Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Springsteen Paradox

Who's the Boss??
I drove by Kenmore Square this evening, and with the windows down I could just hear the garbled echo of what sounded like "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" bouncing off the walls of the buildings around Fenway Park.  Oh yeah, I thought to myself, Springsteen is playing in town; this must be the night.

Which only made me a little sad, frankly.  Don't get me wrong - when I was sixteen, I wore a deep groove in the grooves of Born to Run;  I listened to it over and over again, all summer long, in the days when songs - and albums - lasted.

Back then, I thought it was genius.

Now, of course, I think it's cheese - but what cheese!  And Bruce himself - well, I know Landau ruined him, that's true, but even now, when sometimes it seems as if he himself is the subject of "Point Blank," there are still a few good new (or newish) songs to be savored amid the inflated anthems.  And no, Bruce isn't any kind of force for cultural change - nor was he ever - but you get the feeling he at least has tried to hang onto the integrity of the romance his songs stood for.

And yes, part of that romance is - political romance.

So here's to Bruuuuce!  But these days, all I can think of when I think about Springsteen are the ugly mugs of Chris Christie and David Brooks.  You see recently it has come out that both these conservative hacks are . . . wait for it . . . Springsteen fans. Indeed,  in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Jeffrey Goldberg detailed the (Republican) governor of New Jersey's desperate attempts to be blessed in some way (any way) by the Boss, whom he all but worships.  Okay, you may say - Chris Christie is a hearty, hypocritical asshole, yes, but he is white, he's from a blue collar background, and he's from New Jersey. He grew up in a culture that doted on the Boss, and he's still true to that lifestyle (just on a grander scale).

But David Brooks?  Brooks is a Canadian Jew (bet ya didn't know that, did ya) - but as his father was American, he grew up in New York City, in Stuyvesant Town - which was basically public housing.  That's right: David Brooks grew up in public housing. (Let that sink in for a minute.) Brooks has always claimed that he was "originally" liberal, but we all know him by now as that oleaginous conservative serpent, silver-haired and silver-tongued,  who is forever shedding his latest skin on the op-ed page of the Times.  If he shares any of Chris Christie's balls-out, Rust-Belt-white-trash bonhomie, you couldn't tell by looking at (or listening to) him.

And yet Brooks, too, is a huge Springsteen fan, and was recently moved to write about a trip to Europe to hear the Boss play live.  Yes, you read that right - Brooks flew to the Continent to follow Springsteen's tour through Spain and France because "They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe."  (Seriously, who the fuck says that - Sasha Frere-Jones?)

But wait, it gets better - Brooks opines on the irony of Springsteen's European fan base being most passionate about "songs from the deepest and most distinctly American recesses of Springsteen’s repertoire."  Indeed, somewhere in "the middle of the Iberian peninsula," Brooks experiences something like a revelation:

I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!”

Okay, sure - that's ironic; they're like Spaniards (not Jewish Canadians!) who are really into American songs.  Wow.  But is this any more ironic than David Brooks himself waving his hands in the air and singing along (with Chris Christie, in absentia) to the songs of a man whose ideals both have labored all their adult lives to destroy?


I suppose that as Oscar Wilde once opined, you always kill the thing you love.  Still, Brooks seems completely unaware that his own Springsteen fandom is by now far, far stranger than the enthusiasm of some innocent kids in Spain (who are probably far to the left of Springsteen, anyhow).  Indeed, Brooks's fandom couldn't be more weirdly hypocritical - he has, after all, flown across the Atlantic (business class at least, I'm thinking) and bought top-tier tickets (and hotel rooms in Barcelona, Provence and Madrid) to listen to Bruce Springsteen sing about down-and-outers in New Jersey. (Seriously, even Chris Christie saw him in Newark!)

Springsteen's senior class photo.
And I'm not sure why, but something about this phenomenon - let's call it "The Springsteen Paradox" - makes me very sad; the hypocrisy here is so deep, so unconscious, that it's almost eerie.  And it makes me wonder whether even genuine art, as supposed to pop art like Springsteen's, isn't a kind of political joke, too; I wonder whether half the people who wrap themselves in it aren't actually devoted to destroying everything that it's truly about, just as Christie and Brooks are.

So as I heard the last, blurry echoes of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" disappear over the chasm of the Pike, I said a little prayer for Bruce Springsteen, something like: may the Lord save him - and all of us - from his greatest fans!  And I wondered whether the garbled sounds bouncing out of Fenway weren't somehow a statement in and of themselves.  Maybe Springsteen's music was always this distorted to many of his admirers.  Certainly David Brooks and Chris Christie never heard it clearly.


  1. Bruce isn't any kind of force for cultural change - nor was he ever - but you get the feeling he at least has tried to hang onto the integrity of the romance his songs stood for. Simply one of the best lines ever written.

  2. While campaigning in New Jersey in 1984, Ronald Reagan said in his speech: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

    Springsteen talked about this in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio. Said Bruce: "This was when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American, and if you were on the other side, you were somehow unpatriotic. I make American music, and I write about the place I live and who I am in my lifetime. Those are the things I'm going to struggle for and fight for."

  3. "Maybe Springsteen's music was always this distorted to many of his admirers. "

    Yes, it was. Anyone who could listen to the opening stanza of Born in the USA and think that this is an "America, Fuck Yeah!" type of song needs to understand the English language. And that's what so many of my friends did in 1984. They listened to Springsteen, and then voted for Reagan.

    Springsteen's been singing about the desperate and the downtrodden since 1973, and his songs have gotten progressively sympathetic to the plight of the working man. Part of the conservative distaste for Springsteen's current work stems from his unwillingness to dress up songs like "Death to My Hometown" (which he performs at every concert) into formats where the words can be ignored in favor of the simple hummable tune.

    A columnist recently dismissed him as "Howard Zinn with a Guitar". I think he's closer to a Woody Guthrie who can perform in sold out stadiums around the world, while still reminding us that people in our country and on our planet are still oppressed and hurting.

    The fact that David Brooks and Chris Christie can listen to Bruce Springsteen and still feel so little compassion for the people about whom he sings says far more about Brooks and Christie than it ever will about Springsteen.

  4. Complete the following equation:

    John (Cougar) Mellencamp = Bruce Springsteen - _______