In Defense of Bruce Springsteen
Why Bruce Springsteen is still my favorite musician, warts and all.
Regardless of what really happened the night of Bruce Springsteen’s ill-fated DUI, the incident actually did manage to shake a lot of his fans. For the first time in decades, their faith in him felt precarious — as though the incident undermined the core meaning of his work. Still, as usual, he managed to rise above it.
One thing that non-fans don’t realize is that Springsteen’s work really follows a cohesive narrative and theme about how a person can overcome the feeling of social alienation through family, friends and faith in themselves. It’s a message that his fans have really believed in, and part of the reason why he always tries to sell himself as a scandal-free wholesome family man is because he worries it would ruin the illusion otherwise. When his first marriage failed, there were fans who really felt like “if Springsteen can’t make it work, what hope is there for us?”
So in order for the audience to genuinely believe the message he at least has to appear as a kind, down-to-Earth family man even though he is known to struggle with some pretty brutal demons. I don’t think it’s hypocritical, he used to be pretty adamant about not wanting people to look up to him and I think he feels the pressure to live up to people’s image of him as a result. I also don’t think it undermines his message or the strength of his songwriting, but on some level it undermines the “magic trick” that he always talks about of how a performer’s job is to make the audience truly believe in something intangible.
Obviously it’s an illusion and he can’t be perfect all the time even if he is a relatively normal guy compared to other rock stars. He definitely leans heavy into the American Evangelical myth of revelation at the lowest point, which is not really how it works in real life. But it’s an inspiring message and I think it holds water even if he can’t embody it 100% of the time, nor should he have to — he was the one who always said “trust the art, not the artist”.
I think for non-fans his message of “find meaning in the suffering” has always been lost to “rah-rah America!” which is something he has always detested. But when I think of Springsteen, I think about his songwriting in regard to social alienation, which has always resonated with me. Most non-fans really only know the 80s stuff and even there the lyrics have always been glossed over.
Springsteen “sold out” in 1984. Troubled by years of financial instability and mental health episodes, and worried that he would soon age out of the music industry, Springsteen let label executives craft a marketing image that made him out as an all-American working class joe. It worked - it turned him into one of the biggest stars of the 80s - but it also turned him into a cartoon character and erased much of the dynamism of his broader career.
For much of the general public, Springsteen is a Reagan-era pop star who represents the white masculinity of rust belt conservatism. That conception does a disservice to one of rock’s most wide-ranging and well-read talents. Before his foray into 80s arena rock, Springsteen already had a litany of hits throughout the 70s and early 80s, encompassing a variety of artistic styles. He played around with traditional structures in rock music to create albums that mirrored cinematic styles. The music did not sound like 80s arena rock; it mixed punk, folk, blues and gospel. His politics leaned far-left.
Springsteen’s lyrical work doesn’t end at cheesy songs about the mythological working man of the 80s. If his writing has a central theme, it’s social alienation and the redemption thereof. To the extent that he covers specific subjects, he tackles social isolation, mental health, relationships, family legacies, poverty, religion and politics with a humanistic outlook that does not flinch at darkness but, at the same time, offers hope; one of his most hopeful songs, “The Promised Land,” specifically mentions the suicidal thoughts that he struggled with for much of his young life:
“Some times I feel so weak I just want to explode / explode and tear this whole town apart / take a knife and cut this pain from my heart.”
There’s an honesty and integrity to his lyrics where he refuses to shy away from stark realities. The closest thing to a thesis statement comes in the song “Badlands” - “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
Which brings us to the question of his “cheesiness.” The heart of Springsteen’s legacy is his live performance, which is structured around a long tradition of post-irony in western storytelling. Springsteen is extraordinarily well-read. In literary tradition, irony represents a counter point to a positive conclusion. Post-irony represents a return to the un-ironic from the ironic; in other words, irony is a “sad” ending to a story in which the protagonist discovers that they are wrong about everything. “Post-ironic” is where the protagonist has their faith challenged and perseveres
This structure is actually rooted in the Gospels, and is arguably the basis of all Western storytelling. In the Gospels, Jesus dies on the cross questioning his faith, then goes to hell - an ironic ending - and then resurrects and ascends to heaven - a post-ironic ending. Springsteen’s use of Catholic imagery throughout his material references similar concepts. His concerts are often described both as religious experiences and as life-affirming, and that’s because he unabashedly embraces the post-ironic structure of storytelling.
Many of Springsteen’s songs are exceptionally dark, often utilizing sardonic, dark humor. “Nebraska,” a song written during an episode of suicidal depression, is often pointed to as one of the best examples of this:
“They declared me unfit to live / into the great void, my soul would be hurled / they wanna know why I did what I did / sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”
Springsteen’s shows are typically structured to open with a handful of uplifting songs, followed by a series of depressing songs, followed by another series of uplifting songs and concluding with a series of neutral, “fun” songs. The use of “cheesiness” in this structure is primarily reserved for the closing “fun” songs, and the point is that the audience, following the narrative of the show, has achieved redemption over their darkest instincts, and can unabashedly enjoy themselves without fear of shame. That’s one reason why his shows are so long - because they have to showcase the narrative structure.
Politically, Springsteen swings to the far-left. Even the perennial Fourth of July song “Born In The USA” is, at its root, a left-wing protest song. Songs with deceptively obvious titles carry a lot of hidden weight; the song “Land of Hope and Dreams” is a rebuttal of the old folk song “This Train Is Bound For Glory,” as well as the gospel song “People Get Ready.” Both songs cast either The United States or the proverbial Kingdom of Heaven as purified instruments of the righteous that have “no room for the faithless sinner.” In Springsteen’s rebuttal, however, his metaphorical train “carries saints and sinners.”
Springsteen’s unshakeable faith in redemption is what informs his mission statement and sets him apart from other musicians. There’s a distinct thesis to his work, and every aspect of it perambulates around the theme. His music has cinematic and literary qualities virtually unheard of in the realm of popular music. For all that, he remains my undisputed favorite. Warts and all.