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.

  • Mark Pollock

    And he takes a gratuitous shot at Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem) . . . he manages to go after my favorite thinker and favorite musician while making nary a substantive point and being pedantic. Thanks for calling him out.

  • Mark Saleski

    great stuff! i posted a link to this over at the discussion forum, where critics of the above hit pieces are routinely cast as Bruce kool aid drinkers. sad but true.

  • abyssgazer

    I think there’s more at work than taste here. To be honest, Springsteen has never really been my cup of tea, but I have enormous respect for the guy–he is truly gifted and, yes, he’s still got it.

    This sounds more like The New Republic’s typical contrived contrarianism–an act that was getting old and boring in 1994 and is forging new depths of tedium and irrelevancy today. Also, I think there was some classic projection going there–old creeps like Wieseltier like to think they’re still edgy and have something interesting to say and its guys like Springsteen who are shriveled up mediocrity. Yeah. Strike that, reverse it.

  • Matt Springer

    wow, thanks! I can’t decide if I’m excited or scared the link is on BTX… :) (I’m a semi-lurker there as “alertnerd”)

  • DwDunphy

    I have specific issues with artists who stop trying to record anything,
    and otherwise try to be things they aren’t (twenty-one years old).
    That’s why I live in dread of the upcoming Aerosmith album. Any artist
    that has a peak creative moment in their career will not recapture it
    easily, and a lot has to do with perception. You only get to the peak of
    the mountain for the first time once. From there on, you’re not as
    impressive — those highs don’t seem like such a challenge anymore and others might be beyond your reach. It should not diminish one’s appreciations, but it often does.

    Having said that, Springsteen doesn’t make awful records. Some of the songs from this past decade haven’t been career-defining (and this comes from someone who thinks Nebraska is his best work) but he has been far more consistent than one could have expected. He won’t ever make Born To Run, Born In The USA, or even The Rising again, nor should anyone expect him to. But he’s putting out records that have to suffer the burden of a legacy because, in my opinion, if this was a new artist the critics would be falling all over themselves.

    Mr. Wieseltier is not guilty of mis-assessing Springsteen so much as he is guilty of trying to cram him into his personal expectations.

  • Malchus

    Great point, Dw.

  • BellBino

    I like Bruce. Darkness on the Edge of Town is a classic album that everyone should own. But I think Wieseltier’s sentence (““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.”) is pretty apt. Fan boys love to drool all over Springsteen’s work but the fact is, with the exception of Nebraska, he’s been recycling the same schtick for a very long time. He makes the same record over and over. The effusiveness over Wrecking Ball is a case in point. It’s embarrassing to see critics fall over themselves praising what is a pretty pedestrian effort for Bruce. But then that’s the case for every legend. Bob Dylan has benefitted from far too many critics overestimating his recent work when, in fact, nothing he’s done in the last 15 years matches the influence/importance of his earlier work. But god forbid you should say that some “cool” icon is just recreating the wheel. Doesn’t make for exciting copy, so reviewers inflate the quality of Springsteen’s or Dylan’s recent work even though 50 years from now, no one is going to remember either man for their late-career, OK-but-not-great work. Not sure why fans of these talented men have to be so defensive about that.

  • BellBino

    Actually, looked at his recent work, if this was a new artist, I’d think: Why is this guy ripping off Bruce Springsteen? :)

  • Travis in KC

    I proudly drink the Bruce Juice and will always. When your FN great, your FN great and thats how that works. All you negative Nellies can say he has been recycling his music but that is far from the truth. I guess when Bieber gets his own station on sirius. But, there is some on here who think Bieber deserves his own station. Bruce was self made and that is truly the beauty of The Boss. He writes his own stuff and leads his band on stage and plays his has ass off for 3-4 hours. And nobody does this at all. I have said this and it still holds true from 1975 and currently still holds. You don’t go to a Bruce Springsteen show; you go to be a part of it. If you don’t or can’t understand that than you have missed out. And too bad for you. Even Prince said that Bruce fans are very special and nobody has loyal fans like the Boss. So don’t like Bruce, than go away and leave our fan base alone.

  • simona

    i have never been a great fan of Springsteen, but last May I went to his concert in Milan, and i simply adored him. what probably still appeals such huge audiences is his deeply and sincere human side, together with the high respect he has been paying to his public for decades. after thousands of concerts he sings and plays again as if it were his first concert, each time with the same enthusiasm. it was my first concert, but i’m sure i felt the same stamina and involevement as years ago, and he is 63 years old!!!

  • michigan wolverine

    I’m so tired of these sanctimonious rock critics. To see Bruce, is to experience Bruce. The point of the music and the performance is to involve the fan and maybe liberate them for a short time at the show and maybe enlighten them on other issues for life.
    “Hey ho, Rock n’ Roll deliver me from nowhere”….that’s all you need to know.

  • Karl Bullock

    I have been to over 50 Springsteen shows and a fan for the better part of 40 years. But I have to say I have had enough. With his solialistic beleifs spewing on stage during concerts where people pay money to be entertained I draw the line. He is a hypocrit beyond beleif with his support of the Occupy Movement while being a true 1% and utilizing all the loops holes possible to maintain paying no taxes etc. He has put himself in the same company as Bono , one of the largest assholes of a generation. Good bye Bruce you peice of shit.

  • Rich

    So once you reach the 1% you’re supposed to automatically turn your back on the other 99%? Is that your rule? If you’re in the 99% and you aspire to achieve to the 1%, you must adopt as your credo selfishness and assholishness lest you be branded a hypocrite? That doesn’t sound like the American dream. Sounds like the “class warfare” nonsense the right trots out when convenient to support imbalanced tax policies. Most important, sounds like you have a real emotional/guilt conflict going on. Dude, Springsteen embodies the notion that life is not a zero-sum game. That you can have a damn good, extraordinary life and make an obscene amount of money and still be okay with average joes having a few breaks too. If you can’t understand that, I feel sorry for you.

  • RockBallad

    Thanks for this. I first saw Bruce at Santa Clara University gym in 1976. We went as a bunch of cynical, disgruntled 19-year olds who were sure that the music industry had bought the covers of TIME and NEWSWEEK, plastered Bruce on them, and we were ready to go and declare this the biggest b.s. fraud in history. We stumbled out literally “blinded by the light” and gasping for oxygen after a nearly 3-hour set. I find that people who want to bash Bruce are late arrivals, blow-ins. So many of them didn’t know of bruce until “Born in the USA” — his most commercial album ever. Bruce made that album — and did about a 90degree turn away from that kind of commercialism right afterwards. I saw Bruce in San Jose this year (2 miles from where I first saw him), and in Oakland a few weeks ago. It is ASTONISHING that he still does a show at age 62 like he did at age 27.
    And you can laugh all you want at the fervor and loyalty we have to him. There is a reason: Bruce had not taken $85 a ticket and shown up drunk of drugged off his ass and disappointing — EVER Bruce has not made a fool out of himself being arrested or having babies with women 30 years younger than he. Bruce has kept his personal life quiet and protected his wife and his children. Bruce has embraced important causes — and I believe he has done so judiciously.

    Moreover — he understands that he is there to ENTERTAIN. And he understands that the gift he can bring to his audience — and it is so rare as to be UNIQUE _- is that his shows are cathartic and redemptive and night after night, he does make the people who come to see him feel that they are seeing something fresh and fun and meaningful. Is it all choreographed and computerized? Yes, of course – it HAS to be. You can’t do a 2+-hour show with some 14 people on stage and leave anything to chance. But he makes it look FRESH — know how hard that is? KNow how much WORK it takes, how much commitment, how much respect for your AUDIENCE? And to bring it night after night after night on the road when you’re 62?

    If you didn’t seen the Kennedy Center Honors show a couple of years ago, when Bruce was honored, go on YouTube and look it up. John Stewart’s comments are both funny and heartfelt — and exceedingly well-chosen. He ends by saying that he admires Bruce because no matter what he does — whether it’s for his fans, his community or country, or his family or friends, he EMPTIES THE TANK EVERY TIME.

    Amen. Amen, amen.

    When you’re my age (and I reviewed rock when I was younger — the Sex Pistols last concert ever, Elvis Costello’s first in the U.S., Petty’s first tour, Lou Reed, Blondie, the Pretenders, Dire Straits, Zevon, Dylan, Morrison, on and on…) and you’ve seen your rock heroes die or throw all their talent away via to drugs or alcohol or various other types of stupidity, depriving us of decades of great art (Hendrix, Janis, Winehouse, Morrison, Cobain, Jackson, the list is so long) — or you’ve seen them charge a fortune for tickets and then step out and basically mail it in (or just get pissy and pack it in, as Morrison does far too often)…then you, too, will appreciate what it is to have had someone who has been “tougher than the rest” for almost 40 years — bringing it for me and the rest of his audience to enjoy. Don’t mess with Bruce — don’t make the mistake of trying to be “cool” by trashing someone who is, TRULY, that great.

  • Susan Leigh Fry

    Another legendary singer/songwriter and performer who still sells out concerts and has a loyal fan-base after some 40 years penned this line some 25 years ago “…but being what I am, what was I to do?” Who amongst us came from the background Bruce did…and rose to his position in the entertainment world? Who of us knows what it takes out of you, what is expected of you, the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, the ugly?

    None of us has a clue. It’s AWFULLY easy to shoot bullets at a target as large as Springsteen, isn’t it? Instead of criticizing the causes that he backs, I would like to thank him for being someone who BACKS causes, unlike most entertainers. You’re going to tell me that “No Nukes” was b.s.? And the Concert for Sandy didnt’ take any time or effort and his participation was meaningless? I bet if you talk to the local food bank that he mentions and asks to come and be present to take donations at each of his concert, they’re pretty damned glad that he gives them his attention — and probably the people they feed are, too. And if you talk to vets from the Vietnam War – and ones after it, too — I’ll bet they wouldn’t tell you they would be happier if he had never pointed out their needs and plight. Honestly, how DARE you criticize like this, when you should be saying “thank you” — and being grateful that you have ever had the chance to see such an amazing performer. I saw Frank Sinatra in 1982 (I think it was) …his voice wasn’t at it’s peak, and I didn’t expect it to be. But he was AMAZINGLY good — and even if he hadn’t been, I would still thank God that I had ever had the opportunity to see such an enormous talent perform live.