Books

'Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream'

Since nothing kills street cred like unsolicited love from the establishment, news of a collection of scholarly essays on Bruce Springsteen might provoke skepticism, even fear. It needn’t. As awkward shows of affection go, this one is actually pretty good.


Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream

Publisher: Ashgate
Length: 275 pages
Editors: Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten, Mark Bernhard
Price: $89.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03
Amazon

When the word “def” was first included in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, music producer Rick Rubin dropped the word from his company’s name, Def American Recordings, and staged a mock funeral service, complete with eulogy by the Reverend Al Sharpton. The message was clear: nothing kills street cred like unsolicited love from the establishment.

Often the worst offenders come from academia, where the pressure to publish is as high as the writing quality is low. Like creepy customers in an all-night singles bar of the imagination, the worst of these academic critics stalk aging artifacts of hip, whispering seductive promises of canonicity in the dark. However, their clumsy, fumbling advances during these cerebral hookups seldom deliver on their promises, and the one-night stands often prove lethal to the accessibly cool.

Given this history, news of a new collection of scholarly essays on Bruce Springsteen might trigger a combination of skepticism, even fear. It needn’t. As awkward dates go, this one is actually pretty good.

Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream is part of an ongoing series of academic books about popular music, and credit must go to the editors, Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten, and Mark Bernhard, for preventing the book from becoming another soul-killing exercise in academic exploitation. Based on the Preface from the General Editor of the series, they certainly had an uphill climb. In his rather unnecessary justification of the study of popular music, Professor Derek B. Scott writes: "A relativistic outlook has replaced the universal perspective of modernism (the international ambitions of the 12-note style); the grand narrative of the evolution and dissolution of tonality has been challenged, and emphasis has shifted to cultural context, reception and subject position."

Yes, popular music has changed over the past 30 years, but no amount of passively constructed, abstract language will ever convince most readers that only the jargon of academia can save us.

Fortunately, this Preface doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the book. Instead, what follows is a collection of 14 reasonably accessible and respectful essays that explore the work of Bruce Springsteen. Unlike many essay collections that randomly cobble together a hodge-podge of essays devoted to minutia, Womack, Zolten, and Bernhard have organized the essays into four categories focusing on class, gender, religion, and politics. This structure makes the book quite readable, with a smooth sense of progression and coherence, clearly showing readers the primary ways to think and talk about Springsteen.

One of the best is by Jefferson Cowie and Lauren Boehm, who use the song “Born in the U.S.A.” in all of its versions to discuss Springsteen’s focus on the working class. Equally impressive, Liza Zitelli takes readers on a song-by-song journey through the album, Devils and Dust, focusing on Springsteen’s depiction of motherhood, and even arguing at one point that his religious imagery, combined with the album’s focus on motherhood, provides a corrective to the Western tradition of religious patriarchy by restoring the “Earth Goddess”. Another strong essay by Steven Fein uses Springsteen’s songs “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “Galveston Bay” to examine cultural prejudice versus individual bigotry.

Of course, some of the essays still manage to annoy. David N. Gellman, in an otherwise useful look at Springsteen’s depiction of the American Dream, forces an ongoing comparison with the novelist Richard Ford. At times, it feels like the canonical author, Ford, received the party invitation while Springsteen is merely his “plus one”.

More frustrating is Elizabeth M. Seymour’s essay on Springsteen’s use of nostalgia. She takes great pains to define different types of “nostalgic discourses” in a traditionally academic manner in order to limit, not the scope of her own essay, but rather the scope of Springsteen’s music, cramming him into an incredibly tight box and then branding his efforts a failure. She concludes that Springsteen “now finds himself caught in a contradiction caused by his inability to critique the underlying constructions of American capitalism and working-class Americans”. Of course, as Louis P. Masur has written for this magazine ("Bruce Springsteen Tries to Discover How We Can Survive These Hard Times", 8 March 2012), Springsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball, not only highlights the current economic crisis but also specifically targets the causes. One might say that Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball smashes Seymour’s conclusion to rubble.

For the most part, however, the book is quite worthwhile and demonstrates clearly that despite Springsteen’s accessibility as an artist, his work is nevertheless remarkably complex. Jason P. Stonerook beautifully nails this point near the end of the book when he writes, “The message of Bruce Springsteen’s music cannot be reduced to simple slogans. His work is much more complex and subtle”. Those two sentences resonate precisely because they reinforce the underlying message of almost every essay in the book. As Springsteen’s own lyrics remind us, “So when you look at me / you better look hard and look twice. / Is that me baby / or just a brilliant disguise?”

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.