Pronouncing judgment on Bruce Springsteen from above, without irony

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Chris Christie. (Via hobokencondos flickr stream.)
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David Roth

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That elites—that is, elected officials, New York Times op-ed columnists, the editor in chief of the New Yorker and other big-ticket Beltway machers—really like Bruce Springsteen is not news, at least insofar as pretty much everyone who cares about music really likes Bruce Springsteen.

Still, it's a testament to the Boss' enduring relevance that such big names as Governor Chris Christie and Most Reasonable Conservative lifetime achievement award winner David Brooks have decided to shore up their actual-human bona fides by going very public with their profound Boss-love.

Springsteen may be a spry and—if Wrecking Ball, his most recent and combative album is any indication—potently pissed-off 63, but his anthems still fill arenas and dance floors. For the power elite, just as for millions of others, those anthems resonate strongly—you don't need to have grown up yearning, broke, and Turnpike-adjacent to feel something when "Born To Run" plays, which is why Springsteen is 17 albums and thousands of three-hour shows deep into one of the most remarkable careers in rock-and-roll history.

But while everyone—we ambivalent Jersey-accented loyalists and the soul-loafered likes of David Brooks—can find something recognizable and inspiring in Springsteen's songs about powerless people seeking and finding some sort of transcendence, the Boss's super-class superfans seem to be seeking and finding something different.

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It's worth pausing, for a moment, to think about how remarkable it is that this is still happening. It was nearly 30 years ago that Ronald Reagan sought to swipe "Born In The USA" as a campaign anthem for his reelection, before Springsteen—who did, after all, write lyrics besides the chorus—objected.

Springsteen was such a bestriding colossus at that point in his career that even George Will, the personification of rock-and-roll's absolute opposite, felt compelled to take in a show. That Will willfully missed the point of Springsteen's pointed populism—"The recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!'" Will wrote in a 1984 column entitled "Yankee Doodle Springsteen"—is, in the end, less remarkable than the image of George Will at a rock concert. (Or anywhere regular humans go, really: Try imagining George Will on a crosstown bus, or at Quizno's, or in a bar during happy hour.) Springsteen was that big, get-George-Will-to-a-rock-show big, nearly 30 years ago. That he still throws off enough ambient credibility that it's in the interests of elites to associate with him is one of the great achievements in American popular culture.

Contemporary Bruce-propriation is, to be fair, a more complicated thing than the "Morning In America" goofiness that Reagan and Will were after. Take Christie, a Springsteen diehard who has been to 129 of his concerts and has the collection of ticket stubs to prove it; Christie was a Springsteen fan long before he had a public image to burnish, or strategically smudge with Springsteenian elbow grease. Christie's Springsteen affinity is mapped in a recent Atlantic article by fellow Springsteen fanatic Jeffrey Goldberg that details the governor's unrequited attempts to bro down with a musician who is both the Garden State's favorite song-singing son and the union-berating governor's political opposite.

Christie's Springsteen fandom is unquestionably earnest, if also unencumbered and uncomplicated by anything like actual engagement with Springsteen's work. Goldberg reveals Christie as a very specific Springsteen fan type—the sort who is quick to mention how many shows he (it is always a "he") has been to, and to demonstrate how well he knows the lyrics to Greetings From Asbury Park-era b-sides. 

The real Bruce-propriation in Goldberg's article comes from the author himself, who creates a binary between Springsteen and the governor, and seems to make the case that Trenton's Boss is more authentic than Freehold's. David Remnick, a fellow son of the Garden State, pays tribute in a less fraught if still grandiose fashion, with a massive and massively reverent profile of Springsteen in the most recent New Yorker. Brooks, for his part, used a vacation spent following Springsteen's recent European tour to prove a familiar point.

"The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice," Brooks wrote. "Don’t try to be everyman."

To a great degree, that attempt to be everyman—or at least someone who can rock out convincingly to Springsteen's populist pop—is what the last three decades of elite Bruce-love has mostly been about. But as Springsteen's always-political songwriting has grown more outwardly and obviously so—Wrecking Ball, Springsteen's strident #Occupy album, is miles from the mournful post-industrial weariness of "My Hometown"—elite attempts to stay with him have necessarily become odder and more baroque.

Remnick's New Yorker feature gives a sexagenarian rock star who hasn't made a really good album in well over a decade a word count ordinarily afforded to major geopolitical developments; Brooks' observations about Springsteen's lessons for domestic political rhetoric followed what must have been a very expensive continental jaunt. And Springsteen declined to talk to The Atlantic, which leads to strange passages in which Goldberg tries to get Christie to debate The Boss in absentia on public-sector unions.

Goldberg goes on to paint Springsteen as something of a meanie for declining to meet with the superfan governor, and something of a phony for espousing his long-held left-populist politics despite having made many millions of dollars. "The suspicion [that Springsteen is a hypocrite] has scratched at me ever since my discovery, a dozen years ago, while visiting Boston to interview one of his guitarists, Steven Van Zandt, that Springsteen and his band had parked themselves at the Four Seasons," Goldberg writes. Christie, to his credit, rejects this, while propping up a false contrast of his own: Springsteen is "inconsistent" because, despite his talent and legendary work ethic, he evinces some real empathy for those less successful than he. For the contemporary G.O.P., whose foremost present obsession is reverse-engineering worthiness onto one-percent wealth, that's a QED.

For anyone who has listened to a lot of Springsteen's music, it's also ridiculous. It's both part of the Springsteen mythos and an obvious fact that his difficult upbringing—if you know his songs, or have heard his in-concert monologues, or read Remnick's story, you know all about this—dictated the course of his life and his work.

"My parents' struggles, it's the subject of my life," Springsteen told Remnick. "It's the thing that eats at me and always will."

In Springsteen's best songs, he takes that personal emotional experience and expands it to epic scale without losing any focus or detail. It's a unique talent, that capacity to make his own past pain and doubt and stubborn hope both compelling enough and universal enough that an arena full of fans can feel those emotions as their own. It's that artistry that makes the songs anthemic.

In Springsteen's worst songs, the emotions and approach are generally the same. They just don't survive the blowing-up process quite so well—they wind up muddy and mannered and overdetermined. There are too many synthesizers and weepy strings. Bad Springsteen songs were written as anthems, and so feel somehow too big; "We Take Care Of Our Own," the bombastic single off Wrecking Ball, sounds like a campaign anthem in futile search of a deserving campaign. All these songs, though, come from the same empathetic place and perspective; their success or failure is dependent on how well Springsteen pulls them off. The depth and breadth of Springsteen's empathy explains why his best songs hit as hard now as they did thirty-odd years ago.

But this is not a good moment for empathy in the discourse, though—conservatives like Christie and Brooks largely reserve theirs for job creators beset by the prospect of slightly higher marginal tax rates and the impertinent questioning of Paul Krugman and a few MSNBC hosts. All of which leaves Springsteen's elite fans, years after the first attempts to appropriate Springsteen, in a very strange place. Specifically, at the end of Goldberg's Atlantic article, it leaves us with an image of clueless, self-regarding fat-cattery so over-the-top that even Springsteen at his most ham-fisted wouldn't touch it.

That is, a luxury box attended by state troopers at New Giants Stadium, where New Jersey's bellicose governor joyously bellows the words to "Candy's Room" into an imaginary microphone, while one of the nation's most powerful journalists takes note of how well the governor knows the lyrics. Later, the governor and the journalist agree that the rock star—who breaks briefly from playing his hits to deliver a homily on haves and have-nots—seems out of touch. Goldberg, put off by what he describes as Springsteen's put-on accent during that on-stage monologue, writes, "I can't make out a word."

That moment arrives pre-satirized, but with an interestingly Springsteen-ian payoff. Springsteen, who has dedicated his life to exorcising the soul-deep struggle to get out from under life as a Jersey-joke punchline—"Born To Run" is, after all, not about the pain of the unjustly criticized job-creator—is finally the straight man. The butt of the joke, this time, is sitting up in the luxury box—singing to beat the band, singing along with words he only thinks he knows by heart.