1. Talking About Ourselves
If Bob Dylan’s obituary is going to include the phrase “the spokesman of his generation”, there’s a good chance Bruce Springsteen’s headline will read: Spokesperson for the Working Class.
Sorry for the gloominess, but Bowie, the great seeker, is dead and it’s gotten me thinking about how all of these great, formative musicians — Dylan, the Stones, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin (did you see that performance of “Natural Woman”?) — aren’t getting any younger, and though it’s impolite and morbid to talk about a public figure’s impending death, none of us get out of this world alive, as Hank Williams said, and so I’m selfishly bemoaning the idea of being left with Pentatonix, Sufjan Stevens, and even good ol’ Wilco. Which isn’t their fault.
So, knock on that headline: it sounds solid, feels true, even if, like any distilled summation, it doesn’t come close to encapsulating everything Springsteen has done in his career. Regardless, speaking about and maybe even for the working class has been a crucial part of Springsteen’s art since Darkness on the Edge of Town at the very least. It’s difficult if not impossible to talk about working class music without talking about Springsteen at some point, partly because so few American musicians write or sing about the working class at all. As I’ve written before, the notion of class in American popular music is largely submerged, at best, and otherwise absent. Sometimes it seems like Springsteen is out on an island.
What’s the problem, then, with calling Springsteen a “spokesperson for the working class”? What’s that lurking beneath those words?
To be labeled a spokesperson is to be given a certain kind of authority to represent, a certain kind of license, and unlike situations where a group actually does appoint someone, there’s no town hall meeting for popular music. The closest equivalents like awards and massive popularity can be just as polarizing as they are unifying. When we talk about authenticity in rock, we’re really talking about whether or not we agree that such license should be granted to a certain performer, as if the real ceremony is always in the future or the award can always be taken away.
In other words, when we talk about someone else’s authenticity, we’re really talking about ourselves.
Listening to the recently released Springsteen box set The Ties That Bind — yes, this column takes it name from that song — I was reminded of the problems of authenticity, its real value and its lingering stench, and how the concept has trailed Springsteen almost his entire career.
That he’s been seen as authentic enough to be labeled a spokesperson says something about Springsteen’s music and who he is onstage, on record, and offstage. It also indicates how fervently we’ve sought a public voice for a silenced working class. It’s not a coincidence that the idea of Springsteen being the rock-music avatar of the working class truly cemented itself with Born in the U.S.A., largely because the idea of a vanishing working class was freshly new and troublesome in 1984, thanks to the late ’70s recession under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s subsequent “trickle down economics” theory, which was really just a seizing of the opportunity to cut taxes on the rich and deregulate industry. (It was also the fruition of cultural policies pursued by conservatives since the Nixon administration and the failure of New Deal liberals to bridge cultural divides between progressive politics and the white working class.) Reagan might as well have shoved the lower-middle class onto a bus and driven it out of town himself.
Of course Springsteen had to make the music before he could be anointed as the working class hero of rock ‘n’ roll. Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. documented and gave voice to the unemployed and the working poor, painting the results of Reagan’s brand of capitalism: mean, desperate men and women (but mainly men) who are alienated from their families, communities and country, and who become drifters, schemers and murderers, or otherwise tremble in their attempts to hold themselves together.
The songs on that quartet of albums reflect Springsteen’s past as much as his vision of contemporary America. Growing up in Freehold, New Jersey, his father was often unemployed while his mother was “the primary breadwinner”, he told The Mirror in 2012. He also followed what happened to the people he knew and loved in the late ’70s and early ’80s, from “The River”, written for his sister and brother-in-law, to the obvious topicality of “Born in the U.S.A.” and “My Hometown”. In a way, these songs were also prophecy in the face of Reagan-era optimism, anticipating how the wealth divide in the United States would only continue to grow if nothing changed.
When it comes to working class music, as with so many other cultural identity traits like race, gender, and sexuality, authenticity is legitimized by one’s biographical roots; that is, by something you have no control over. A spokesperson almost always emerges from the group that’s being spoken for. So you can check off that box for Springsteen. But then there’s the danger that fame and fortune, celebrity and power might estrange the person from the group. Enter authenticity again, this time as a symbol of integrity consistent over time. You can take the boy out of Freehold…, et cetera. It’s the reward for having passed through a crucible.
In many ways, Born in the U.S.A. was that crucible, and Springsteen’s subsequent authenticity resulted from his ability to manage the spectacle of his popularity, an explosion of media, stadium tours and music videos, and never lose touch with who he was. Not losing oneself is, in fact, beating the spectacle. (As a native Clevelander who follows all its teams, let me offer the example of LeBron James as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, Johnny Manziel, who the last I heard was partying in Vegas under an alias and a wig.) The ability to keep one’s integrity intact despite fame and fortune is a powerful component of the American Dream’s mythos, and Springsteen seemed to pass the test with ease.
But authenticity is also a myth, at least in the way we usually talk about it. It demands extreme simplification, allegiance to social standards, unrealistic life patterns, and most dishearteningly, an emaciated, impotent art.
2. The Devotion to Authenticity
We’re stuck in a sociological age, one full of literalism and lies masquerading as non-fiction, and in this culture, art is reduced to information and popular music to a mere reflection of social reality. Who the singer is matters just as much than the music, often more. Authenticity makes a certain kind of sense in a culture like this; it’s the perception of a mainline connection between the singer and the subject. It promises fact in a realm of confusion and obscurity, and satiates our need to know a person. We don’t trust people we don’t know.
The problem with thinking of Springsteen as wholly, authentically a “working class hero” or a “spokesperson for the working class” — well, there are a lot of problems with it, and none of them have to do with Springsteen himself, his music, his public persona or his private life — it’s us. We’re the problem.
First, any time we talk this way about music or a musician, we’re leaving out a lot more than we’re including. Supporters and detractors alike squeeze Springsteen into a box, define boundaries for him, and even if that’s inevitable — some version of that happens to any popular musician — it doesn’t make it right. For this reason Tunnel of Love has been overlooked critically. (It’s not working class enough, some say, even though I’d argue it is). Same goes for Springsteen’s sheer talent for pop hooks, which The Ties That Bind: The River Collection illuminates with its outtakes.
I have to include a note about Elvis Costello. Yeah, that’s right: Elvis Costello. There’s a sense on The Ties That Bind‘s outtakes that Springsteen was keeping pace with the Brit’s new-wave pop innovations. Don’t believe me? Put on This Year’s Model, released in 1978, listen to about 30 seconds of “Radio Radio” and then switch to Springsteen’s “Meet Me in the City”. Or go from “No Action” to “Where the Bands Are”. Or “Oliver’s Army” from 1979’s Armed Forces into “Little White Lies”.
For entirely different reasons and with entirely different tones, Costello and Springsteen were chasing the ghosts of rock ‘n’ roll past, kindred in fundamental spirit and the pursuit of a good melody. No, the Attractions never sounded as enormous as the E Street Band, but there are times on The River and its outtakes when it seems like, at the very least, Steve Nieve’s reedy Vox Continental keyboards have been transplanted into Springsteen’s music by Danny Federici. “Little White Lies” is a good example, as is the vastly underrated “Jackson Cage”, or “Living on the Edge of the World”, an outtake that would eventually morph into “Open All Night” on Nebraska. “The Man Who Got Away”, “Night Fires”, “Loose End”, “Be True”, “Roulette”, “Stray Bullets” and “Restless Nights” show how The River might have been a noir ode to ’60s rock ‘n’ roll with biting, cinematic passion and grimy psychological landscapes, a different spin on the working class to say the least.
But maybe the biggest casualties of hearing Springsteen through the lenses of authenticity are the complexities, ambiguities, and even false steps in his body of work. Every serious artist with longevity has those, and fans with blind faith tend to overlook them while some critics pounce on them. It’s as if the total sum of the working class persona we create for Springsteen overshadows serious, considered criticism. Or even off-the-cuff pronouncements, such as: the guy in “Hungry Heart” is a selfish idiot that Springsteen plays for laughs in a complicated dance of self-identification, celebration and derision; the characters in songs like “Stolen Car”, “Reason to Believe”, and even “Glory Days” are much smarter than they seem, and it’s their intellect which shows them how ambiguous life can be; despite its working-class subject matter and lovely melody, “Factory” is boring.
True believers might be gearing up to leave a nasty comment, but I’d rather hear from them than the smug cynics who might act like I’m doing them a service by confessing what I think of “Factory”, as if I’ve struck a blow for the truth. I understand it’s hard (so hard) to listen to all the admiration heaped onto one artist; I understand that Springsteen’s earnestness and lack of irony aren’t for everyone. What I understand but can’t abide is the argument that somehow Springsteen isn’t authentic because, hey, he’s a rock star.
The Critics’ Trap
The devotion to authenticity gives certain critics a big safe target when it comes to Springsteen: the gulf between his wealth and the comparatively meager wealth of those he often sings about. He’s rich, a “limousine liberal”, as The Mirror called him, a millionaire who sings about the working poor. There’s a line of thinking that goes something like, “Unless you’re in it, you can’t speak of it.” In other words, if you lack the authentic connection to the working class, you have no right to speak about it, let alone for it. That, my friends, is a trap.
I was just talking about this with my fiancée, who’s holding the line against singers who don’t write their own songs and instead have a phalanx of pro-grade songwriters cranking out hits for them. “It just doesn’t seem as genuine,” she said. “It feels like they’re acting, like someone gave them a script.” As much as I’m tempted to agree with this, my head says it’s the performance that matters: prove it to me, seduce me, make me laugh or cry, I don’t care if you wrote it or not.
“What about Springsteen singing songs about the working class and the poor?” I said. “He’s a millionaire.”
“He’s acting now,” she said, smiling, joking a little. “Sort of. He still grew up in that lifestyle.”
She then admitted that every performer is acting to some degree, which means she has more sense than the music journalists and critics who seem to think every singer is always singing about himself. It’s those folks who harp on the fact that Springsteen has an enormous estate, that he never worked in a factory, that he is not authentically working class — even if, especially if, they themselves are not working class, either.
Their common tactic is to imply that Springsteen is just another postmodern construction put together by the real brains of the operation, usually his manager Jon Landau; Dave Marsh, rock journalist and author of four books about Springsteen (and who apparently gets no credit for founding Creem); Barbara Carr, who’s married to Marsh and works with Landau’s management team; and, finally, the “rockist” journalists and critics who elevated Springsteen to exalted critical status.
I can’t bring myself to quote some of the idiotic articles out there — here are a few — but Fred Goodman’s book The Mansion on the Hill is a good example of the approach. Concerned with exposing the business side of rock ‘n roll, honing in on Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and David Geffen, The Mansion on the Hill is thorough journalism and research written predicated entirely on the flawed ideal of authenticity. There’s art, and there’s not art, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Like others, Goodman focuses on the influence of Landau and Company, condescending to Springsteen’s intellect, artistry and ambition. The mere presence of anyone else but The Artist in the creative process, let alone the presence of business, seems to be a clue that a crime is afoot.
One sentence sticks with me from that book; it’s the only sentence you need, really. Describing Springsteen post-Born in the U.S.A., Goodman writes, “His ultimate embrace of music as business made it impossible to separate the acts of faith from the acts of fortune or to tell which one was pursued in the service of the other.” There are a lot of assumptions to sift through in that sentence, but one word stands out: “impossible”. Really? I do it all the time, every time I listen to Springsteen and any other musician that makes music in a commercial context, which is nearly all of them. I’m betting you do it, too. In the listening experience, I’m searching for acts of faith and acts of fortune (not in the way Goodman means, but those aren’t excluded either; there’s nothing wrong with a hit), and at least with Springsteen, I’m convinced by the performances that acts of faith come first. There’s a separation that happens in those moments.
Goodman doesn’t hide that he’s disinterested in the listening experience; in fact, as is the case with so many who criticize Springsteen for being wealthy or successful, the point is to overwhelm and obliterate that experience with the experience of material conditions. Certainly the relationship between art and commerce was magnified with Born in the U.S.A., making it difficult to separate them, but what Goodman suggests is that someone who really understands the material reality of post-industrial entertainment could not possibly hear “My Hometown” and be moved without also thinking, “Oh, right, this is crafted to make me feel moved and purchase the album.” (Again, that’s true of pretty much any song ever written.) In Goodman’s book and elsewhere, the complexity of the reality negates artistic pleasure and meaningfulness.
Here’s where I pull out some cognitive behavioral therapy: “And even if this is true, what then?”
Even if Springsteen has been guided enormously by the likes of Landau and others — no one ever suggests that he might be influenced by his family, or God forbid, his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa; banish the thought! — and if he’s never worked in a factory, and even if, as Goodman argues, there’s a need to separate commerce from art, or it should be possible to separate them but with Springsteen it’s impossible, and if the real Bruce Springsteen has become a total fraud who dines exclusively at hipster food trucks and watches French films and rolls around in his money all day, and if ultimately, by their definitions, he’s completely inauthentic… if all of that is true, what then?
Usually they give no answer. The implied consequence is that Springsteen shouldn’t be as popular or respected as he is. Take the bastard down a notch! Oh, and you and I will have learned a little something about how the world really works.
It’s never about the music. It’s never about the sound of a guitar, of drums or a saxophone, or a voice. Not really. It’s about social reality, cache, clout, longevity, the official record, the way history will be written, and if I were to play armchair psychologist some more I’d say it’s about the writer’s disappointment at the contradictions and complexities of life, probably his own. But hey, I’m not that petty.
In his essay “All This Useless Beauty”, which includes a brief passage about The Mansion on the Hill, Greil Marcus argues that “the myth of authenticity” can be understood as a search for “purity”: “the idea that true art, or true culture, exists outside of base motives, outside even of individual desires, particular egos, any form of selfishness, let alone mendacity, let alone greed.” This, he argues, is an “anti-pop myth,” and one Goodman perpetuates in his book.
Purity implies innocence, and if there’s one cultural myth that ranges from the national level, in terms of, say, foreign policy, all the way down to how you and I like to think of ourselves, it’s the American myth that we are essentially innocent. This ideal is pervasive in art, including popular music, from the eternal youth embodied by pop songs to the jingoistic apologies for sexism rampant in Nashville pop country.
If authenticity is code for innocence, it explains not only how the artist is sapped of choice but how an artist might not be held responsible for those choices. Spouting off some racist garbage? Hey, he was just being authentic to how he was raised! Just as conveniently, when we perceive that authenticity is absent or has been lost, the corresponding lack of innocence means a verdict of guilt.
3. Art, Authenticity and Working Class Music
Authenticity, not money, is ultimately the enemy of art. It turns the artist into a hapless person born to play a certain role depending on where she might come from; it narrows her freedom to be, to imagine, to shape; as much as it might bolster the careers of certain pop country, folk, rap and punk artists, it can also destroy them. At the very least, it turns us away from the art and back, always, to the artist.
The idea of a musician being authentically working class — or southern, or black, or queer — has value for listeners who want to hear their own reflections, who want to see their voices represented in the public. Authenticity implies truthfulness about experience, language and place that counteracts misrepresentation or the absence of any representation.
This is what I heard in Springsteen as a kid growing up between homes in Cleveland and south central Pennsylvania: someone whose songs told truths I couldn’t articulate about my own life. Even as a teenager I knew adults who reminded me of the men in “Factory” and “Glory Days”, and I was terrified of becoming the guy in “The River” who gets married at 19 and settles into a construction job. Because my experience was reflected in popular art, it seemed more worthwhile, too.
It happened with literature a few years later, when I went to college and was introduced to Russell Banks’ short story collection Trailerpark, to the work of Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver. Here were voices that sounded familiar, characters I grew up next to, places that weren’t literally my own but were close enough.
But was that authenticity or truth? What’s the difference? As we use the term today, authenticity allows no truth from art, only from artists. It visits art the way one visits a subway station or an airport: to get to somewhere else.
Meanwhile I can wander around in even “Factory” and find a lot to hear, a reason to stay. There’s the ornate strength in Roy Bittan’s piano, the subtle swirling of Danny Federici’s organ, the phrase “mansions of fear” compared to the bluntness of “Factory takes his hearing / Factory gives him life”, or the understated thickness of Springsteen’s singing, the feeling that he’s got nowhere else to go, nothing else to do but sing this song.
The critics who shriek “Inauthentic!” about Springsteen fail to understand that he is, first and foremost, a storyteller in the same tradition of O’Connor and Carver. Of course he’s a liar; that’s what writers are. Even as his songwriting has evolved from “The River” to “Born in the U.S.A.” to “Youngstown” and “American Skin (41 Shots)”, even as he’s become more pointedly political, Springsteen has always grounded his portraits of the working class in characters and, perhaps most overlooked, place. He wears masks like an actor; he adopts the rural voice that first appears on Darkness on the Edge of Town and takes over on Nebraska. He is never just himself in his art. Does that make him inauthentic? Hell no. It makes him an artist.
Art is the wrench in the gears of authenticity’s easy association with working class music. It creates contradictions and layers of meaning, complexity and ambiguity, and mistakes, misfires, but it’s also how a real voice for the working class can exist in popular music, and most importantly, how that music can be more than the singer’s voice, more than the critic’s voice, more than official history’s voice. If we stop being obsessed by the authenticity of the artist, we might discover the truth in what he says.