that was once comforting now feel distinctly ominous. I know that's just the sort of thing the libel suit is about: The accusation is tainting his music. If he didn't do it, if he's the victim of terrible trolling, that's a real shame.
Moving forward, I really hope that this libel suit won't deter other women from calling out well-known figures for rape. The legal action is unfortunately a very strong message to anyone who was considering speaking out against a celebrity. And, it's not just accusing the celebrity of wrongdoing, but forcing that person's fans to acknowledge the fact that the art they love might come from a person who hurts others. That's a really hard thing to acknowledge, but perhaps if we all try to stop putting celebrities on such high pedestals, we won't be so disbelieving when they do things that are low.
*This statement has been updated to reflect information provided by Oberst's representation.