It’s only August, but I’ll go out on a limb and congratulate the Village Voice‘s Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. “Because his vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we’ve learned yet again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe that’s why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it for: If there hadn’t been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have had to invent one.”
Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris’s review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?
While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American “other” that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by forty-one shots from New York’s finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad “Streets of Philadelphia,” Springsteen became the first heterosexual rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work that–as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in, uh, the Village Voice, observed–succeeded in crossing “the barriers of class, race, and gender.”
Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds, artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, “We need you.” Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times‘s “Portraits of Grief.” He called a few widows, shared their stories and made a record. It’s what he does. “I have a sense of what my service to my audience is going to be,” he explains. “It’s the true nature of work in the sense that you’re filling a place. And that place comes with its blessings and its responsibilities.” So sue him.
It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The Rising, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain–or, as Springsteen puts it, “music is medicine”–is cynicism itself. And to the degree that this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the sidelines.
Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The Rising does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art, politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984–to Springsteen’s own Born in the U.S.A.–to find a rock record that was marketed as energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media: taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live, simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts at No. 1 in eleven countries.
The problem arises–just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.–when the work’s cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed “the thing itself.” The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who’s using whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk context of a Today show beach party?
Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his willingness to embrace (and exploit) America’s mighty mass-marketing machine.
The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get ‘NSync tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in ’85, enlisted her entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms “a theater of humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing,” they had created a community around something better. This was their hometown.
(Don’t forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation, www.altercation.msnbc.com.)