[16 April 2014]
In the pursuit of truth, it’s best to turn to art. More than politicians, journalists, and even teachers, artists have historically captured the human experience in its purest, primal form. Picasso’s Guernica, for example, shows the brutality of war more honestly than any political speech or news broadcast, and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street tackles American greed with an unbridled passion most politicians and media outlets could never match.
Donald L. Deardorff II reminds us of the artist’s crucial significance in Bruce Springsteen: American Poet and Prophet, an engaging new study of the iconic rock star’s impact on American culture. In the pages of Deardorff’s accessibly written book, Springsteen’s music is taken seriously and given a thoughtful—if sometimes obvious—analysis, and it’s a welcome introduction to Springsteen’s cultural relevance.
Deardorff’s central argument that “Springsteen is a poet for his times, whose personal background and music met the changing psychological needs for so many people over five decades” is well-articulated and supported by song lyrics, interviews, and existing scholarship on Springsteen, American history, and American culture (xxxiii).
The first chapter, “Adam Raised a Cain: Biographical and Musical Influences”, is a straightforward introduction to “the events of Springsteen’s life and the musical influences that have shaped and reshaped his artistic vision over the course of his long and illustrious career” (xxxvi). Much of the information presented in this chapter will be familiar to Springsteen scholars and fans, but the novice will certainly benefit from Deardorff’s contextualization.
Chapter 2, “Those Romantic Young Boys: Reviving the Quest in the 1970s”, argues that Springsteen’s music in the early ‘70s “features young, often desperate characters trying to escape their circumstances in the quest for fulfillment” (23). Deardorff suggests that these characters are inspired by the cynical sentiment of the ‘70s, one that can be described as a “sea of alienation and discouragement, where the quest for fulfillment seemed all but lost” (39). With songs like “Born to Run”, “Mary, Queen of Arkansas”, “Blinded by the Flight”, and “Meeting Across the River”, Deardorff claims that Springsteen calls attention to life’s harsh caprice while simultaneously offering the “possibility of hope” (ibid.).
The next chapter, “Streets of Fire: Working-Class Heroes”, finds Deardorff focusing on Springsteen’s interest in the working-class, including his family and childhood friends. As Deardorff writes, “What [Springsteen] saw in their eyes was the sense of desperation and defeat that so many working-class people felt in the 1970s, and he wanted to give them a voice” (49). Here, Deardorff analyzes some of Springsteen’s most powerful albums, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Wrecking Ball.
Chapter 4, “Boys Try to Look So Hard: Reinventing Masculinity”, is the most intriguing section of the book, as Deardorff demonstrates Springsteen’s fascination with “the men who were often encouraged to hide their pain, to suck it up, to stifle their complaints even as they were being victimized in ways that they didn’t fully understand” (76). Springsteen is often credited for his ability to speak for disenfranchised groups of America, but rarely is he celebrated for his perceptive insights about masculinity. Songs like “The River”, “Downbound Train”, and “The Hitter” are just a few examples, in addition to nearly all of Tunnel of Love.
In the fifth chapter, “I had a Brother at Khe Sahn: Redefining Patriotism in an Age of War”, Deardorff describes Springsteen’s anti-war music. As he writes, “Angered by the effects of the [Vietnam] war and the government lies and cultural myths that trapped so many young men of his generation, Springsteen wrote many songs that gave voice to the veterans that America wanted to forget after the war ended so disastrously in 1975” (91). Born in the U.S.A. is Springsteen’s most commercially successful album in the United States, and it’s also his defiant anti-war stance. More recent albums like Magic find Springsteen attacking the Iraq War, thereby illustrating Springsteen’s lifelong devotion to the cause.
Chapter 6, “It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: Social Justice”, suggests that Springsteen’s music reminds listeners of the suffering in the United States as a result of failed leadership and a broken economic system. According to Deardorff, Springsteen wants to draw attention to “those on the margins of American life and advocate for empathy as well as financial and political help for most in need” (107). Although this chapter is well-written and supported, it isn’t necessary, and at times it feels repetitive.
The next chapter, “Deliver Me From Nowhere: Redemptive Myth”, is more successful. Deardorff argues that “the entire Springsteen canon plays out against a postmodern milieu in which many Americans have lost faith in several traditional narratives” (126). Among the “traditional narratives” Deardorff considers are a loss of faith in religion, government, marriage, and the American Dream. As a result, Springsteen’s albums like The Rising, Devils & Dust, Working on a Dream, and Wrecking Ball “reveal the culmination of his lifelong attempt to rescue his audience with a larger narrative that can be trusted to nurture and redeem” (ibid.). I imagine that this chapter will appeal to scholars the most, as it is more sophisticated and less obvious than others, and offers a number of original insights on Springsteen’s role in popular American culture.
The final chapter, “The Ministry of Rock ‘N’ Roll”, mirrors the first chapter in its attempt to contextualize. If the first chapter highlights Springsteen’s life and influences, this one illustrates the many artists Springsteen has inspired since his emergence in the ‘70s, including Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, and Eric Church. Although most Springsteen fans and scholars will already know this information, this chapter is a clever way of proving Springsteen’s significance, which then makes a case for the existence of Deardorff’s book.
Bruce Springsteen: American Poet and Prophet is an ambitious undertaking, as it attempts to weave American history, popular culture, and Springsteen’s popular music into a cohesive narrative. Each chapter situates Springsteen’s music within the specific time period in which he worked, implying that Springsteen’s music was influenced by American culture and in turn, Springsteen refracted this culture through his personal lens, thereby making meaning for millions of downhearted Americans.
Complete with an historical timeline and suggestions for further reading and listening, Deardorff’s study is a useful resource for those who want to understand Springsteen’s significance more deeply.