Between Lucy Jones’s “Is Bruce Springsteen ‘just for boys’?” in the Telegraph and Rebecca Bohanan’s “The Only Three Women in Bruce Springsteen’s Music” for Jezebel, this past week has been a rough one for Bruce Springsteen in terms of female and feminist critique. While the authors each raise valid points, both articles are fraught with fallacy, and we felt the need — as women, feminists, and Springsteen fans — to dispute their claims and to provide our own input as to just why it is that Bruce Springsteen’s music appeals to us.
One thing that we can stand behind is this: Bruce Springsteen does not exclude the female experience in his music, nor does he objectify or degrade women. Some may find fault in that statement, as Rebecca Bohanan does in her piece from Jezebel. It is undeniable that gender archetypes exist in Springsteen’s work, but it is also important to note that the way Springsteen discusses gender has evolved as he has matured.
Bohanan provides a very cursory glance at Springsteen’s pre-Born In The U.S.A. work, and then completely disregards everything he has done since, save for one reference to Wrecking Ball. Therefore, Bohanan is missing a large part of Springsteen’s development as a songwriter — had she delved further into Springsteen’s more recent music, particularly his work of the past decade, perhaps she would have realized that there are more than “only three women in Bruce Springsteen’s music.” Albums like The Rising, Magic and Working On A Dream are full of examples of equitable, respectful adult relationships, yet Bohanan does not so much as mention any of these.
One of the major faults of Jones’s article is that she assumes essentialism — that is, she repeatedly insists that men and women have naturally generally divulging preferences and interests. Jones polled other women and acknowledged their input, yet still dismissed it as it did not seem to conform with her own experience.
The problem here is not that Springsteen does not strike her fancy, but rather the fact that she tries to blame this on her gender. Frankly, we do not see how she has managed to arrive at this conclusion. There is nothing in our hormones that dictates our taste and preferences; hence, citing Springsteen’s music as being “testosterone-fuelled” as a reason for not liking it is rather weak. It seems that she is implying that women inherently can’t rock as well as men can. Surely female rock icons like Grace Slick, Joan Jett and Debbie Harry — and even the women in Springsteen’s own band! — would take issue with this.
Not seeing the poetry
As for Bohanan’s article, there is a serious problem with the fact that she does not analyze Springsteen’s writing as what it truly is: poetry. Poetry is imperfect and not always sensitive, and the speaker of poetry is not always the writer. Furthermore, poetry, especially Springsteen’s form of it, depicts the world, and he is more often than not accurate in his depictions of how the world treats women.
Bohanan specifically references the following line from “Easy Money”: “Put on your red dress for me, tonight, honey.” This lyric may seem problematic — he’s telling the woman how to dress, and to do it for him! — and perhaps it is, but it’s essential to remember that Springsteen is the writer, not the speaker. Springsteen’s narrators speak from realism; they speak of reality and unfortunately, there are realities involving depictions of gender roles and treatment of women that feminist listeners may not find satisfying.
But Springsteen usually does an excellent job of weaving and acknowledging the intricacies of female reality, too, in a way that can only be construed as sensitive to women, while not necessarily being empowering or idealistic, as his speakers often exist in a world that simply is not either of those things.
Springsteen doesn’t frequently dive into the female psyche, although on the occasions that he does, his success is varied. There’s a reason why “Car Wash” remained unreleased until Tracks; on the other hand, the first verse of “Paradise” is easily one of the most fascinating and chilling narratives of his career (and this would be true no matter what the gender of the narrator was).
Even in songs where Springsteen is not writing specifically from the perspective of a woman, he does not seem completely oblivious to his female characters’ worldview. “The River” comes from a male perspective, but we know how Mary feels, too — or at least, how the narrator perceives Mary to feel: “Now I just act like I don’t remember / Mary acts like she don’t care.”
With the exception of the aforementioned examples, though, for the most part, the perspective in Springsteen’s songs is male. It is a feminist idea to realize that, as a man, he cannot possibly fully express the female experience from a female viewpoint. To fault him for not attempting to do so more often, as both Jones and Bohanan do, is unfair and illogical.
Our two featured critics also don’t desire to consider the fact that Springsteen has speakers situated all over the spectrum of how people treat women. Some of his speakers know life isn’t easy for the women in the songs: “She stares off alone into the night / with the eyes of one who hates for just being born,” and others recognize the patriarchal society women exist in: “Into a row of houses she just melts away / like the scenery in another man’s play.”
There are those speakers, too, who see the women in their world as brainless pretty girls: “You know she wears that dress without a care in the world.” And in some the men know just what the woman wants for herself: “She has men who will bring her anything she wants / but they don’t see / that what she wants is me.” There are those speakers who are pretty blatant about treating women as sex objects, too (see “Pink Cadillac” and “Red Headed Woman,” though the latter gets points for its unabashed endorsement of … well, you know what the song’s about). But still, in Springsteen’s most extreme cases of objectification, this is not “Brown Sugar” or even “Be Bop A Lula.”
What sets him apart
Springsteen’s speakers still have some sense of reverence or mystery when it comes to women, and while some may see that as distancing or separatist or problematic, it is a difference that sets him apart from the rest of his contemporaries, in terms of a male’s treatment of women in rock and roll. Not all of the women in his songs are romantic interests, and not all of them exist to serve men, and that really can’t be said about a lot of rock and roll music.
And — talk about being set apart from contemporaries — it is important to note that Springsteen is still making music in the era of Big Sean’s “Dance (Ass)” and Tyga’s “Rack City,” and if any anger towards depiction of women is to be had in terms of popular music, it is probably better served to focus it there instead of on carefully nuanced rock and roll poetry from an established, sensitive artist.
However, in the end, this is what it comes down to — Springsteen’s music is not about men and women, it is about people as a whole. Universal themes and transcendent emotions are not just buzzwords that are thrown around; in Springsteen’s music, they are real. And that does not need to be gendered.
Springsteen provides characters with struggles that real people can relate to and project their own experiences on. This is not necessary to explain to fans, who know how it feels when their souls surge and ache at the piano opening of “Backstreets” or the saxophone solo in “Jungleland.” Again, those things are not gendered. Springsteen’s biggest concerns: the reality of the American Dream, how to carry sins, making a meaningful life as an everyday person in a dark world — these are all things that each listener has a specific interpretation of, their gender included on a purely personal level.
The American Dream Springsteen presents is much more multi-faceted than just “a man providing for his family,” as over simplified by Bohanan. It wrestles with more ideas of purpose, and being, and making a life on American soil beyond providing for a family, for men and women alike. Springsteen presents faceless, genderless universal struggles through the vehicle of his various characters and speakers.
This sounds basic, but most fans know firsthand of its genius. It’s a shame that Bohanan (a proclaimed fan) and Jones (a proclaimed non-fan) don’t seem to appreciate this, but as the man himself says, “ain’t no one can fake it, you just know it when you feel it.” Maybe one day their perspectives on the role women play in and what women can appreciate about Springsteen’s music will change. For now, Springsteen’s solid female fan base is more than enough proof that he’s doing something right, and we hope he continues to do it for years to come.