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Populist Music - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Populist Music
One of the highlights of my Oscar viewing with Kim was the acceptance speech Bruce Springsteen gave after winning for "Streets of Philadelphia" a decade ago. It's far from our favorite song of his, but the eloquence of the speech brought tears to our eyes.

Bruce has been back in the news the past few days for abandoning his refusal to endorse political candidates. Steven, as those who know him would expect, has had good things to say about this move in his recent entries:
The conservative Bruce fans are up in arms now. I've never understood how they could love Bruce and miss his underlying message, but they now claim to have been stomped on by their hero. It's weird to me ... while he's never come out in favor of a particular candidate (I guess he gave money to Bill Bradley), when he's played benefits of a political nature, they've always been "lefty" ... No Nukes, Amnesty Int., even the crazy Christic Institute. He's been speaking out on stage about politics in general terms for more than 20 years now, and while some of it is generic help-the-downtrodden stuff (not to say he's wrong or bad at it, I've given a lot of money via Bruce Inspirational Nudging, myself), he also is pretty clear about what he thinks is right and what's wrong, and in those statements, he's a populist, not as radical as Woody Guthrie but in the same tradition. Bruce has read Howard Zinn, but I never expected him to become Howard Zinn.

Back in the day, I suspect he was just a guy who believed in the saving power of rock and roll, so he likely wasn't thinking much about politics when he was poor and scrambling. It's as if all his money gives him the leisure to think outside the narrow perspective of a star, and it's been good for him, if I can say that about someone I don't really know.
I agree completely with Steven that Springsteen's political preferences have for a long time been both populist and to the left of a center that has been moving steadily rightward since 1968. I'm also interested, though, in the reasons why his conservative fans might feel betrayed by his decision to back the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004.

The first time I got to see Bruce live, Kim and I saw him perform with his "other" band at the dreadful Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA. Because Kim was working for BTF, we got seats in the first circle. Almost everyone around us seemed to embody the stereotype of the boorish, well-connected set that typically gets the best seats without really giving a damn that they've gotten them. Worse still, we were right next to beer-guzzling men who were completely oblivious to the build-up to "Born In the USA" -- it climaxed in a tortured noise-fest with lights flashing ominously -- which seemed to make Springsteen's intentions for the song clearer than ever. Every time Bruce belted out the chorus, they raised their plastic beer cups in unison and gave a hearty cheer.

At the time, Kim and I were disgusted. And I can't help but feel loathing as I recollect the experience. But I've also come to realize that making sense of those men's obliviousness will go a long way toward helping me understand many of today's Bush supporters.

Intellectually, of course, I know all too well that writers are never in full control of the response to their work. It's a lot easier for them to steer it in person, whether at a reading, screening, or concert performance. Yet even then, the chances that their intentions -- intentions which, I might add, are themselves often retroactive intentions -- will be understood by a majority of the audience are 50-50 at best.

Because I am a better interpreter of texts, not to mention social interaction, than most people I know, I nonetheless struggle to reconcile my own understanding of a piece -- I'm pretty good at inhabiting arguments I strenuously disagree with -- with my parallel understanding that most people have a harder time constructing a reading than I do. In the case of a song like "Born In the USA," where the patriotic, beer mug-hoisting response is based far more on a diffuse feeling than any thought-out argument, I have an even harder time.

That night at the Shoreline I wanted to shout, "Can't you stop to think for a minute about what the song really means?" But I recognized then, as I do now, the futility of such an action. Those men weren't thinking; they were feeling. And, if meaning is more than a matter of communicating the sort of message that computers transmit -- I have to believe that it is -- then the "meaning" of the song depends as much on what it makes people feel as what it makes them think, perhaps even more. You could certainly make a case for "Born In the USA" as a song on the basis of its ability to elicit strong feelings that run counter to its strong words. Maybe the "I" of the song is as proud to be an American as he is angry to find the pursuit of happiness denied him. Maybe he simply wants to take out his frustrations on someone else.

As much as I stand by this recognition of textual ambiguity, however, I remain pleased to find that the artists I care about believe what I like to think they believe. There's comfort in seeing one's interpretations confirmed, even if it comes at the expense of a more nuanced sense of the way that listener, viewer, and reader response works. I'm glad that Bruce is speaking out against Bush, even as I make room for the realization that his decision did not necessarily follow from his music.

Back in the days of our graduate-student union strikes, most notably those long six weeks of 1992, I was surprised again and again to learn that the professors and graduate students who were most outwardly radical in their scholarship and pedagogy weren't always supportive of our action, while seemingly conservative individuals not only respected our decision to strike but did everything in their power to make things easier for us. It was a wonderful political lesson, one that serves as a helpful antidote to the impulse -- one I still regularly feel, mind you -- to imagine that a particular artist, scholar, or friend is consistent across the board when, in fact, they are as complex and potentially inconsistent as everyone else.

At any rate, reflecting on these matters colors my response to the excellent interview Bruce Springsteen recently gave about his decision to come out for the Democrats, as well as the op-ed -- some of which draws upon that Oscar speech -- he published in today's New York Times. Even as I ponder the relationship between music and musician, between listener and reader, though, I am once again reminded of his gift for populist rhetoric that I can enthusiastically embrace:
Through my work, I've always tried to ask hard questions. Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear? Why does the fulfillment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach?
Yes, it sounds like one of the better paragraphs from the Democratic Convention. But that's fine with me. I just wonder how many of Bruce's fans believe that his music has been asking these questions. I hope it's more than few. I hope they live in swing states.

Mode: brighter and tighter
Muse: No Surrender - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Born In the USA

4 comments or Leave a comment
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: August 5th, 2004 07:59 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Wow. This is a really great piece of writing. I got all goosebumpy and teary eyed reading it.

It brings up a number of things that I feel very strongly about. First, when you say those odious beer guzzling were hearing with their feelings, you weren't kidding. And their feelings are really fucking scary -- violence, racism and greed.

Secondly, I like how you call for a direct discourse. There is no way any bridges of any kind can be built and survive if people cannot discourse directly and honestly. Even when in disagreement, an honest and direct discourse (untainted by anger) is the best tool we have to forge change. This is my standard mode of discourse with my highly conservative christian neighbors, and do you know what, it works.

It also works really well between friends and for building and maintaining friendships :-)
From: ex_synecdoch550 Date: August 5th, 2004 08:04 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've always found it interesting when people get behind a song and have such a drastically different interpretation of its meaning than what is usually obviously what the artist was intending. Born in the USA is a classic example. Another one is when you see U2's "With or Without You" cited as a beautiful love song. It seems that people listen to particular parts of a song (often the chorus) and then pay little attention to anything else that is going on.

Bruce's comments are interesting; I've followed this a bit because one of my favourite bands (Pearl Jam) is also playing on the tour, and it has also stirred up a great deal of debate on the Pearl Jam newsgroup I subscribe to. Unfortunately, in this instance the dialogue does not seem to be particularly constructive; the liberals of the group seem to be among the most close-minded about it. I try to read opinions from both sides myself, and respect that people who are more to the right than I am might have a very different view of the world. However, on the Pearl Jam group, anybody who disagrees with the liberal POV (which is by far the loudest in that community) is vilified, and assumed to be a troll or a right-wing nut. Posts questioning Bush are lauded; posts questioning Kerry are condemned.

Politics is an interesting beast, I guess. I noticed a similar trend at the university where I did my undergraduate degree, which was strongly left-wing. If you disagreed with the most vocal students on the issues, you weren't likely to get much of a debate going. Instead, you'd be yelled at.

I don't know where my meandering is supposed to go, really. :) But I do hope that people listen to Bruce's message. But I can't help but wonder if people will listen to his message, or if they'll be turned off by the vocal angry liberals who accompany it. I've seen that happen far too much to make me comfortable about the upcoming US election. I mean, I love that these voices are heard, and I love the idea that these people might convince undecided voters, especially in swing states, that Bush is not good for the US or the world. But, at the same time, I do wish that some of these people would channel the passion and intelligence they have into more meaningful dialogue that will convince voters to think about the issues rather than scaring them.

Not that Bruce is doing this, or anybody else-- it is just a general observation.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 6th, 2004 12:35 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
If I didn't agree with Bruce so damn much I'm not sure how I'd react to his new-found political activism.
But hell, he's working class to the core and if his voice in this election reaches as far as it does in rock 'n' roll, and changes a few minds or even makes people think for themselves, I honestly believe it could make the difference in this close election.
Though Bruce has generally linked his activism to leftist causes, they're often more of the humanitarian variety, he hooks up with a food bank at each city he tours. He's that true American Christian - his brother's keeper, no matter the brother. The Rising isn't about Sept. 11, it's about healing and redemption, themes so universal most of the album sounds like it could be equally describing the Reagan years, some specific lines notwithstanding (empty sky... up the stairs, into the fire, etc.).
My Fourth of July music? Bruce's version of This Land is Your Land, an angry song, as he introduces it.
nos4a2no9 From: nos4a2no9 Date: August 6th, 2004 12:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I just wonder how many of Bruce's fans believe that his music has been asking these questions. I hope it's more than few. I hope they live in swing states.

Springsteen has always occupied a unique position on the rock n'roll landscape, hovering between a blue collar soul and a leftist mindset. It's odd, given the social and financial difficulties faced by most of the fans in Springsteen's demographic (working people, waitresses and truck-drivers and factory workers) should make them embrace a more questioning analysis of their world. I had believed, until the controversy Springsteen's political statements stirred up, that the working class embraced his music because it had that balance between loving America while simultaneously questioning it. And I thought that was obvious to fans of his music - everything from 'Streets of Philadelphia' (which is one of my favorite Boss songs) to "My Hometown", "Glory Days" or "Atlantic City", just to name a few, seem to undercut the American dream rather than reinforce it.

Perhaps the titles are misleading, since on the surface songs like "Born to Run" or "Born in the USA" allow listeners to instantly associate with the power and freedom of all-American apple-pie rock n' roll, while the songs themselves are about being trapped by economics and geography.

I think these issues with Springsteen's music really come to the surface on The Rising, the post-9/11 album that seems nothing so much as mournful of the tragedy that does not serve as a call to arms or even an expression of anger, but rather a call for unity and compassion. And while The Rising was a top-seller, I do wonder how Bruce's longtime fans embraced the record and its themes. Were they were looking for more of a condemnation of the attacks rather than a struggle to come to terms with it? It sounds as if the beer-swilling fans at that concert you attended would rather listen to the former choice.

At any rate, I wonder how anyone who considers themselves a fan of Springsteen's music can be either surprised or angered with the revelation of his political sympathies. As you suggest, perhaps the people who are angered aren't very good at reading the subject material in his songs. I think of it as willful ignorance: like Elvis, people want The Boss to occupy his place in the genre as a working-class hero who loves his country and disregard any other conflicting version. It's almost like making a point of remembering the Beatles as the mop-topped Fab Four rather than the politically-conscience and socially sensitive men they evolved into. And really...I think putting Yoko-era John Lennon on the stamp rather than the fresh-faced Liverpuddlian is a more accurate reflection of the artist, but not of the cultural memory of the Beatles. Perhaps Springsteen is doomed to suffer the same fate, as the past seems to be written by nostalgia rather than legacy.
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