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?”