Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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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.

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