Cartoon by Marty Riskin / martyriskin.com
I will admit to a certain lack of objectivity when it comes to Bruce Springsteen. I discovered his music as a teenager, at that exact time when you’re ready for what’s coming out of your radio to be about something other than girls and dancing and pop fantasies – although definitely those things too.
Bruce fit the bill, and I’ve stuck with him ever since … and these days, I’ll admit there’s a certain element of nostalgia involved in my continued appreciation. (There’s something to be said for being made to feel 16 again, or at least the good parts of being 16.) But I remain faithful to Springsteen mainly because he still has something to say – he’s engaged in the world around him, his work and his sound continue to evolve, and at 62 he’s somehow still bringing it on stage, as he likes to say, “night after night after night after night.”
But I figure that even if he’s not exactly your thing, you have to respect his body of work, and his longevity, and his work ethic, right? There’s no reason to, say, revile him with the intense, burning hatred of a thousand suns. Oh, there is? My mistake.
Yes, as tends to happen every time Springsteen ramps up a new album and tour, critics have jumped up not simply to parse the vagaries of his latest album, Wrecking Ball, but to declare him a worthless, no-talent phony who’s somehow managed to hoodwink millions of unsuspecting fans — not just into buying his albums and concert tickets, but into believing this manufactured corporate hack is worth even a second of anybody’s time.
Springsteen’s two-night stand in Philly last week was actually accompanied by two scathing smackdowns in the local press. Victor Fiorello’s piece for Philadelphia Magazine on “Why I hate Bruce Springsteen” is so all-over-the-map – He’s from New Jersey! He wears an earring! – you have to wonder if he’s listened to Springsteen at all, or if it’s just a brazen play for Google hits. (Clever, sir!)
John Sharkey III, on the other hand, goes straight for the jugular in Philadelphia Weekly, trotting out the argument that Bruce is a fake when he sings about the working man, since he’s never worked at anything other than rock ’n’ roll. “How did he pull it off?” Sharkey asks, befuddled, intimating a vast conspiracy worthy of a Warren Commission report.
Things get even worse up in Montreal, where Juan Rodriguez practically froths in a piece for the Gazette, declaring Springsteen a sellout “from Day One.” Even the Washington Post gets in on the act, with Paul Farhi taking Bruce to task for using a teleprompter, even though he performed almost 200 different songs on his last tour – apparently in addition to being more humble and less corporate, he’s also supposed to have a robotic photographic memory.
I admit that when I read screeds like this, I have to ask myself: Am I the one who’s crazy? I consider myself a smart person who knows a little bit about music – have I somehow been tricked into thinking these songs are about something? Is that feeling of elation I get at his concerts a mere mirage? Is Springsteen in fact a hologram?
It doesn’t help that the standard arguments never seem to hold water. I don’t see how Springsteen can be declared a fake just because he’s made money; he grew up poor with an often unemployed father, and we all know you are who you are well before you hit your 20s – that’s why people who grew up during the Depression still sit around with the lights off. Your childhood stamps you forever, and in Springsteen’s case it’s provided the thread of his entire career.
Some point to his recent foray into left-leaning politics, but his supposed in-concert political speeches are essentially imaginary, save for a few brief remarks here and there. He mostly lets his music speak for itself, and when he doesn’t, it’s entirely appropriate – this is a man who’s spent 40 years examining the fabric of the nation and the state of the American Dream. Find me someone on FOX or MSNBC who’s contributed half as much to the national discourse.
What most confuses me, though, isn’t the criticism but the unabashed hatred, the seething bile, the utter contempt for Springsteen’s stupid, deluded devotees. What’s driving it? I don’t like Rod Stewart’s 47 albums reinterpreting the Great American Songbook, but I don’t begrudge his fans their enjoyment of them, or want to strangle him in his sleep, usually.
I guess one possibility is jealousy: Can these writers simply not believe that they’re still anonymously slogging away in their dying industry while Springsteen continues to log number-one albums and sold-out tours? I find it interesting that Montreal’s Rodriguez wears a bad review he gave Springsteen in 1977 as a badge of honor, like some old folkie still yelling “Judas” at Bob Dylan for going electric in 1965.
Or is it that these critics are simply completely disconnected with what it’s like to be an actual, real human being? Jon Caramanica of the New York Times decries “the sodden workingman empathy” of Springsteen’s new song “Jack of All Trades,” saying it “literally made me nauseous.” Meanwhile, the day the song debuted, the E Street Radio satellite channel was deluged with calls from people saying they felt the song could be about them, or a friend or a loved one. It spoke to them, and not in a nausea-inducing way.
Maybe what it comes down to, though, is that for whatever reason, these critics are irrevocably put off by the way this man’s music actually helps people better understand the world, or carries them through some of life’s toughest moments. Or by how his concerts – those legendary three-hour celebrations of life and love and rising up from the depths – send them out into the night, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.
They just can’t grasp it, so instead they pile on, and try to poke holes in his image, and make fun of his earring and the fact he’s from Jersey – and for that I feel sorry for them. I hope someday they find something that means to them what Bruce Springsteen’s music means to us.
But until then, guys … Leave us out of it.