I listen to a lot of music. Over 104,000 minutes’ worth last year according to Spotify, which I’ve used for years to stream a nearly endless catalog of music after abandoning thousands of purchased (and pirated) mp3s on iTunes, which I used for years after abandoning the multitudinous CDs I listened to on a loop on my Walkman, the hunger for which was catalyzed by being entranced practically since birth by whatever we could find on the family car radio. Some of my strongest memories are driving to and from our local beach in the summer, on winding, narrow roads under a canopy of trees, and listening, primarily, to the local oldies and classic rock stations. This has to be the way I first heard “Hotel California,” though I cannot even begin to know how old I was then, let alone a specific first listen. Maybe it’s my age, but “Hotel California” feels to me like a song that has literally always existed, perpetually buzzing on the sunny haze of peripheral FM airwaves, waiting only for you to turn the dial to the right degree.
This, too, seems thematically appropriate, considering the song’s topic, however intentionally obscure the details remain to be. Members of the Eagles have gone back and forth for decades on what the True Meaning of the song is—alcohol, fame, nothing at all—but the resounding cultural interpretation is that it narrates an unwitting induction to a cult.
Welcome to Hotel California—such a lovely place!—you can never leave.
While this read has been disputed by the songwriters, it speaks to the same underlying feeling as their offered meanings: a sense of misplaced escapism, attempts at freedom which seem to only further ensnare you, a veritable removed, ethereal eternity.
In a way, this, too, is how I view music. Throughout my childhood, and especially in my adolescence, I viewed blasting music as a way to quite literally tune out the rest of the world, coddling my angst in a blanket of hearing damage. Even now, whenever I feel unbearably anxious or deeply sad, my first thought is to very loudly listen to music, hoping to drown out whatever overwhelming feeling I may be experiencing, or at least enhance it in commune with the musicians. This impulse figures in a huge way into my relationship with live music; I’ve sacrificed countless hours of my time waiting in lines in hope to snatch a barricade spot, spent thousands of dollars on tickets, lost many decibels of my hearing in the pursuit of the experience of live music. It’s the escapism I seek in listening to music in its purest form, all-encompassing and visceral.
You can imagine, then, my excitement when I learned—by way of a static-y, deeply unsettling hotline message I literally dialed in at midnight to hear—that two of my favorite musicians, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, had formed a band called Better Oblivion Community Center. The subsequent eponymous album deals heavily with how we process trauma, substance abuse, death, hopefulness, hopelessness. The lyrics are grounded, human, questioning, but the persona and overall marketing of the band helped position themselves, perhaps somewhat jokingly, as a way to transcend these struggles and enter a place of fraught euphoria. The thesis seems to be that we encounter many awful, soul-sucking oblivions in which to throw ourselves every day; what if they found one which was, for lack of another word, better?
The tour stops would be called “meetings.” They sold membership pins. It felt very much like a temporary cult—one you know is a cult before you attempt to engage—a place where, ever so briefly, you were immersed in this beautiful, communal, all-consuming thing, and would walk away when it was over. I could stay in one such lovely place, then leave.
When I arrived at my BOCC show—front and center, after having waited hours in line—I was thinking about “Hotel California.” I’d agreed to do this essay months prior to BOCC’s formation and had been grasping at something to write about the entire time; I’d continually returned to the cult-like aspect of the song (foregoing the many other notable tracks on the album), and the week before the show, the comparison between the song and this band struck me. Not knowing what the “meeting” would entail—I was unable to find much about the shows online beyond setlists and videos of the band crushing it on stage—I decided to ride with it and see if it would be a fruitful playout. I had envisioned strategically constructed setpieces, speeches about emotional openness, Conor musing on existentialism, many a ritualistic thing.
Though there were few setpieces beyond a keyboard stand cover with the band’s name and a few standing light bulbs along the front of the stage, one of the first things I noticed was the backdrop—a cartoonish, neon-colored depiction of a cinder block community center, doors flung open to unveil what appeared to be either a burst of light or the Abyss. A fluorescent pink graffiti message reading “IT WILL END IN TEARS” lorded over the whole affair. In any other set of hands, it would have felt like kitsch; here, it felt like a promise.
My friends and I passed the time before the show and inbetween sets talking about our star signs (there was Big Water Sign Energy in this group), timing runs to the bathroom, discussing how much we would break down during the set, recounting all the ways in which these musicians had broken us down before. There was an air that we were preparing ourselves for some great rite, a transformative experience. It felt, in the moment, very Hotel California, very ‘70s, very nearly tongue-in-cheek to the uninitiated outside observer.
As we would learn, nothing about this show was tongue-in-cheek, unless we were mocking our own preconceived notions about emotionalism in music. My sense of communal escapism through music is just that—communal. My sort of relationship to music is extremely common, and part of the beauty I’ve found in it comes from the fact that other people seek refuge in such experiences, too. The band began to play and every note was pitch perfect, every emotion I’d felt listening to these musicians over the years was amplified tenfold, crystalline and authentic, heightened by the sense of camaraderie and shared emotional surrender amongst the crowd.
After seeing the show, I can now say that, before experiencing Better Oblivion live, I didn't actually know what the album was about. I thought it was about sadness, about loss, about fear, carefully placed projections ignoring the layers of the work. I’ve been removing myself from the game of over-interpreting every line of every song in recent years, a recovering English major, trying to be, as Conor and Phoebe sing on “Chesapeake,” “all covered in sound.” In that vein, I know how I felt when the band closed their pre-encore set with a cover of Phoebe’s “Scott Street,” passing the mic into the crowd for the harmonious, sing-along outro. Conor, harbinger of my teenage ennui, a figure for so long trapped grasping at light and happiness, is dancing around, giggling with a tambourine, enthusiastically encouraging the chosen concert-goer through each round of “oooh-ooohs.” Phoebe is providing vocals and lead guitar, grinning as she repeats “anyway, don’t be a stranger,” then howling laughing, offering a high five in exchange for the mic. The entire crowd in the packed, loud club is singing in unison, swaying, the energy radiating, palpably infectious. Though I resist, I have the urge to hug everyone around me.
I want to live in this handful of moments forever, with this collection of people, under this fluorescent graffiti promise—crying as advertised, only this time, not out of our predicted one-dimensional sadness, but rather some mix of joy, awe, communion, rapture, redemption.
The literalist interpretation of “Hotel California” is that the speaker is physically unable to leave the hotel after checking in. This flattens the song, I think, and cheapens the way we think of the oblivions that can consume us. What makes a cult so intriguing is not what happens while you’re actively participating, but the hold it exercises over you the rest of the time.
Though I was able to physically leave the meeting, I spend every free second the next day watching videos on Instagram and invariably getting chills whenever a recording of “Scott Street” appears. I talk about almost nothing else, the sensation of the show still buzzing in my chest. On the metro home, I listen to the album and wear the membership pin on my jacket, a bronze medallion which reads “NOT A COPY.” I watch the usual train goings-on, the conversations and the kids running amok and doors which take two seconds too long to close. I’m usually painfully aware of what is happening around me, but in the moment, I am removed from them all, bouncing on my feet, feeling changed.