Bruce Springsteen, 'The Ties That Bind', the Working Class, and Authenticity
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.
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.