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On Bruce Springsteen and Silver-Plated Assholes

So apparently, writing about Bruce Springsteen is a “thing” in the mainstream media again, just like back in the Time/Newsweek cover days, only who buys paper magazines anymore? Probably people who still write for the mainstream media.

You may have stumbled upon Jeffery Goldberg’s “Wow, Chris Christie really likes the Boss” article, or David Brooks’ “wow, those europeans really like New Jersey” piece. The latest is David Remnick’s extensive profile of Springsteen for The New Yorker, which I actually thought was pretty good.

But wait–where’s the backlash? Come on down, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic!

The musical decline of Bruce Springsteen has been obvious for decades. The sanctimony, the grandiosity, the utterly formulaic monumentality; the witlessness; the tiresome recycling of those anthemic figures, each time more preposterously distended; the disappearance of intimacy and the rejection of softness. And the sexlessness: Remnick adores Springsteen for his “flagrant exertion,” which he finds deeply sensual, comparing him to James Brown, but Brown’s shocking intensity, his gaudy stamina, his sea of sweat, was about, well, fucking, whereas Springsteen “wants his audience to leave the arena, as he commands them, ‘with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated!’”, which is how you talk dirty at Whole Foods. Remnick lauds him also for his “exuberance,” which is indeed preternatural. I was twice at The Bottom Line in August 1975 and I have never been in a happier room. But there is nothing daft or insouciant, nothing crazy free, about Springsteen’s exuberance anymore. The joy is programmatic; it is mere uplift, another expression of social responsibility, a further statement of an idealism that borders on illusion. The rising? Not quite yet. We take care of our own? No, we do not. Nothing has damaged Springsteen’s once-magnificent music more than his decision to become a spokesman for America. He is Howard Zinn with a guitar.

Let’s unpack this blowhard’s bullshit.

Wieseltier first takes aim at much of the recent writing about Springsteen; on that subject, I mostly disagree. I thought the Remnick piece was a great example of modern long-form celebrity journalism, and had a couple layers working–he presented Springsteen honestly and relatively unadorned, but had the space to examine the artist as well as describing him. Wieseltier quotes one particular bit about Springsteen’s ass: “He is the rare man of sixty-two who is not shy about showing his ass—an ass finely sausaged into a pair of alarmingly tight black jeans—to twenty thousand paying customers.”

Springsteen DOES do that. I guess the mere fact of writing about someone’s ass in jeans is by itself supposed to be overly laudatory? I think it’s a statement of fact, well-described, that could be viewed in a number of ways–he’s not writing about how great Springsteen’s ass looks in those jeans. Although, come on, IT TOTALLY LOOKS GREAT AMIRITE LADIES?

The Goldberg piece was irrelevant to me from a Springsteen perspective, other than to reinforce that in spite of his decent taste in music, Governor Christie is a gold-plated asshole. And David Brooks is a silver-plated asshole. Cheap sterling silver.

As for the rest of Wieseltier’s takedown…I don’t know quite where to start. Most of it comes down to taste, of which I believe I have a great deal, and Leon Wieseltier has close to none. (“It’s been downhill since Dion,” he writes, as if that’s a badge of honor, or perhaps an ironic commentary on how much he clearly DOES know about music, since as any reader with a brain can see, he has so effectively dismantled the Springsteen mythology with the power of his WORDS. Dancing about architecture, indeed.)

I happen to disagree with him completely on pretty much every judgment he makes about Springsteen’s latest music–to me, it’s not at all “The sanctimony, the grandiosity, the utterly formulaic monumentality; the witlessness; the tiresome recycling of those anthemic figures, each time more preposterously distended; the disappearance of intimacy and the rejection of softness.” In fact, I think Springsteen’s music is the exact opposite of all of those things–even today, forty years on, when he’s clearly not delivering the goods for this particular snob. I can provide examples if required.

His central argument seems to boil down to this “Howard Zinn with a guitar” bullshit, which is admittedly a good line, but he says it as though it’s a bad thing. If he happens to be “Howard Zinn with a guitar” and he personally does make my ass shake and my feet tap and my sexual organs occasionally stimulate (TMI?), then what exactly is the problem?

Springsteen should do more? He should incite revolution, or play his protest songs outside Wells Fargo instead of in an arena where people have paid money to see him? He should give all his cash to the poor and get himself jailed on a daily basis to provide truth to power? Or is it that this writer and others really DO want Springsteen to be a nostalgia act, the Beach Boys with more black people, reliving his own glory days ad infinitum so that middle-aged white guys can feel more comfortable with their own greed and selfishness?

Who else is even trying to accomplish what Springsteen realizes, every night he goes on stage? This is a man who just months ago was singing a protest song about racism and law enforcement a stone’s throw from Sanford, FL, where Trayvon Martin was gunned down. Then he covered Smokey Robinson. One night that can encompass the beauty of trivial music and the tragedy of trivial violence. Pop is eating itself, that’s been true for decades–but Springsteen’s not on the menu.

It’s increasingly convenient to fall back on old chestnuts when it comes to rock stars Of A Certain Age. The truth is that we’re charting new territory here. Rock may have began as music of the young and angry and proud, and sometimes it’s still that, but it’s also capable of much more. Bruce Springsteen is rich; he is a rock star; he is 62 years old; he’s an artist; he’s an American with ideas about America. If you can’t roll with all of those things coexisting in one guy, that’s your problem, not his.

Check out My Summer Of Bruce, where I’m spending 100 days listening to and writing about the Boss.