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.