The Alternate Existences of Bruce Springsteen

by evanmcmurry

The New Republic, doors always open to the takedown piece, takes down David Remnick’s profile of Bruce Springsteen:

David Remnick’s 75,000-word profile of Bruce Springsteen is another one of his contributions to the literature of fandom. Once again there is a derecho of detail and the conventional view of his protagonist, the official legend, is left undisturbed. It could have been written by the record company. The interminable thing is an inventory of Springsteen (and rock) platitudes, punctuated by the fleeting acknowledgment of a dissent about the deity, but much more interested in access than in judgment. “Springsteen Survives,” the cover of the magazine triumphantly proclaims. Survives what?

Point. And Leon Wieseltier makes some class-war hay out of the fact that the most recent Springsteen encomiums come from guard dogs of the elite. Moral of this and every story: capitalism wins by assimilation, and it always wins. Hard to argue with that.

Here’s where Wieseltier loses me:

DO THESE MEN HAVE ears? The musical decline of Bruce Springsteen has been obvious for decades. The sanctimony, the grandiosity, the utterly formulaic monumentality; the witlessness; the tiresome recycling of those anthemic figures, each time more preposterously distended; the disappearance of intimacy and the rejection of softness.

Maybe. Maybe some of us simply have different ears than Wieseltier. The Rising had softness to match its striving, and there are tracks on Magic and Working On A Dream that are muscular and kinetic as anything Springsteen put out four decades ago. Are these newer songs more contained, intentional, and user-friendly than their ancestors? Yup. That’s what forty years’ll do. It didn’t do it to Tom Waits, but there’s also circa 200 million dollars’ and 100 million albums’ difference between the two men; in fact, it has been argued, by Mr. Waits himself, that his compromise-free career was made possible by Springsteen’s cover of Waits’s “Jersey Girl” and the royalties it brought. You don’t have to please the masses when Bruce Springsteen does it for you.

It might help to crystallize the problem with Wieseltier’s criticism by considering a counterfactual: suppose the Boss didn’t go his bombastic route (and note Wieseltier conveniently ignores Springsteen’s softer, more personal solo albums) and instead remained the syllable-spouting bohemian ferris wheel of a human that he was on his first two albums: if he were still trying to pull off “Rosalita” forty years later, what are the odds that a guy named Leon Wieseltier would be writing a takedown piece in the New Republic about the lack of Springsteen’s artistic growth, and the pathetic spectacle of a guy still following around his own cragged, forty-year-old image? I’d say the odds are pretty freaking good. You can’t please a guy like Wieseltier. Bruce settled instead for pleasing about 100 million people. Who wins here?