August of this year will mark the tenth anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Magic album. I will presume early on that there won’t be much hoopla expended on the occasion. That’s a shame. While far from perfect, and certainly far from the grand statements of his youth, Magic is a sturdy plate of comfort food with an acidic bite if you’re paying attention. The songs, in the majority, concern themselves with the aftermath, the reckoning, the day after YOLO.
I’d never position myself as a Springsteen superfan. I appreciate his work and his work ethic. I have great respect for anyone who either consciously or reflexively moves from a big piece of commercial rock and roll to an intimate, stripped-down, almost lo-fi statement piece. Yet I’ve never been to one of his shows and have only a select number of his albums, likely not the ones you expect.
Part of this is sheer obstinance. I live in Central New Jersey, the belly-button of Springsteen Country, and all my life I’ve been expected to hold some strange reverence to the guy as if I knew him. (Would I turn down an opportunity to interview him? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous, Cousin Larry.) Honestly, I think some of his best work began with The Rising, which was both crying towel and pep talk post-September 11. I think Devils & Dust is highly underrated, and for most of the same reasons why people seem to have rejected it. And although it predates The Rising, you have to admit that The Ghost Of Tom Joad is pretty brave.
Magic (2007) was the first album of new music with the E. Street Band since The Rising (2002). It was also a period of unity for the band before drastic changes occurred, beyond anyone’s control — the deaths of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. There was some excitement surrounding the first single, “Radio Nowhere.” According to Wikipedia, the album debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, becoming Springsteen’s eighth #1 album in the U.S. and selling about 335,000 copies in its first week. After falling to number two for one week, the album rose again to number one, selling about 77,000 copies that week. To put that into context, the power of music sales was already diminished and what constituted a high-selling album had already changed drastically, but Magic did quite well for itself. That it dipped down in sales but then resurfaced is alone a feat. Most often, once sales trend down, they stay down. That’s not a recent phenomenon — that’s a standard expectation.
By which, I mean, where does it stand in the mix of Springsteen’s legacy of releases? The answer is hard to pin down. It certainly isn’t the fault of Sony/Columbia, his longtime label or Legacy, the label’s back catalog wing. Their investment is as steadfast as it ever was.
You can’t really apply the current pop radio data to this question. While Springsteen was the embodiment of a meat ‘n potatoes ethic of pop for a certain era, modern pop is defined by hip hop and electronica presently. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Yet on rock radio, and specifically classic rock radio which should be embracing this stuff for dear life and relevance, not so much. A couple of months ago, Popdose writer Ted Asregadoo noted the pitiful state of today’s rock radio, a classification so tired and worn that a blood transfusion would not help. He looked at the playlists of one in his region of California, and not one track on the list defied the stereotype. If you liked it in ’68, ’78, or maybe ’88, it was probably there. Anything after that is anyone’s guess.
But, you might ask, surely that’s different in the “belly-button of Springsteen Country, right?” You’d think that, but no. We do have local radio stations out here, and they do infuriatingly bow deep before the altars of Springsteen and Bon Jovi. But even though these should have a vested interest in flogging the entire venerated catalog, they too fixate on a tiny subset that ends abruptly with Tunnel Of Love’s “Brilliant Disguise.” Occasionally they’ll break up the mix with “Human Touch” or even “Streets of Philadelphia,” if they’re feeling magnanimous and feisty.
That very fixation has caused other artists to give up on making new music at all. Why add to diminished returns, many argue. Just take the handful of songs everyone likes and tour the world until you die. From an artistic standpoint, that’s a show of bitter defeat. From a business standpoint, it only makes sense. If you have reliable assets, wring them out for everything they’re worth.
What I find particularly galling, being in this state, is that this very narrow band of what gets attention is worse than neglecting a third of an artist’s output. It’s the neglect of other artists for fit the platform equally well. For example, I’m not liable to hear anything by The Smithereens on our local stations, let alone hear anything by newer artists who are attempting to keep the Central Jersey music scene alive and are met with a fair amount of underground support but indifference by the gatekeepers.
Oh, and by the way, the gates were removed long ago. There’s hardly anything left to keep. So we end up with a form of creative brain drain. Performers used to strike out for Brooklyn because their home state won’t give them the time of day. Now, even Brooklyn is too gentrified to handle it, and Austin, Texas and/or Arizona have become havens.
I have answers to the problem, but I suspect that these too would be disregarded by those who need to pay attention to them most. Those who would pack their playlists full of “Stairway to Heaven,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and, yes, “Dancing In The Dark,” “Glory Days,” “You Give Love A Bad Name,” and “Livin’ On A Prayer” are not dissuaded from the post-generational desire to live in the past and soundtrack it accordingly.
So my statement is this: happy anniversary, Magic. What are you, the listener, going to do about it?