Thursday, January 15, 2009

Submitting to the Boss

It's a new year...let us take a turn in the cultural confessional booth. I like to think I'm normally a little more balanced in my estimation of things, but regardless, it's fun to be wrong sometimes. Be wrong and then be righted.

Bless Me Bruce, for I Have Sinned
How I Was Wrong About "Born in the U.S.A."

I graduated from high school in 1984. There were a lot of things going on that year (scrunchy socks, my last perm, nervous jokes about the Orwell book), but looming larger than almost anything was Bruce Springsteen.

My high school was a big bowl of cold oatmeal, milky and boring but nasty. I don’t want to make fun of myself too hard for making fun of it but I was predictably snide in my rebellious estimation of the environment I was floundering in: the white bread, college football-watching, Reagan-loving, homecoming-going, unthinking herds around me that stifled Art and Freedom of Expression. Whoever they were. I know one thing for sure: those people all loved Bruce Springsteen.

High school was actually pretty sucky. So bad it was easy. As bad as it was, it was easy--I remember thinking even then--to know what I thought I was, when so many people were so obviously what I didn’t want to be. When I knew what I was rebelling against. (As Beatnik wannabe Kevin J. O’Connor vows in Peggy Sue Got Married: "I’m going to check out of this bourgeois motel, push myself from the dinner table and say, 'No more Jell-O for me, mom.'")

Dissent wasn’t as quite as commodified a part of the teenage experience then. It still had its feet in the 50s, somehow, or at least what we think of them--this was a conventional school in the exact center of a conservative Midwestern state. Weird wasn’t a part of cool. Weird was just weird. Punk was...I don't know where punk was, exactly. There wasn’t much wiggle room for anything other than the aggressively normal. Preppy had only recently loosened its hegemonic stranglehold (if you didn’t live through the tyranny of chinos and Top-Siders you’ll never know). The ironic distance and collective attitudinal change required to appreciate a movie like Mean Girls would have been as avant-garde as Damien Hirst. Or so it felt. Maybe I was just young. But I still think things were different.

The soundtrack to all this my senior year was Born in the U.S.A., especially the thumping title track. It was everywhere. Over and over, everywhere. Pounding out of every car stereo, every radio. Concert t-shirts...I remember people being almost crazed about concert t-shirts. I don’t know how to explain how popular Springsteen was, especially, it seemed, with all those white dudes. There was giant excitement associated with the littlest bit of it. I remember my Springsteen-loving cousin, who was working in radio at the time, being quoted in an article in the then all pie-charty new USA Today about how impossible it was to get tour tickets.

I turned my back. I felt this enormous pressure to like Bruce Springsteen, and that’s all it took to guarantee that I wouldn’t. It didn’t take long for me to associate the title song, and in particular its clubbing rhythm, with the oppressiveness I felt around me, especially the political variety. Reagan was a smiling demonic warmonger pushing consumerist excess and jingoism we couldn’t escape, just as we couldn’t escape the sound of that album. As people have noted, the spending and conspicuous consumption the yuppied 1980s was outweighed by the richest parts of the Clinton era in the end, but it had a different pushy flavor. It wasn’t tempered by as many reflexive layers of irony and media saturation; it was loud and out there, begging for a fall.

I thought “Born in the U.S.A.” was part of that. It was, in a skewed way (note the serialization of Bonfire of the Vanities in that issue of Rolling Stone, above), but I couldn’t see that it didn’t fit. Even with obsessive biweekly readings of Rolling Stone--the ones from that era that always had Billy Joel on its newsprint cover--I somehow missed the fact that Springsteen himself was uncomfortable with the jingoism and the flag-waving that had commandeered the album. And I only vaguely remember the news when Reagan tried to use the song for campaigning and Springsteen said no (and when Mondale tried to do the same and Springsteen still said no). This should have made me like him, or at least get my head out of my ass, but somehow it didn’t register. In my mind the jeans and American flag of the album cover weren’t Pete Seeger and the working man, but The Limited and It’s Morning in America. I don’t know if it was being sunk in my own high school misery that let me keep thinking this way, that kept me from questioning whether a song could end up where an artist did not intend it, but I was content to be wrong and content to think I was unique in my feelings. I was really wrong. I guess lots of us were.

My feelings all found a place to live in the fact that I just didn't like the song, and all the qualities the song had I didn’t like eventually became associated with all the non-musical reasons I didn’t like it. It was a droning, plodding thing, impossible to dance to. If you didn’t want to pump your fist in the air, there was nothing else to do. I would watch high school dudes twist their bodies in awkward, beatless ways to try to express their overwhelmed fanboy lust (Armistead Maupin notes that every generation has a male performer straight boys are allowed to be queer for, and that in the 80s it was Bruce) and feel more and more turned off by the Triumph of the Will fervor. The anthemic beat was obnoxious and macho, the heavily-repeated chorus was a simplistic sop to the mindless drones, the syllables “yoooooo-essssss-ayyyyyyy” buzzed like a headache, making America first! We’re number one! The quavery ringing tones in the background sounded almost off-key, wrong. Low-rent Sousa. It was grandiose and overblown but flat and everybody was wrong but me.


Cut to about about ten years ago. Despite being all hung up on a guy in college who used to lie in his bunkbed and play “Jungleland” at eleven, despite a mad pash for the song “Tunnel of Love” (has there ever been better meter than in the line "[beat] Youmeandallthatstuffwe’re [beat] SOscaredOF?"), despite whatever evidence I had to the contrary that many people I liked liked him, I was still dismissive of the Boss. Too obvious. Too critically lauded. Too worshipped. I’m starting to forget if there ever was a problem other than contrariness, but I just wasn’t gonna like him, everybody else had done that for me.

And then I saw him do a secret acoustic set in a tiny factory bar outside of Des Moines, with just two musicians backing him up while he played every song from Nebraska--man, you had to be there...

Heh (no). I saw him on Conan O’Brien. It was 1999 and Springsteen made a surprise appearance on the show on the show to “pick up" Max and take him on tour with the reformed E Street Band. They played “Working on the Highway” from the Born in the U.S.A. album, not a song I really knew.

I wish I could remember better how it felt to have my perception opened up real-time, because it was completely ratcheted around by his performance as it happened. Overwhelmed me. It was incredibly fun. Maybe this makes me a big cultural subbie--I guess we all are, in switchy ways--but it was one of those arty experiences I treasure in which I just got owned in the face of all my prejudices. Springsteen brought me a long distance, fast, from dislike to like, which made it a really exciting ride. The song even sounds like a car ride.

“Working on the Highway” is a kind of old-fashioned rock-n-roll three-chord song, so part of what was working in me was the great skill needed to do it well, like all simple things. It also required a bit of patience/commitment, a reaching out on my end, since part of its charm is its cumulative power. In return for my listening it fed me a lot of the things I should have really seen for myself about Springsteen’s strengths to begin with: that he was speaking from tradition, that he knew his way around a song, that he was talking about working life. It was just a really good performance. I don’t want to get too much more dorky amateur rock critic sans vocabulary about this epiphanic experience (too late), but that song knocked me on my head, and the hardened antagonism I had for “Born in the U.S.A.” finally started to soften.

This was also due to the power of just one line from the song, which had been tweaking my suspicions for a while. Every time I heard the (still astonishing) lyric
I got a picture of him in her arms now
it separated from my sneering impatience and rang in my head. It was eerie; hanging in the air without further explanation, full of pain and meaning.

Power ultimately came from all the lyrics, which I discovered (no!) were amazing--one of those times when a rock song feels like the most amazing piece of art in the world, leading you to do things like bob your head hopelessly at listening sessions or write silly essays like this.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, “Son if it was up to me”
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said, “Son don’t you understand”
[Springsteen really is good at using syncopation and caesuras, as in that line in "Tunnel of Love"; "Born in U.S.A." is full of it, great bits like the beat before "Son" in the fourth line.]

The song is full of suggestive, imagistic story-telling like that, filling in whole canvasses with bits of chopped-off dialogue and effective use of specific names. The last verse that had misled me so much in high school--"I'm a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A."--wasn’t just aggrandizing, but sad, powerful, a despairing wail, a defiant fuck you at the end of a litany of hurt.

Now that I know what it’s about, “Born in the U.S.A.” is frightening. There’s no happy ending to the narrative. It is an anthem, deeply patriotic, just not in the ways I thought. And the song shouldn’t have been easy to dance to, even if there is celebration in it. It’s about every broken American promise, every hard fight. Why couldn’t I see that? I wasn’t that complacent a teenager. (Was I?) Did I think I would always be young and live forever? (Quite likely.) Did I think I could out-run hurt and adult troubles? (Also possible.) Did the great high school hordes see something I couldn’t? (Probably, right?) No way everyone at my wealthy GenX high school was fighting the fight in the song, but not everybody was James Spader either. I guess I really don’t know the answer to that question--what people were responding to when they flung their fists in the air, young and rich and born in the Yoo-Ess-Ayyy. I’ve stopped assuming I had a clue. Nor do I know why I couldn’t hear its power, other than a commitment to not being obvious in my taste. Maybe I just wasn’t old enough to realize life gets everybody in the end. Maybe the power in the repeated chorus just is, and can't be denied. Anyone who wants to has a right to feel it.

The funny thing is that now I love the song--everything about it sounds different musically. I don’t just tolerate it; sometimes I listen to it over and over like all those guys in Ohio blaring it on their car stereos in high school. It makes me cry. The feel of the rhythm has changed. It doesn’t plod anymore. I love how the drums tumble from the thumping of the opening chorus to the first verse and take over; descend almost kind of hopelessly, but with a cool downhill momentum, out of the rhythm, over and over. That’s the beat that drives the song, not the chorus over it. And I love the jangly (keyboard?) chimes that are part of the rhythm. They’re strange and oblique and lend a weird nostalgic feel. They sound deliberately off, rather than badly-done. The whole song has a fuzzy, confused sound that contrasts well with the strong big beat and the hollering, and gives you the sense that the song has to exist, that it's pushing through something to do so. It sounds wise. It’s taking you somewhere.

And that chorus, with the repetition that sounded so much like the crowd in an Olympic stadium at the time, sounds completely different too. Now that I am 25 years out of high school, past one recession and into another, past Vietnam and back into another, I don’t know how else he could have written it or what else he could have said. The melody is defiant, yet poignant. There is sweetness and vulnerability in the (very masculine) rebellion. I love that the song trails into nothingness, lyrically, even as the sounds get bigger and bigger, the drums crashing toward the ending and Springsteen’s big wail soaring daringly overtop. It’s full of feeling, but not full of conclusions, as the beat picks up one more time and the song chugs valiantly out of hearing.

This isn’t a story about how I learned to like every Springsteen song out there. I can’t stand “Dancing in the Dark” (sorry), and I will never like “Because the Night,” no matter who’s singing it (sorry). I’m not a wholesale fan. I haven’t been interested enough to read the criticism that’s probably said all this before me already.

But I will still conclude brashly: the things that he does that are good are as good as anything anybody does. “Born in the U.S.A.” is one of those magic songs far out of the reach of cynicism for me, even in regard to the dopey end of the (otherwise wonderful) video when Bruce in a gesture of the common man lets us ogle his butt. I even like that the song lives on in a confusing place culturally; when you search for “Born in the U.S.A.” on YouTube you get hits for Lee Greenwood songs too. It's in there. It’s all part of the confusing civic story the song thoroughly embodies, where the personal is completely political and vice versa, and you can’t squirm out of your connection to the world around you if you wanted.


Demandra said...

I finally fell for Bruce with his first folk album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I finally "got it." A strange association--I always put Bruce and Roseanne Barr's show (she had a different last name during her show, didn't she?) in the same boat. Both chronicled the demise of the middle class, a neglected at best, horrifically stereotyped at worst, segment of the population that no celebrity figure outside of those two looked upon with anything but contempt. I love 'em, I do. Yet oddly enough, I have never heard "Born in the USA" in its entirety--not the song or the album.

Skippy said...

This is brilliant and I've read it a couple of times to fully appreciate what you've said about coming to like Bruce. I do not like Bruce for the exact same reasons--I don't like the people who like Bruce. Also: there are musicians who have a fan base and it's all so deep and understood, if you say you like them then you must be prepared to hold up your end of a conversation about Bruce's days in Jersey, the story behind the E Street Band, (and of course the story of E Street), etc. But also I effing disliked that BITUSA song as well. You've definitely given me a reason to think about this differently. Thank you for such a thought provoking wonderful essay.

thegayrecluse said...

On the scale of Bruce love, I'm also like a 2 or a 3 compared to most of his fans, but I had something of a conversion at an Amnesty International concert in Paris in 1988. Opener Tracy Chapman was cool but quiet, followed by Sting (Zzzzz), and then Peter Gabriel, who was arty and entrancing, with an amazing light show; then Bruce came on to wrap it up, and for some reason I remember them turning the house lights on, which seemed kind of strange until he kicked into "Born to Run" and pummeled us with a wave of sound and (artistic) fury, so that for a few seconds it felt kinda good to be an American.

velevele said...

Wonderful essay. You might be interested in the acoustic version of BITUSE he did on the 1999 tour, on a 12-string steel guitar. Briliant flashing shards of cut glass and ice. I never looked at the song the same way again.