It’s always been easy for people who fancy themselves to be cool and sophisticated to bash Bruce Springsteen. Bruce’s work has always been highly emotional, and his appeal visceral, with none of the too-cool-for-school detatchment that is the signature of rock poseurs everywhere. That’s what made him such a man of the moment in the flag-waving 80s and such an easy target in the Seinfeldy, irony-ridden 90s. And, contrary to what some people seem to think, the unguarded sincerity of Bruce’s music is precisely what makes him once again a vital force in the post-September 11 world, the world where even David Letterman got choked up on national television.
Everyone’s entitled to dislike his music, of course, but dedicated Bruce-bashing — the type that isn’t content to dislike the guy and his songs but wants you to feel bad for liking him too — is, like, so September 10. Bruce and his devoted fans are a big target because irony is always most effective against people who take things seriously. Bruce takes things seriously. He even takes having fun seriously: listen to a song like “Badlands” or “Dancing in the Dark” or “Born to Run,” for example, and you can see that Bruce is talking about having fun, having friends, having faith and making love not because life is wonderful, but precisely because life is hard and we only come this way once. Bruce’s lyrics are the kind of stuff you hear from people who get weepy after a couple of drinks. I read one review that criticized “Mary’s Place” on the new album, as well as the entirety of the “Born in the USA” album, for matching upbeat music to downbeat lyrics. But that’s always been the point – Bruce is telling us to go out and have a blast when times are toughest.
The Boss’ critics on the political Right, as well as some of his fans on the Left, tend to miss the fact that, as a result of this mixture of sincerity and optimism, Bruce’s fan base tends to be much more socially and politically conservative than the nation, or the record-buying public, as a whole. This is an issue of temperment as much as anything. It’s hard to be a Bruce fan if you are the type of person who snickers reflexively at the flag, or soldiers and cops, or the Church, or other institutions that take serious things seriously. It’s hard to be a Bruce fan if you are the type of woe-is-everyone Leftist who moans on about how all our institutions are a fraud designed to prop up a corrupt, racist, homophobic patriarchy and we should all say NO to making better lives for ourselves, wear black all the time and live like the bonobo chimpanzees. How many Critical Race Theorists, or ‘womyn’ who celebrate “V-Day,” could say with a straight face that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”?
Penn of Penn and Teller gets this, as does Stanley Kurtz. I think Bruce gets this too, which is why he’s so careful to thread the needle on controversial topics in a way that preserves his credibility with his friends on the Left without alienating his fans. “41 Shots” is a good example of this – Bruce presents the Diallo shooting as a tragedy, not a crime, but he also makes sure that his white, blue-collar audience remembers the story. And to my mind, Bruce was as guilty as anybody for the misinterpretation of “Born in the USA,” a song that broke dramatically with the 70s-era Leftist tradition of bashing the Vietnam vets: if he didn’t want it to be heard as a hymn to underappreciated patriots, he should have thought twice about releasing a video full of warm, fuzzy Americana where he played in front of the flag; about putting Old Glory on the cover of the record, and as the backdrop to the stage show, and as the backdrop to the tour posters, all at a time when the “USA! USA!” chant was at its highest ebb. But Bruce could play that game precisely because he isn’t really of the modern Left so much as the old-time liberalism; he believes America can do bad things, but he obviously doesn’t believe in his heart that this is an evil, corrupt country. And to conservative fans, that’s all we ask – artists are allowed to have their own politics. We don’t have to vote for the guy.
In the same the-personal-is-political vein, the main criticism of “The Rising” on the Right is that it gives short shrift to the epic battle between Good and Evil that was revealed by September 11. In a sense, Bruce – who had kind words for the US operation in Afghanistan in a recent interview, in contrast to his Gulf War mopery in “Souls of the Departed” – is threading that needle again, but so what? It’s always stupid to criticize somebody for the songs they didn’t write; it’s stupider for criticizing a musician for avoiding a political topic about which he obviously has nothing useful to say. Bruce also wrote songs principally about the World Trade Center rather than about the Pentagon or Flight 93 – so what? He’s in New Jersey. People in his town died at the Trade Center. He wrote what was around him, and did it well. Picasso’s Guernica (one of the few paintings I know anything about and appreciate) didn’t tell the whole story of the Spanish Civil War, either. It didn’t have to to be great art. Springsteen wasn’t likely to improve on Neil Young’s Flight 93 record, “Let’s Roll,” anyway, which gave powerful voice to the need to do battle with evil. To take the Picasso analogy to the breaking point, Young’s song, like the Leftist intellectuals (such as Orwell) who went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, is a clarion call to fight Islamist fascism that’s all the more powerful because it comes from a dyed-in-the-tie-dyes peacenik, the guy who raised hosannas to Jesse Jackson in the great garage-rock anthem “Rockin’ In the Free World” and sang derisively in the same song about America’s “kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” But Bruce didn’t have to say that; what he did say, about hope and faith in the face of grief, was quite enough.