[26 July 2012]
If you asked, most people couldn’t tell you what “Born in the USA” is about. But there is a demographic that can, and I’m a part of it. There are more than a few of us, though I’m personally acquainted with only a handful. We are 20-somethings who, in the car or at the end of a long day, do something a little out of what everyone seems to think is our character: we listen to Bruce Springsteen. Some of us go so far as to self-apply the word “fan,” even though it doesn’t always go over so well, and earns us funny looks on a sort-of-regular basis. Imagine the slight surprise/disgust on a barista’s face when someone orders a nine-word latte during the morning rush and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about here. We don’t get it all the time and we don’t get it from everyone, but when we do have to face it, it’s mostly from our generational peers born after the Generation Y threshold of 1981(-ish). I can’t speak for every member of Generation Y, but there’s a clear trend at work in how we think about Springsteen, and on close examination, it cuts to the core of today’s youth culture.
When most people think about Springsteen, they think about the Baby Boomers. Not all boomers like Springsteen (though you would be hard-pressed to find one that hates him outright), but Bruce buttered his bread with this demographic in his heyday. Despite these strong associations, he’s not totally foreign to my generation’s cultural consciousness—after all, Generation Y’s parents are, by and large, Baby Boomers. Many of us registered his existence through our parents’ CD or record collections, and others of us may even be able to pick out a Springsteen tune on the radio. The more serious younger aficionados I know are fortunate enough to have one or more back-in-the-day Springsteen fans as parents.
He’s still present and still relevant, but he occupies what I can only call a “unique place” in our minds. He was a keynote speaker at SXSW this year, and played a Woody Guthrie cover with members of indie staple Arcade Fire, all to much fanfare. Taste-making music websites like Pitchfork regularly review his albums and reissues. Don’t get me wrong; this is great, but there’s something just a tad off-kilter about their coverage. Pitchfork prefaces its review of Wrecking Ball with musings on the American Dream and economic inequality, and throws words like “ethos” and “disillusionment” at us even before naming the album itself. Its review of The Essential Bruce Springsteen opens with a paragraph on whether or not he’s hip, or ever has been. I can’t think of another musical artist at work today who gets this sort of exposition. Sure, a record review needs context, but it doesn’t need to open with musings on something so broad and nebulous as the American Dream or what it means to be hip. It’s as though his presence on a website like Pitchfork needs to be justified, as if their readership needs to be persuaded that he’s worthy of their attention for reasons other than the music alone. Some readers probably need this, but even those of us for whom justification is unnecessary ought to agree that, in the bigger picture of the alternative music press, The Boss is caught up in a balancing act of sorts. This is the weird limbo, the unique place he occupies for generation Y.
There are a couple of explanations for this. The easy one is that his songs tackle a lot of the big, capital-letter issues like the American Dream, Sexual Frustration, or Your Relationship with Your Father, and capital-letter issues just aren’t cool anymore. We’d all like to think that history will carry them through, that they can transcend an environment saturated with too much information, but really the opposite is turning out to be true. These days, something as epic as an “Independence Day” or a “Jungleland” usually can’t be heard over the awesomely diverse racket. The big themes take too much time and energy to process, time which could be spent consuming lighter, easier fare. An artist whose trademark is the pop epic just doesn’t fit in. There are exceptions, of course (Animal Collective’s “My Girls” comes to mind), but they are just that: exceptions. It basically boils down to a question of attention spans and art-vs.-entertainment, but this argument has been done to death. We’ve heard it all before.
The other explanation is more complex. It starts with the fact that 20-somethings grew up in a deeply ironic culture. Those of us who pay attention in class (as young Springsteen fans tend to do, I’ve noticed) may have heard our professors label this time period “postmodernity,” an age when any “narrative” is subject to “decentering” and “deconstruction” or some jargon. (Spoiler alert: examples of narratives include a lot of the big, capital-letter issues!) But those who don’t pay attention in class or suffer from a jargon allergy can understand all this as the interrogation and criticism of cultural assumptions and values. A common tactic in this enterprise is irony, because it juxtaposes reality and narratives and shows just how dissimilar they can be. This whole project can be productive to a point but, as a culture, we hit that point a while back.
The ironic tendency has become environmental, and a funny thing eventually happens when one lives and breathes irony for long enough. When the endless cultural questions get too hard, too absurd, or just downright boring, the average young person takes a shortcut whereby they reject all values, even the good ones, and stop asking questions. They affirm irony not as a communicative technique, but as an end in itself, and it becomes a narrative of its own. This is when it stops being productive, because the average young person can only talk about culture ironically, and they sink into a degree of apathy. Some all-too-familiar examples include: Politics? Yeah, that’s worth your time. Hard work? Yeah, that’ll get you places. Good grades? Yeah, those equal intelligence. The list goes on, and includes something like: Bruce Springsteen? Yeah, he’s great. With irony as the narrative we use to understand the world, it’s all a bunch of B.S. and not worth too much of our time. There’s a lot of material on this culture of irony. David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” is a good introduction, as is Jedediah Purdy’s book For Common Things. I won’t attempt to reproduce their arguments, but I will direct your attention to the internet meme which has a police officer pepper-spraying student protesters photoshopped into still images from Star Wars or Robocop. This seems unrelated but it’s a basic example of something losing its meaning to irony, and stuff like it happens all the time. A friend of mine elegantly describes this whole state of affairs as a “condition of postmodern bleh.”
I think this game is afoot with Bruce Springsteen and his relationship to Generation Y because no matter how well he can conjure up head-sticking melodies and hooks, he’s equally good with universal themes and archetypes. This stuff is really the whole point of his music. He writes characters who we simultaneously want to be (because the mythology is irresistible) and want to avoid being (because even if the mythology doesn’t go sour in the end, it’s still just mythology and therefore to be kept at arm’s length). Personally, it all makes me want to be a better person in small, everyday ways, and that’s one of the highest things pop music can aspire to. But Generation Y has gotten used to seeing every aspect of our culture ironized right off the map. Hell, we take it for granted. Instead of squirming when someone challenges our cherished ideals, we squirm when some smart-ass like Springsteen comes along and makes an honest case in their favor. The psychology goes something like: Affirm a value wholeheartedly? Yeah, that’s inspiring—which rock did you grow up under?
What’s interesting about this reaction is that there is some major-league irony at play in Springsteen’s music, but it goes right over my generation’s collective head. The pop-canonical “Born in the USA” sounds like a straightforward flag-waver, but it’s really a scathing indictment of a society which sends troubled young guys to war, denies them jobs when they rotate back, and tosses them in jail when they get in more trouble as a result. The brand new “We Take Care of Our Own” gives post-housing bubble American poverty the same sly treatment. These are textbook protest songs shrink-wrapped in textbook irony. “Hungry Heart” has a guy abandoning his wife and kid to a sappy, major-key xylophone line. It sounds like a love song about people with deep romantic urges, but it’s really about a deadbeat dad. Look a little closer and it’s not only about a deadbeat dad, but about how deadbeat dads rationalize their behavior with the clichés of sappy love songs. Pretty tricky, right?
When I explain it this way, the chasm between Springsteen’s irony and Gen-Y’s irony might not seem so wide, and it may seem like I just blew my whole argument. Yes, it is all very ironic, but there’s a key difference: Springsteen uses irony to communicate the dark, dark stuff of homeless vets, systemic poverty, deadbeat dads, etc. But you’ll remember that Gen-Y does not see irony as a means to something else. It’s an end in itself and thus need not communicate anything substantial, just as the internet meme of the pepper-spraying cop misses the point entirely. Sometimes it’s a deliberate copout, sometimes a subconscious defense mechanism, and usually a bit of both, but it always leads to a general dismissal of the authentic stuff of life, the serious and/or finer things.
Analogous to the internet meme is dubstep music, an emerging musical sub-genre of choice for today’s hip youngsters, and the music which best encapsulates the latent philosophy of irony as an end-in-itself. The first really major American dubstep artist is Skrillex, and the best description I can offer of his work is that it’s decent, highly danceable electronic music squeezed through a dial-up modem. Like most electronic artists, he doesn’t have lyrics, but his vocal samples include such gems as “I want to kill everybody” or “My name is Skrillex,” and these samples will often carry an entire song. The juxtaposition of aural ugliness and big-time danceability is about as discordant as it gets, but as far as I can tell this is actually his big draw. Superficial and sonically monstrous though Skrillex may be, a whole youth subculture has rallied around him, and the psychology behind it might go something like: Hideous modem sounds? Let’s dance! Interestingly enough, I have yet to speak with a single Skrillex fan who takes issue with this assessment or even understands that it’s negative to describe his music in the way I just did. They just smile and nod at this kind of overt trash-talk. Not coincidentally, these are often the very same young people with whom I clash over Springsteen.
By now, you should be able to see the two opposing tendencies at work here. We have music which uses irony as a technique to refer us to serious social themes and those big capital-letter issues (Bruce Springsteen) and music which ultimately directs our attention to nothing substantial and which would be unmarketable were it not for the colossal misunderstanding that made irony alone into a hot commodity (Skrillex). Bruce Springsteen sucks by Gen-Y standards because he embraces serious values which are rejected as a matter of course by a youth culture with a bad case of postmodernity. Authenticity, Sincerity, Identity, and just about any word you could use to describe Springsteen’s appeal tends to get obliterated by my peers’ habitual irony, becomes questionable by virtue of the fact that it’s not clever or flashy in any way. So, by listening to relatively authentic music, young Bruce Springsteen fans get pinned down as naïve or square by a sizeable chunk of their generation. Conversations I have about Springsteen with a lot of people my age sometimes hit this wall, and I have to end it with the simple statement that: I just like Springsteen. Of course I have honest-to-God reasons for liking him, but getting others to take those reasons seriously can be like pulling teeth, and I have to resort to a statement like this because it turns the tables. It seems simple, but it’s freaky-challenging because it circumvents and short-circuits the master narrative: irony. It’s satirical in its straightforwardness.
Wary though I am of irony’s power to blur lines, I’d be a fool to think that the tension between irony and authenticity was not blurry itself. It would be obnoxious, disingenuous, and just awfully square of me to claim that I or anyone I know is unambiguously above this mess just because we listen to the right music. Sorry, guys, but it’s never that simple. Whether we like it or not, there’s a final irony in this line of argument.
All of Bruce’s albums since 1992’s Human Touch have gotten similar ratings, including those he put out during his ‘90s dormancy and his much-touted resurgence. Even a fan like me has to admit that he hasn’t put out anything mind-blowing or game-changing in quite some time. This creates a new problem: how do we account for his renewed popularity? It could be that, no matter how desperately we want to believe the opposite, he’s just another cultural object which each generation recycles ad nauseum, like Batman. This sets off an alarm for me because it makes Bruce Springsteen into a brand and waters down any sense of authenticity we feel we’ve achieved. It’s a scary prospect.
Thankfully, there’s still some saving grace in the fact that any way you come at this problem, there still has to be a reason behind our bringing him back into circulation. Something like this doesn’t happen at random—there is psychology at work here. Maybe we’re all sick of the culture of irony—we want something more real and pouring our nostalgia into the Bruce Springsteen brand is our way of articulating that want. At least we want something more authentic, at least we’re aware that something is missing. I’d say some of us are, and we’ll continue filling that void with Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus and Japandroids.
But if we want to give ourselves more credit, maybe all of this is our way of being edgy and subversive. Maybe by reaffirming the capital-letter issues, we are persisting in that postmodern enterprise of challenging the narratives, but the idea we’ve chosen to challenge is that irony can serve as an end-in-itself, that it’s an American-pastime-value on par with baseball and muscle cars. From this angle, it could be that our choice to be a little old-fashioned has never been so cool.