I hardly began yesterday with my little rant on Bruce Springsteen. I’m not done, so you will have to tolerate a little bit more on authenticity, one of my pet obsessions. Bear with me, It Is Important.
In his post on the Boss’s Super Bowl halftime show, Brent DiCrescenzo writes: “The whole affair turned into Broadway (or at least far more Atlantic City than ‘Atlantic City’) when the Boss went back-to-back with Lil’ Stevie to spit out some Abbott and Costello routine regarding ‘going into penalty time.'”
The problem being, per DiCrescenzo, that it represented “worse songs and less realism.” He compares the sound unfavorably to “Nebraska and Welcome to Asbury Park—or ‘the albums without Clarence Clemons.’ Those cheesy sax bleats….” Two problems here: it’s Greetings From Asbury Park. More importantly, it features Clarence Clemons. It has cheesy sax bleats.
So that leaves Nebraska. Here’s the funny thing about Nebraska, which is my favorite Springsteen album: it’s a sophisticated conceit. A concept album. He actually began recording with the full E Street effect and scrapped it for his self-recorded demos, which required significant studio work to clean up. Conceptually, it’s also the product of his Svengali, Jon Landau, a Brandeis grad who fed Springsteen a diet of classic American narratives.
DiCrescenzo would prefer that Springsteen stick with “mature sets of acoustic downers,” per the late-career recordings of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond as stripped down by Rick Rubin (producer, natch, of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”). Could that result in a great Springsteen album? Perhaps, it worked with Nebraska.
But it wouldn’t necessarily be more “mature” or “realist” than anything else he’s done. His big-band, R&B-inflected sound is actually much closer to the indigenous 20th century popular music of Jersey and other Atlantic Coast urban centers: the Jersey Shore/Asbury sound, Motown-and-Spector-influenced white soul. As Jimmy Vivino puts it: “A lot came out of inspiration from the Young Rascals, and I don’t have to say that it’s blue-eyed soul, in a way. Blue-eyed soul and Chuck Berry sort of mixed together.” (Related: Rebbeca Traister on the Asbury Park bar the Upstage.)
That’s why this one sentence has been rubbing me raw for a day now: “The whole affair turned into Broadway (or at least far more Atlantic City than ‘Atlantic City’).” The lo-fi, rough, “folky” sound of Nebraska is a simulacrum. It’s fake. Springsteen was one of the most famous musicians in the country with enormous amounts of money and talent at his disposal. And he abandoned all that, abandoned the big, popular, diverse sound of his previous and future recordings as an aesthetic statement. And it’s a great one, perhaps even a lie that tells the truth. Robert Christgau puts it well: “Still, this is a conceptual coup, especially since it’s selling. What better way to set right the misleading premise that rock and roll equals liberation?”
But Authentic–or Springsteen–it ain’t. And I think the desire to call it that is a pernicious falsehood we tell ourselves about American music, and American culture generally. At the heart of this cult of authenticity is a desire to return to some sort of Edenic state where music isn’t a commodity, everyone plays an instrument, and the people play the music of the People. There’s also something tribal and exclusive about it; when Stephen Metcalf pans Springsteen’s halftime show, he can’t help but write: “Springsteen concerts, when I first attended, were Atlantic Coast joy fests for a small community of like-minded fans. To discover that many other people share a taste for something oddball is a source of true shelter from the agglomerating powers of the mass.” Oh, sorry I like it too, daddy-o.
This is madness, of course*. Strip Springsteen of the overwhelming urban sound, the popular showman’s kitsch, and you strip away a vital part of his cultural heritage, and ours. We’re children of the radio–okay, grandchildren of the radio. Our inheritance is popular music in all its plasticity and profundity; our authenticity is LAME encoded and infinitely replicable. Don’t let it pass you buy.
* A madness not unrelated to that which gave us a fake cowboy from Phillips Academy as President and model American for the last unfortunate eight years.