As I’ve noted before, Bruce Springsteen is having something of a moment. In the past few years he’s published a memoir and performed an autobiographical one-man show, both to great acclaim. His last few albums have been received as late-career bests, and his early work has remained as relevant and rewarding as it’s ever been. Clearly, people are responding to whatever Bruce Springsteen has to say, and his ongoing popularity is thanks to more than just common nostalgia for a few hit singles. The things he’s been writing about all his life haven’t stopped resonating. In fact, his songs have somehow become more resonant. Songs about poverty, hopelessness, struggle and heartbreak may have struck an odd chord in the 80’s, when the prevailing mood was manic, cocaine-fueled optimism and candy-colored escapism was the dominant aesthetic. That may be why Springsteen’s big, fist-pumping hits were so popular, while his more thoughtful songs were looked upon as filler material. In recent years, he hasn’t produced any more stadium hits, and doesn’t need to. He doesn’t need to write catchy songs for the radio to balance out the darker material. The hits will always be there, and now it’s the dark, true-to-life stuff that people want to listen to. Because American life sucks, and there’s no glossy escapist pop shiny enough to outshine the darkness. It’s the time for sad songs sung by sad old men who’ve seen everything that they hoped would be better become steadily worse.
It’s Bruce Springsteen being Bruce Springsteen and not much has changed from 1978. The 70’s weren’t great economically, I’ve heard, and not particularly stable politically. It was an angst-filled decade, especially in its final years, and it inspired a variety of cultural reactions. From the escapism of disco to the rage of punk, pop culture reflected a lot of common dissatisfaction. It was great inspiration for a writer like Springsteen, who noticed that, overall, Americans were not leading great lives. Americans may have enjoyed a few years of booming postwar prosperity and a collective spirit of optimism, but that had all burned itself out by the end of the 70’s, and although there have been periods of progress, peace and prosperity since that time, we’ve continued to see increasing economic disparity, political strife and general feelings of hopelessness. Which is, again, great news for people whose life’s work is writing sad songs about the bleakness of the heartland. It’s kept Bruce Springsteen relevant to a degree nobody could have predicted when he was just another earnest singer-songwriter in a newsboy hat.
Well, you couldn’t find more of an all-American classic than Born to Run. In typical Springsteen fashion, even the love songs are loaded with ambiguity. Bruce Springsteen has made it his life’s mission to remind us that even the greatest things – love, family, the open road – are never without bitterness and heartache, and that’s life for ya. It’s a message that millions of people have lined up to hear, so it’s clearly very much on point. I always thought this was a fairly straightforward love song, but taking a look at the lyrics, no, of course it isn’t. She may be the one, whatever that means, but she’s probably bad news anyway. And that, frankly, rings true, because as I’ve said before and will repeat again, love songs that don’t allow faults and ambiguity don’t reflect real life as most of us experience it. Fuck romance, it’s a sham. Whoever ‘the one’ may turn out to be, they’ll most likely break your heart and fuck you over.
Bruce Springsteen sings a lot of depressing songs about people with bleak, tainted lives. He’s kind of a downer that way. But not all the time! Even the bard of the American heartland needs to cut loose and get silly sometimes. Just play an upbeat, happy love song about drinking and cruising. Never mind that there’s also a nagging mother-in-law who always needs a ride to the unemployment office. It gives the whole summer romance thing a bit of a context, and as usual, it ain’t too cheery, but just once, let’s play it for laughs. Now there’s the sense of showmanship that put Bruce in a one-man show on Broadway in his dotage.
We don’t wait breathlessly to see what Bruce Springsteen will be up to next. He set up his themes and topics very concisely a long time ago, and nobody wants or expects him to go off and make an EDM record or write a rock opera set in space. Springsteen is not going to get weird in his old age and he’s not about to embarrass himself trying to stay edgy. That’s because he’s got a huge legacy of work that still feels relevant and he knows it. He still performs relentlessly, from globetrotting stadium tours to intimate one-man shows, making him one of the hottest ticket sellers in the world. People want to see Springsteen, a whole lot of people, and part of it may be the element of nostalgia for the hits, but it’s also because even the most obscure old material still speaks to real issues. So, it’s not like we really need new Springsteen material, but, I have to say, he’s still putting out some really good work. 2012’s Wrecking Ball was an outstanding album; musically diverse, hard-rocking and very angry. Springsteen has been playing with elements of folk music for a long time, but this may be the first time he’s drawn heavily on gospel music. Gospel makes everything better, obviously, but it also helps place Springsteen’s work within a larger historical tradition, a position in American music history that goes back further than the narrow parameters of rock star hitmaking.
Watch Bruce Springsteen – 31 years old – spin a near-universal tale of midlife disappointment. Springsteen understood something that fabulously successful rock star type people generally just can’t grasp; that in reality, most people’s lives are not much more than a series of dead ends. Dead-end hometowns, dead-end jobs, dead-end marriages. Even for those who don’t hobble themselves right out of the gate with teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings, life soon becomes a rut of just getting by and getting through the day with not much to dream about except the past. And for a lot of people, that kind of inertia is just fine. It’s not fine for anyone who ever imagined that their life would be better than their parents’ and their peers’, that there would be passion and excitement, or that change would at least be an option. But changing and getting better is not an option in a lot of people’s lives. There’s no better job to apply for, no better town to move to, no happier relationship to build. They can’t choose to walk through that door because that door simply doesn’t exist. And even if we’re not among the number of folks trapped in dead mining or factory towns with nothing to turn to but opiods, the burden of not being able to do better is still felt, because the expectation of betterment is very rarely met. Because crushing inequality is an inbuilt part of society, and that is more true now than it was in 1980. Which makes Bruce Springsteen, of all people, the most relevant songwriter for our time, something none of us could have foreseen. We used to dismiss Springsteen as a poseur in distressed jeans, pandering to some imaginary Joe-working-class fantasy of American masculinity. But that was in more culturally and economically optimistic times. Now it’s clear that he speaks to all of us, in this very real wintery state of American discontent. It’s not just small town Joe whose life is a dead-end. American life in general is a dead-end. It’s a dead-end for nearly everyone, just an endless cycle of the same vicious, toxic knee-jerk political arguments and economic dysfunction. We’re all living in a Bruce Springsteen song, and it’s not one of the fist-pumpy ones.
Let’s celebrate a few wholesome all-American pleasures: cars, arena rock, sax solos, football, the Italian mafia, late night talk shows, denim, HBO, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are emblematic of all those things and more. So forget your poverty and crippling depression for a while. Take a load off and do what Working Class Joe’s have done since time immemorial; go out drinking in your car on the weekend. Take the car downtown to go drinking. Go drinking and pick up girls downtown in your car. Cash your paycheck, pick up your baby and go downtown in your car. Drinking. Downtown. On the Weekend. In your car. With your girl. Or something. I have no idea, actually. I think Bruce Springsteen wants you to drink and drive. Nothing more wholesome and All-American than drinking and driving. You should go do that.