Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run

Born to Run

Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run Columbia JC 33795 (1975)

It is possible to look at Bruce Springsteen as the ultimate salesman/apologist for capitalism in the 1970s music scene.  Looking at Springsteen’s excellent, and overlooked, debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., one finds (much like in Van Morrison albums) a dreamy desire for a kind of utopian world outside the confirms of present reality, and much pondering of the obstacles to such dreams. But with Born to Run the ambitions have been narrowed (“focused,” if you must say so) to concentrate all energies on reaching escape velocity, that is to say, all attention is on the act of breaking free. The context of what is being broken away from, or what destination might await anyone who does break free, and other such concerns, are all relegated to a decidedly secondary place.

Historian Jefferson Cowie wrote a book called Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010), which theorized that one of the dominant narratives in American media in the 1970s was that of the individual breaking free of restrictive social bonds.  Is there any more acute statement of that sentiment than the title track of Born to RunErnest “Boom” Carter‘s drums mechanically urge everything onward:  thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud! Elsewhere the rhythm on the drums is steady but played in a circular figure.  (The monotonous rhythm of the drums set against the more supple, syncopated rhythms of the other instruments and vocals is one of the most significant features of the recording).  Bruce sings:

“Tramps like us /

Baby, we were born to run”

A rebuttal of sorts might be the Carpenters‘ “I Need to Be in Love” from A Kind of Hush (1976), with the line, “But freedom only helps you say goodbye.”  In that Carpenters song, there is a resigned acceptance of stifling social bonds, without completely internalizing and normalizing the strains those social bonds produce.

Why does all this matter?  Well, there is a theory that politicians in the United States basically offer up constituencies to the highest bidder — they form constituencies in the name of certain interests but then almost always betray those people and interests by accepting money (bribes) in the form of campaign contributions to further the opposing goals of the donors.  This is more or less the “investment theory of politics” by political economist Thomas Ferguson (similar theories have been offered by the likes of G. William Domhoff, etc.).  Recent, well-publicized research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page empirically supported these theories, showing that the opinions of ordinary people have close to zero influence on public policy in the United States while those of elites (and their organizations) have substantial influence.

If we look at the Carpenters song as being built on a christian notion of love (as in, “love thy neighbor”), a kind of community-building myth that brings people together despite differences, Springsteen is pushing for an anti-christian attitude of atomistic individuals.  His constant references to automobiles is simultaneously praise for generic materialistic consumption, weird sexualized commodity fetishism, and advocacy for enjoyment of the primary mechanism for an individual to contribute to fossil fuel pollution and waste.  Now, it is possible to say that all this is sheer coincidence.  Or not.  Matthew Modine‘s character Pvt. Joker in the film Full Metal Jacket (1987) is the cynic who actually manages to sustain the Vietnam war effort by maintaining a protective personal distance from the insane logic of the war effort, whereas Vincent D’Onofrio‘s character Pvt. Pyle, who takes the war effort serious, shoots himself, thereby not advancing the effort.  Springsteen always had a sense of irony and cynicism, but it was the sort that worked in favor of the groundswell of neoliberal politics in the mid-1970s.

Neoliberalism, in terms of specific and recognizable policies, is about favoring financial interests over labor, privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending to expand the role of the private sector in the economy; but those policies are sustained by a manner of thinking that favors certain groups over others.  Henry A. Giroux: “As an ideology, it construes profit making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and upholds the irrational belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but serve as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help, individual responsibility and is purposely blind to inequalities in power, wealth and income and how they bear down on the fate of individuals and groups.”  Erik Olin Wright: “Neoliberal ideology says that the social-democratic solutions are permanently off the table. That’s just self-justification of elite privilege.”  Michael Hudson: neo-liberalism is neo-rentier and perhaps neo-feudal, and attempts a counter-enlightenment.

So, yes, perhaps Springsteen was a useful idiot, unknowingly advancing interests he didn’t consciously wish to advance.  All this does matter, because his public image is that of the “ordinary Joe,” or, perhaps, hero of the “ordinary Joe.”  But is he really helping ordinary people, or selling them out to their class enemies? It seems like the latter more than the former.  Further proof might be how so many people “misunderstand” Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.  Some intellectual types state that listeners who use the song for its patriotic content are missing its ironic, cynical critique of patriotism.  But perhaps the intellectuals are overstating the effect of irony/cynicism, and perhaps it really is just a necessary distance.  In this way, maybe Springsteen is akin to Dmitri Shostakovitch, whose very distance from Stalinism was paradoxically really part of the functioning of the Stalinist regime.  Like Pvt. Joker and Shostakovitch, Springsteen actually aided the Carter/Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal counter-revolution to roll back the social welfare programs of the mid-20th Century.  Oh, and also maybe a nickname like “The Boss” aligns Springsteen a bit too close for comfort with the exploiters of labor?

So both at the level of individual psychology, and at the level of the political economy, Springsteen’s music can be seen as supporting the very thing it purports to oppose. Let’s return again to the Carpenters.  “I Need to Be in Love” and albums like A Song for You (1972) are about building something, rather than breaking away from something.  Even a cursory view of the Carpenters’ music reveals a kind of frustration with the world it inhabits.  But, the thrust of the music is about saying working those problems is preferable to trying to cast aside everything and start anew like Springsteen proposes in song.  Rather than simply cast aside institutions that have their problems, the Carpenters made music about recognizing and addressing those problems.  Springsteen, on the other hand, just abandons the difficult tasks.  These seem like cop-outs framed around mitigating symptoms rather than redressing root causes.  This might be summed up by articulating the missing burden: “The difficult lesson . . . is thus that it is not enough to simply give voice to the underdogs the way they are: in order to enact actual emancipation, they have to be educated (by others and by themselves) into their freedom.”

There are, indeed, some really good songs here:  the title track and the opener “Thunder Road.” There is some decent material too: the hearty R&B of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” etc.  Most of the songs maintain the sense of movement, action, and almost inevitability and achievement.  Piano is used in places to make the music grandiose.  The jazzy ballad “Meeting Across the River” doesn’t do that, and it changes the pace of the album just before the closer “Jungleland.”  Whether it’s the “wall of sound” style of producer Phil Spector, soulful R&B horn breaks, obvious nodes to Bob Dylan, or something else, most of these songs look backwards to old styles, with commonplaces that might be called pastiche — though frequently leaning more heavily on guitar riffs that the sources of inspiration. This looking backward is significant, because it tends to underscore the lack of new demands in the music.  If stereotypical 1960s radicalism was about pressing established institutions with demands intended to undermine those very institutions, then Born to Run kind of relents and says that no new demands will be made.

If contrasted with Springsteen’s excellent debut album, the turn with The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle and then Born to Run can be seen as selling out.  According to the standard narrative (pushed in promotional materials for reissues of the album), faced with a commercial crises for lack of album sales, he capitulated to the forces that his debut leaned against.  The transformative idealism of the debut was gone, which suggested asking new questions and creating new attitudes to fit those questions, and it its place a kind of empty idealism that was all about action stripped of context, kind of like running on a treadmill — there is the illusion of movement (breaking free) that really keeps the runner in one place.  This was somewhat similar to what French “new philosophers” of the 1970s (Michel Foucault, Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, etc.) did, when they asserted that the only revolutionary project is that of self-realization.  And yet, this album is quite an effective sellout effort!  This is the sort of album that can be appreciated much like Leni Riefenstahl‘s Nazi propaganda film Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will].  If this sort of comparison seems like a stretch (see also “Godwin’s Law”), then consider that alienation and isolation were preconditions for totalitarianism according to Hannah Arendt.

So maybe it is time to rethink Springsteen’s “blue collar” bona fides.  There are few, if any, albums from the 1970s that so succinctly capture and redirect the populist underpinnings of neoliberalism as dynamically and persuasively as Born to Run.

Bruce Springsteen – The River

The River

Bruce SpringsteenThe River Columbia PC2 36854 (1980)

So I was standing around with some people talking to critic Dave Marsh years ago, and Marsh was going on about how The River was the best of Springsteen.  So I gave it a try.  I can’t say I agree, at all.  Another reviewer cast this off as too much like Billy Joel.  These songs are a bit too slick for their own good, and self-indulgent too.  Ahh, the 1980s were clearly underway by this point I guess.  But, there are still some good tunes here, and the jangly 12-string guitar adds a nice touch.  “Hungry Heart” is great (sounding exactly like what that kind of song should sound like), and “Sherry Darling” is a great song, somewhat ineptly produced (too much glitz and clutter).  “The Ties That Bind” is the other really good one.  There is a handful of other pretty decent cuts and the rest forgettable — really there is nothing to recommend about the entire second disc, which should have been omitted.  Springsteen often does the thing that was by this point his shtick:  the wall of sound that makes his narratives seem inevitable, with the band members shouting along trying to be heard among the din.  This, I guess, is Springsteen’s go-to metaphor for American society.  His sense of irony is like a fart in the wind though — people tend to like Springsteen for all his worst qualities and the irony can’t stop that from happening.

Just to draw out these points a little further, “The Ties That Bind” illustrate an important aspect of Springsteen and his politics.  He came along right when the New Deal coalition was falling apart, and he represented an ultimately failed attempt to prop it up — Johnny Cash was doing this too around this time.  Anyway, the point can be illustrated with reference to Sigmund Freud‘s notion of the primal father figure.  Not necessarily a male parent, but any authority, the “father” represented the injunction to sacrifice one’s own enjoyment for the good of family/community/society.  But the modern father instead commands individual enjoyment.  This is basically what Christopher Lasch described as The Culture of Narcissism.  Lament for this shift — anomie — practically pours from the lyrics of “The Ties That Bind.”  But it is a a kind of inauthentic lament, because it dwells in a pre-established ethics that can’t help but contribute to the decay it purports to oppose, if for no other reason than, in hindsight, it was insufficient to prevent its own demise, though mostly because it looks backwards to recreation of dubious traditions rather than forward towards authentic freedom.

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

Bruce SpringsteenGreetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Columbia KC 31903 (1973)

Bruce Springsteen’s debut delivers brilliant folky rock storytelling. At this point, he was concerned with more than just rock anthems. His purpose was something humanistic. Springsteen had that in common with Van Morrison. This album tells of hope for human perseverance. Triumph over adversity is the common thread through all the songs.

Here he is believable. The songs matter, and they matter to more than just their characters. Springsteen was confident to make the everyday an event. It was kind of a pride thing. The sound is a little sparse. Sometimes Springsteen isn’t quite sure of what lies ahead. He leaves just enough rough edges to give Greetings a homespun charm.

Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. did not make Springsteen a star. He was still just a kid from Jersey. The album is humble and endearing in a way that none of his later albums were.

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

Bruce SpringsteenThe Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle Columbia PC 32432 (1973)

The Boss took a very significant turn with his second album.  His debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. was quite obviously influenced by folky singer-songwriters.  It also had a youthful exuberance with a sentimental and even romantic attachment to gritty urban concerns.  All that managed to be a strength because of the overall sense of earnestness it had.  For some reason, that debut wasn’t a big hit (perhaps a very minor one), and continues to be less popular with fans than what came later.

Springsteen’s second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle makes a conscious effort to cast off any remnants of folk influence.  In place, there is a reliance on heavy production.  This album tries very hard to sound contemporary, and simply “big.”  Overproduced?  Yes!  Springsteen’s vocal adopt some dramatic flairs (like “Kitty’s Back” with his reaching vocals, set against a hushed vocal chorus, and similarly with the sappy orchestration of “New York City Serenade”).  The keyboards and guitar sound more synthetic, with self-consciously jazzy inflections.  And isn’t “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” just basically a re-write of “Blinded by the Light” from the last album?

So, it’s no wonder that fans who like the Born to Run Springsteen don’t go for the debut, but will probably like this one more.  This album is chock full of typically disingenuous Springsteen fare.  Springsteen’s attempts to find the glory of middle America have always seemed like something of a joke to this reviewer.  For one thing, once Springsteen was a star his attempts to pass as just another “working Joe” seem fraudulent.  He was a big star, not the little guy anymore.  But it’s the hypocrisy of Springsteen’s writing that really is the most irksome.  His tendency to use irony often stumbles when he simultaneously relies on the very things he mocks to do draw in listeners.  You know, F. Scott Fitzgerald is often described as writing about the dark heart of the jazz age.  Springsteen clearly tries to do somewhat the same type of thing for working-class America of a later time.  But, but, but, the problem is that Springsteen becomes more of an enabler for the worst qualities that cause the very problems he laments.  It’s this sort of passivity, fatalism and sense of powerlessness in the face of powerful, incomprehensible forces that is really quite pathetic, and it makes its appearance on this album and only grows stronger on later efforts.  Fitzgerald never gave his characters the kind of pass that Springsteen does so regularly.  For Fitzgerald, his characters have failings, and they most often fail to accept the inevitable consequences of a wealthy lifestyle until it’s too late.  For Springsteen, escapism is fine, and he’s gonna glorify the here and now, but he’s never going to set his sights on more.  This is found in his songs that pretty consistently stop short of offering any kind of explanation or resolution.  It gives the impression of somebody a little naïve about how the world really works, giving comfort to the likewise ignorant.  Srsly, fuck you Bruce.  This may give short shrift to many great singles and individual songs The Boss has released, that do capture the bleakness of life for ordinary Americans, but the entirety of many of his albums reveal more than a little lack of ambition.