Bobby Conn lives the double life of average Joe and glittery rock star
Seeing Bobby Conn in his garish makeup and purple skin-tight suit singing in falsetto that drips with gender-bender angst, it’s hard to imagine him being a family man who slaves away at a desk job.
His high-energy performances reach stadium proportions, no matter the size of venue or audience: Light shows, video projections, matching silver metallic tunics, a band that surges between subtle and sonic, often accompanied by an orchestra. And then, of course, there’s the dramatic performance Conn contributes to the spectacle.
However, underneath Conn’s stage persona as a wild, sparkly drama queen is a life that is as ordinary as your next-door neighbor’s—wife, kids, full-time job.
“I really don’t think my story is that interesting,” he said. “Before, I wanted my real life to be the ‘Bobby Conn’ life, but now I’ve done all the drugs and shitty things I want to do. But I don’t want to have integrity, you know, ‘cause integrity’s boring.”
Conn’s latest, King for a Day, is an anthemic record filled with psychedelic instrumental passages set between grandiose pop and tragic ballads that tell a story from the perspective of someone who escapes the drudgery of work by living in a fantasyland of excesses for a mere 24 hours. After a dismal American tour and poor sales of his Live Classics Vol. 1 in 2005, Conn examined what he calls his midlife crisis through the glittered eye shadow of his stage persona to create King for a Day.
“I was trying to figure out a way to portray this sort of maudlin self-pity of the fading entertainer,” he said. “I also took a lot of cues from popular culture these days: The way that people are obsessed with celebrities. Even my own minor cult weirdo status leads people to treat me the odd, odd way that is really disconcerting.”
Conn was born in New York and lived in South America before making Chicago his permanent home in the ‘90s. Chicago’s math rock scene at the time was a sharp contrast to Conn’s vision of accessible, ridiculous glam music. A fan of bands like Sweet, Queen and the off-beat comedy of Neil Hamburger, Conn created epic songs by mixing ‘70s-rock excess, ‘50s crooners and his own brand of humor.
He released his first album and video, Never Get Ahead, in 1996 on the small Chicago record label Truck Stop. His second album, 1998’s Rise Up, recorded with Jim O’ Rourke, seemed ahead of its time with its prediction of a “dystopian future for America where the religious right becomes really powerful in politics and drives the country down.”
Critics took notice, and Conn signed with Thrill Jockey in 1999. He’s since released a record every year, and his subject matter continues to satirize the political and sexual morals of modern America. His 2001 album, The Golden Age, recorded just before 9/11, focuses on “self-satisfied righteous complacency that Americans are so good at.”
Conn also filmed a series of monologues of himself discussing other critical subjects such as “Bobby Conn on Satanic Forces” and “Our National Funk,” both of which border on frightening as a wild-eyed Conn screams and taunts the viewer like a late-night TV-show preacher. For most of his films Conn has worked with Iraqi-American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi, who recently completed the documentary Nice Bombs about his journey to Iraq in 2004.
But Conn isn’t always on. Unlike many performers who remain in character, Conn is comfortable with taking off his mask for his audience to see. In the video for “King for a Day,” he exposes his ordinary self, sans makeup and wearing regular clothes for a brief moment when his glam persona and everyday guy finally acknowledge each other. That won’t likely be the case in a live setting. In fact, the Conn on stage will likely make audiences completely forget the fact that he holds down a regular day job.
Conn attributes his approach to performance to an unlikely source.
“I am a big fan of Sammy Davis Jr.,” he said. “It’s his craft to entertain, even if he has to start making sandwiches for people while juggling. He is such a committed freak, and that’s where I want to be.”