Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Bloc Out

All the talk about Bruce Springsteen in recent days has me waxing nostalgic -- it doesn't take much, obviously -- for my dark teenage years, when I bought the 45 for "Dancing in the Dark" at the mall in Bowie after two delicious slices of Happy Italian Delight pizza and took it home to discover that the B-side "Pink Cadillac" was considerably cooler; when I sat in the rec room listening to tracks from the new album on the radio, projected through that huge, ancient mono speaker that had belonged to my grandfather; when I thought "Shut Out the Light" -- another B-side -- was just about the most moving song I'd ever heard. "Born in the USA" itself was never one of my favorites, ranking just above "Dancing in the Dark" and "Cover Me" at the bottom of the hierarchy. "No Surrender" was at the top because, as I just wrote to Catfish Vegas, "I always loved the long line -- a la Whitman and Ginsburg -- of "No Surrender," how Bruce just keeps going without ever seeming to want or need a breath." Of course, when I was listening back in the Reagan era, I didn't know how to namedrop poets. But I loved the way the song made me feel, like I was in the middle of something to fragile and beautiful to interrupt.

Back in 1992, I wrote my second piece for Bad Subjects -- also the shortest and most likely to make me blush -- on the mixed musical messages at the DNC: "Bill Clinton: Yuppie White Trash":
Looking more closely at Clinton's campaign strategy, it becomes apparent that it aims to perform the sort of articulation, fusion within white America that our politics seeks to achieve for the U.S. as a whole. A polished, well-spoken Baby-Boomer with a strong, independent wife, Clinton initially appears the consummate Yuppie. When addressing bureaucrats, leaders in high- tech industry, educators, and other professionals, it is this appearance that Clinton cultivates. At the same time, however, Clinton is also the son of a lower middle-class Arkansas woman who married four times. Emotionally scarred by an abusive stepfather, born far from the 'loop' of power and success, this Clinton rises from obscurity to fame without forgetting his humble roots. He remains regionally-fixed, an outsider. Thus we have a Yuppie Clinton on the one hand, a 'White Trash' Clinton on the other. How can these two identities be linked together?
I was reading lots of Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall at the time, thinking about how historical blocs can be assembled and disassembled. Clearly, though, I was too much of an optimist, vastly underestimating the pernicious effects of fundamentalism in a United States reshaped in the image of Arkansas. You see, I'd never shopped at a Wal-Mart before.

Now, twelve years later, the Kerry campaign has made Springsteen's "No Surrender" into its theme song, presumably with an eye towards performing a similar coupling of otherwise antagonistic collective identities. The words of the song matter, but far less than the fact that it is a now handsomely wealthy working-class hero who sings them. Bruce is the political metonym of the moment, a figure for the work that must be done to fashion common ground. Like gender -- I'm thinking of Judith Butler & Co. here -- commonality is never as "given" as it seems. It's like a building on the edge of a cliff. The view is beautiful, but the waves keep threatening to take out the structural supports. Routine maintenance blurs into retrofitting.

Back in 1992, I was struck by the fact that neither of Clinton's musical references spoke to my generation. I was just young enough to be hot and bothered by Nirvana and the bands that followed in their choppy wake. Until I read that "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" was a Fleetwood Mac song during the DNC, I don't think I knew who performed it. Whatever coupling the mixed musical messages of the convention were trying to bring was not directed at me.

This time things are different. The Kerry campaign is reaching out to people like me with "No Surrender." They'd love for me to reflect back on the absence of fun that characterized the "Just Say No" Reagan era for young people and perceive an unbroken line between the smiling man in the brown suit back in 1984 and the smirking man in the blue suit in 2004. In other words, for the individuals most obviously interpellated by "No Surrender" -- I'm 36, so we'll say those people between 32 and 42 -- the fashioning of a common ground between substantively different Americans -- white and Latino, professional and blue-collar, Northeast and Southwest -- builds on a prior -- not to mention more likely to succeed -- fashioning of a common ground between those individuals' present and past selves. My nostalgia trip is therefore the ideal political outcome.

The part of me who is thinking instead of feeling, however, suspects that "No Surrender" seems as dated and misdirected to most people in the 18-26 range as "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" and all the Elvis material seemed to me in 1992. As Steven recently suggested, the largely white and rap-free "Vote for Change" tour that Springsteen is participating in doesn't seem to be trying very hard to reach out to younger voters.

While I'm inclined to take a dim view of this neglect of a potentially crucial portion of the electorate, I have to admit that the Clinton campaign's strategy worked in 1992 -- thanks to the help of Ross Perot, naturally -- and might succeed again. Maybe it's more important for the Democrats to mobilize the undecided people in my age group than it is to win over college students.

Then again, I've learned in my four years of teaching at the University of Arizona that the antipathy of twenty-somethings towards the culture of their generational predecessors is not as strong as it was twenty years ago and is way weaker than it was in the 60s. Catfish Vegas himself is too young to have experienced the Bruce madness that came with Born in the USA first hand. "I grabbed on to Dylan and Springsteen pretty much in tandem when I was 14 or so (my dad's vinyl), went apeshit on the early, mostly acoustic, stuff of both guys." Have generational differences ceased to be a major political factor for post-Baby Boomers?

An odd thought just came into my head. Maybe the appeal of those long lines in "No Surrender" overlaps a bit with the appeal of hip-hop lyrics. There's an excess of language in the song, a sense that the music can't keep up. I had been thinking that Bruce's delivery reminded me of the better rhetorical moments at the DNC, the way that the party's many constituencies and the nation's independent voters were concatenated into a cumbersome but forceful flow. Springsteen is a pretty "talky" singer anyway -- listen to Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. sometime -- so it wouldn't be completely insane to analyze him through a rhetorical lens conditioned by hip-hop or the speeches at a political revival.

What do you guys think about the use of "No Surrender"? As you can tell, my reflections are at a decidedly rough "rough draft" stage, so I'd greatly benefit from your input.

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