Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thoughts on Springsteen, on the re-release of 'Born to Run', and more

During the round-the-room-introductions for one of my new classes this term, I was asked who the 'new' Springsteen is. (The question didn't simply come from out of the blue - I said that I study 'white masculinity', so Shannon asked who had inherited the mantle of white masculine folk-hero) It occurred to me later that, since Springsteen has been undergoing a latter-career renaissance (a new album in 2005, cover album in 2006), that the new Springsteen might be... Springsteen. Combined with numerous abortive attempts by other artists to assume the Springsteen role as voice of a white working-class generation, it seems reasonable that we'd cast our glance backward and simply embrace young Springsteen. Since his classic 'Born To Run' album was recently re-released as a special edition and a live album pulled from that tour's shows was also released last year, it seems a reasonable guess.

What gets glossed over, though, in this re-appropriation of Springsteen is just how ambivalent and angry 'Born To Run' was: in this nostalgic revisiting of young Springsteen, the anger and disaffection of working-class youth has been fully romanticized. (Not to say that this is new - Springsteen has been made out to be something of a joyful rebel from three decades now. His least successful albums have invariably been those that do the most to resist optimistic listening experiences.)

For instance: 'Backstreets', a song that's as much about the abandonment that the singer feels over being left behind by his childhood friend as it is resentment over not being able to escape 'the backstreets' himself, has become something of an anthem for growing up poor and making good. The 'Terry' that he addresses is one of many gender-ambiguous characters, a curious lyrical habit that gets far too little attention and Springsteen uses to increase the anxiety. However, like most pop music gestures of defamiliarization, the music critic/fan's canonical explanation has long been that Terry is a guy and that Springsteen's first lyrical descriptor - 'friends' - should be taken at face value. Lines like 'soft infested summer', 'Valentino drag', and, of course, 'an angel on my chest/Just another tramp of hearts/Crying tears
of faithlessness' are somehow forgotten when people now take up young Springsteen.

But now that I've poked holes in the iconicity of the Boss's image, I think it's also worth noting how Springsteen eventually came to reinforce his own reception as an unproblematically straight white masculine middle-class hero.

Two brief examples: 'Born in the USA', of course, is a scathing critique of Vietnam War-era foreign policy that is overwhelmed by its anthem-rock aesthetic and totally loses its trajectory under a great synth-line and booming beat. When Bruce yells between lines in 'Born to Run', the pain is undeniable; when he screams the chorus to 'Born in the USA', the anger is easily mistaken for enthusiasm. The rhetorical shift in the titles is also important. While 1975's Springsteen is a man without a home - and since he is born to 'run', we can expect that he'll never find one - 1984's is, at the very least, willing to commit to one that he feels uneasy about.

This movement meets its completion in the final song of the '84 album, 'My Hometown', and it's here that Springsteen embraces his folk hero status with little reservation. Though a lot of his lyrical content is the same, his voice is curiously distanced and the song's ending, while hinting at a cylical narrative and so potentially disruptive of a happy ending, seems bizarrely optimistic in its soft and wistful delivery. Where the first song growled angrily about racism, Springsteen sounds almost nostalgic for it in the final one. Or, perhaps, defeated. Fashioned by the media to be somehow emblematic of an American identity category that he himself resisted and criticized, Springsteen relents at the close of the song. Through repetition, 'Your hometown' comes to be less about the characters in the narrative and more of a universalizing gesture that links Springsteen and his listeners. Without a 'Terry' to disrupt an easy identification, the fan and the Boss become interchangeable subject positions and Springsteen allows himself to be the universal subject that people always wanted him to be. 'Born in the USA', remember, was used by Reagan to campaign for the presidency later that year. In this light, it's no wonder that people can forget how 'Born To Run' was a big "fuck you".


Jason Powell said...


Just curious: Have you heard the 2006 cover album?

I've never been a Springsteen fan myself (don't know if it's generational, but "Born to Run" never clicked with me, so I just assumed if I didn't like that I wasn't going to like anything) but they were playing the cover album at a bar the other day -- the rendition of "Erie Canal" blew me away.

I asked who it was, the bartender told me, "it's the new Springsteen," and I was amazed. I never thought I'd even consider buying a Springsteen album, but I'm pretty sure I'll be buying this one.

Just wondering if you had any thoughts on it.

neilshyminsky said...

I haven't heard any of it, actually - being an odd sort of Springsteen-purist, I don't listen to his post-Born in the USA stuff. This probably isn't fair of me, but I have my own nostalgic investment in what the Boss represents. Still, if I'm theorizing about a 'new Springsteen', I should probably familiarize myself with the 'new NEW Springsteen', should I? Hmm.

Jason Powell said...

Music tastes are of course ridiculously subjective, but -- that said, if you can download a copy of "Erie Canal," I highly recommend it!