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

Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media.

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.

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.

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