The American Idea, According to Bruce Springsteen

Al Filreis, the UPenn prof who knows as much about American poetry as nearly anyone alive (heck, he has roughly twelve freaking blogs on the subject) links to a big story in the inevitable New York Times about Bruce Springsteen, and endorses the idea that Springsteen is "The Rock Laureate."

Jon Pareles is a good writer and critic, but this story about "Mr. Springsteen" seems hopelessly stilted to me, and, as Al says, useful mostly for the quotes he finds. Yes, Springsteen may be as close to a national poet as we have today, but this clunky piece struggles to make the point.

Read it for its voices, not its conclusion.

The first comes from our new Prez, who said at a fund-raiser last fall featuring the Boss, in his inimitably direct way, “The reason I’m running for president is because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen.”

But if not as concise, perhaps more noteworthy is a quote from Springsteen himself:

A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it?
What does it mean? ‘Promised Land,’ ‘Badlands,’ I’ve seen people
singing those songs back to me all over the world. I’d seen that
country on a grass-roots level through the ’80s, since I was a
teenager. And I met people who were always working toward the country
being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very
far away. And so on election night it showed its face, for
maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life. I
sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, ‘Oh my God, it
exists.’ Not just dreaming it. It exists, it’s there, and if this much
of it is there, the rest of it’s there. Let’s go get that. Let’s go get
it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life.
All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month
or two ago.

It's heartening to me that Springsteen mentioned "Badlands," and, later in the piece, "Darkness on the Edge of Town," which although not as popular as some of his other records, made unmissable the edge that is part of his greatest songs. Even "Glory Days," even sung at the Super Bowl, isn't an ode to the wonderfulness of the high school athlete. In its frank, working-class way, it snaps back at the guy who can't get past the past, even as he (and the narrator) luxuriate in it. Al talks about this in his own way, stressing "the strong antipoetic (and thus very poetic) sense of the big it [American Idea]."

Maybe that sounds like a reach, but I think Al's on to something. With his relentless energy, his determination not to settle, his endless stories, Springsteen wants to be more than what a poet is allowed to be in this country. He won't stay in the literary district — or ghetto.

This is what he means when he sings in Jungleland:

And the poets down here don't write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be

Springsteen couldn't do that; he's a poet, restless, uncontrollable, not a cliche.

Must say, though, his new record has yet to turn me on…and I'm puzzled by this poll from the New York Daily News, alleging that Springsteen dominated the Super Bowl perfs.

I thought it was Prince. Easily. [Though I can't convince you, because Prince's lawyers won't allow him on YouTube.]

Meanwhile Springsteen's best work recently was his cover of Dream, Baby, Dream, a song by Suicide, released last fall. And I still love his great old songs, such as this one, via Brian Beutler:

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