Bruce Springsteen is generally held to be a legendary performer; his marathon concerts, which typically last over three hours without intermission, are likened with no intended hyperbole to transformative religious experiences, wherein the congregation at the Church of Bruce, swept up by his enthusiasm and charisma, have their faith restored in the power of rock music to transcend the often petty problems that bog us down. His music sweeps away the insubstantial differences that keep people wary of each other, and insists instead that they indulge in an all-embracing love for each other, for all the guests at a stadium-sized house party, and by extension for every ingredient in the American melting pot. After all, it’s not cult of personality alone that garners saxophone player Clarence Clemons, the sole black member of the E Street Band, the loudest cheers at these shows—he symbolizes effortless integration and assimilation as a fortuitous consequence of our popular culture’s tendency to make hybrids; he represents a small part of the noble, utopian fantasy that the inclusive atmosphere at these concerts can serve as a microcosm of a tolerant America emerging.
But we were skeptical of this love fest from the outset, and our sojourn across the Giants Stadium parking lot—where we sidestepped the shattered Bud Light and Corona bottles; the bloated, loutish fans; the extra-pushy scalpers, who had no qualms grabbing you by the arm to demand your extra tickets; and the little puddles of vomit and spit outside the entrance to Gate D—did little to diminish our skepticism. Certainly some thrive in the midst of a mob, even beyond the hooligans on the concourse who used the cloak of anonymity to shout profanities and grope female passersby: Many find pleasure in losing themselves in a crowd, in discovering a secure simplicity in unequivocal hero-worship, in the cleansing, cathartic surrender of all critical faculty. These tend to be the rank and file conformists of American society, the people toward whom television commercials are pitched, the people who see no difference between jingoism and patriotism. Maybe there was good reason to be wary of sharing joy with people such as these—if we enjoy their brand of happiness haven’t we become in some fundamental way the same as them? Would Springsteen’s magic have converted us to mullet-wearing, Bud-drinking lunkheads who wear American-flag doo-rags on our heads, made us one with the suburbanite couples making the most of the night they splurged for a babysitter? The audience had little in the way of cultural diversity, even if they did pay a cheering lip service to it.
Having made our way to our lower deck seats to the strains of Springsteen’s opening number, we were immediately struck by our unfathomable distance from the band we came to see. Presumably the writers who typically cover concerts such as this have VIP passes that allow them to view the show up close, with the band on a human scale, from a place where one isn’t jostled by fans crammed in the rows, bouncing up and down while shouting along all the words. They have the luxury to talk about the music, the band’s stage presence and the quality of their performance, as they are within the range where such things still have meaning. From where we were, hundreds of yards from the stage, one has to adjust one’s criteria. One could try to pay attention to the action on stage, and consider the entertainment value of what broad gestures one could actually make out, one could try to measure how one’s imagination is stimulated to supplement what one could see. However, the massive screens bracketing the stage are impossible to ignore, and these completely shape one’s experience through choreographed close-ups, cut to the beat of the music and blended together with dissolves.
The screens direct one’s attention irresistibly, making one’s experience of the show less subjective and more synthetic, prefabricated along the lines of a lowest common denominator of short attention spans and celebrity worshipfulness. On screen the stage lighting as perceived on screen is so different from what you see when you look at the stage directly that it seems like you are watching a satellite broadcast of an event happening elsewhere, or MTV, or worst of all, a commercial for beer, cola, or pick-up trucks. One could get completely bogged down in resisting and condemning the inherent manipulation; one can ruminate endlessly trying to decide whether fans, so accustomed by television to passive spectatorship, really want the camera to make viewing decisions for them, or whether these dumbed-down visuals are being unilaterally imposed upon them.
The screens promise an intimacy they actually undermine—by manufacturing an illusory relation between viewer and viewed, they corrupt and effectively obviate those rare and thrilling moments when a performer actually does connect with an audience. And the screens threaten to ruin the kind of intimacy that does exist at these festival shows: the connection that blossoms spontaneously among strangers in the crowd, recognizing a shared passion, which had seemed powerful enough when private but becomes ecstatic when encouraged publicly. But in the fake proximity they provide, the TV screens isolate each member, placing each in a bubble with the giant, seductive images, threatening to deny the communal experience, negating the difference between actually attending a concert and watching something similar at home. One comes to feel he is not really there. The instantaneous packaging of all such reputedly powerful events like a Springsteen concert strips them of their significance and makes one’s presence both superfluous and obligatory at the same time—your excitement has been expected and already accounted for. The gap between an event and the fond memories we’ll all have of it has vanished altogether. Commodification builds nostalgia into the event as it’s happening, it makes all events virtual rather than real, makes even the most dynamic and spontaneous performance seem programmed.
The crowd doesn’t seem especially bothered by this. In their assurance that everyone is as equally enthralled by Springsteen as they are, they become strikingly and refreshingly free of self-consciousness, and dance and sing in a way that would otherwise make them feel embarrassed. They never tire of joining in the anthemic choruses whenever the floodlights mounted above the stage blast on them, or in bleating out the scat syllables Springsteen requests in his call and response games. Judging by the overwhelming majority of fans who play along, one might think he possesses masterful techniques for captivating a crowd, that he is an extraordinarily gifted communicator if not an outright mesmerist. But he is actually clumsy and a bit ham-fisted; and he hardly speaks to the crowd at all outside of the pre-arranged, schticky band introduction, which is full of all the standard hyperbolic show business clichés. Outside of that, he ventured only a few tentative comments about the weather, and that was all.
The crowd really feeds off itself; more like the eruption wave at any sporting event than something transcendent. Not that the audience becomes completely uninhibited (this isn’t like the maelstrom that can manifest at punk shows, where all the boundaries collapse in the violence of the pit), in fact there’s something sad in the little circles they turn in place, in the pinched, constricted arm motions they make—one would have hoped they would have gotten more out of being freed of the burden of themselves, something wild and Dionysian rather than tepid and sock-hoppish. It’s actually sinister how many in the audience imitate the gestures they see the band making on screen even when its not a hackneyed audience participation ruse: If Bruce claps, they clap; if Bruce pumps a fist, they all pump a fist. Still, Springsteen’s complete and unquestionably earnest conviction in his material, that stretches even to his thinner new material, creates an aura of total commitment that feels all-inclusive, a feeling the big screens’ contrivance can’t even compromise. His will to promote his new album, which he played entirely too much of, and which despite lionizing praise from music writers looking for a pretense to join the bonanza of 9/11-related journalistic pseudo-solemnity, is best compared to Paul Simon’s 1990 soporific The Rhythm of the Saints, takes on the evangelical purity of nobler aims, making it hard to doubt that he sincerely believes in the broad-stroke spirituality he puts in his songs (which more often than not is encapsulated in sing-along lines and powerhouse choruses inevitably punctuated by a wall of floodlights blasting on the audience, cueing them to believe, cueing them to shout along, investing them with responsibility for spreading the message).
But we do. Springsteen’s music has always been notoriously easy to appropriate, as Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign abduction of “Born in the U.S.A.” made clear. Despite Springsteen’s unmistakable sympathy for working class people exploited by Reaganite policies and his implicit condemnation of the complicity with big business that makes it possible, his songs’ earnest and hopeful presentation of homiletic American values (love, family, faith, perseverance) triumphing over evil makes them irresistible to right-wing demagogues and multinational corporations alike. Both they and Springsteen urge the same message upon the masses: only Springsteen seems to sincerely believe it, while the others merely wish to distract the masses from the money being made at their expense. Still, watching the giant screens, whose size is matched only by the huge ads that ring the stadium, it’s hard not to question even Springsteen’s sincerity. Part of the problem is that Springsteen’s more searching and challenging material, the stripped-down and politically charged folk of Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, doesn’t translate easily to arena performance, and he doesn’t even try—his performing interests remain squarely in entertaining and uplifting his devotees, even if on his albums he seems to understand that such escapes fail to address underlying social inequities and may in fact help perpetuate them. During this show he stuck to party songs like “Ramrod” (from The River) and “Mary’s Place”, to the material from The Rising that offers soothing apolitical approaches to 9/11, or to hits (“Born to Run”, “Badlands”, “The Promised Land”) whose massive popularity has denatured their implicit desperation. Despite the populist anger that resonates below his music’s surface, no one leaves this show inspired to try to change anything. It remains a resounding reaffirmation of all the pieties they are expected to accept. Springsteen’s shows are inspirational in that they are machines for producing a feeling of contentment for his fans, but this contentment, when taken for hope, only masks the collective surrender.