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C H A P T E R E I G H T BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN Trapped in the Promised Land By the time he finished the 155 shows of the Born in the U.S.A. tour, Bruce Springsteen had become an inescapable icon in American culture. Eric Alterman Eric Alterman, a political journalist whose books include, Why We Are Liberals and Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is just one of many commentators—a high percentage of whom normally work on beats other than popular music—who have treated Bruce Springsteen not merely as a cultural icon but as someone who has made a significant contribution to American political discourse: Robert Coles, Jefferson Cowie, David Masciotra, and Louis Masur, among others. These interpreters’ books are strong evidence that the Boss is widely understood as standing for more than most rock & rollers. Yet these writers, in the main, are not much interested in his public persona but in reading his lyrics and interpreting his music and performance. I see their work more as contributing to the public persona than interpreting it. My focus here is on what is essential to that persona, and thereby I hope to explain why so many have found so much in Bruce Springsteen. Rock & roll had always been understood to exist on the margins of the cultural mainstream. It was the music of rebellious youth and disaffected subcultures. Bruce Springsteen’s work has carried on this tradition, but paradoxically he is also the best representative of the music’s movement from the periphery to the center. The trajectory of his career can be seen as something like the reverse of Bob Dylan’s. Springsteen was first called “the new Dylan,” largely because of their shared literariness, and especially the predilection for doggerel that characterizes Springsteen’s earliest songs. Now the contrasts between the two figures are striking. Dylan began as an explicitly political folksinger who became known for his protest songs. He rather quickly moved into other forms and other personas while retaining much of his former identity. Springsteen began more as a rock & roll aesthete, like the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited. But Springsteen’s career became increasingly political, with such projects as the Guthriesque album The Ghost of Tom Joad and later 176 Rock Star The Rising and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. While Dylan’s embrace of rock & roll widened his audience and lent the music a new seriousness, Springsteen was proclaimed by critics to be rock’s future at a time when it seemed to be in decline. Where Dylan’s career is marked by radical shifts in persona, Springsteen’s consists in relatively subtle reinventions, most of which involve the remaking of his physical appearance, including his very body. And unlike Dylan, Springsteen’s career was altered by the advent of MTV and the way in which his music videos helped to vastly increase his popularity at the expense of his heretofore taken-for-granted authenticity. In the long run, Springsteen replaced Dylan as the most important musical commentator on American society. Indeed, Springsteen surpassed Dylan by writing songs that addressed political issues in the complexity they deserve . And, where Dylan had posed the binary of speaking for someone else or for himself, Springsteen was willing to assert his own identification with the working class and with America. That combination gave him an authority rare in recent American history. This chapter focuses on how the artist’s persona has come to embody many of the contradictions that trouble contemporary American culture: being a patriotic American critical of America; being an extraordinarily successful individual who identifies with the working class, the homeless, the dispossessed; being a performer so popular that, despite his efforts to position himself as an outsider, he is perceived to be mainstream. But it’s not just Springsteen himself who became mainstream. The acceptance of The Rising as a successful commemoration of the tragedy of 9/11 shows that rock & roll itself became central to American culture. Print Persona Even before he became a star, Bruce Springsteen was proclaimed to be rock & roll’s future. Given his rise to stardom, one cannot assert that that prediction was entirely false, but it was not true in any simple sense, either. Rock in general did not follow Springsteen’s lead. Springsteen emerged after rock stars had become both entertainment royalty and genuine artists but also at a point between major movements in rock. The 1960s were over, but punk, new wave...


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