Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Alive in the U.S.A. (more or less)

Notes toward a keynote address on the multifaceted legacy of a landmark album, 25 summers later

Part I of a three-part trilogy of Springsteen posts

Next month, Virginia Tech University will be sponsoring "Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Sympos
ium" at a series of locations near Asbury Park, New Jersey. This is actually the second Springsteen symposium; the first, held four years ago, drew hundreds of participants from around the world. (I had a lovely lunch with a Springsteen fan from Pakistan, who showed me that you needed to be neither white, male, old or American to be crazy about The Boss.) I'm not sure how big the turnout will be this time. I do know that I am slated to give a keynote address on September 25 on the topic of "Born (Again) in the U.S.A: The Age of Springsteen."

As you could probably guess, this is one of those titles that got cooked up months ago, before I had the faintest idea of what I wanted to say. The conference organizer noted that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Springsteen's landmark album Born in the U.S.A. and asked me to speak about that in some way. Since I have a particular interest in the religious dimension in Springsteen's music, I thought I could it somehow connect or contrast his work with the evangelical Christianity of the 1980s. But I also thought that I could take the "again" in my title in a more generic, back-to-the-future-type direction if I chose. But these were my thoughts during a snowstorm in March. September seemed like a long time ago then. Now, suddenly, it isn't any more.

One of the ironies for me in this particular talk is that Born in the U.S.A. is among my least favorite Bruce Springsteen albums. Springsteen himself seems to agree. "I put a lot of pressure on myself reproduce the intensity of Nebraska on Born in the U.S.A. I never got it," he said in his Songs, his 1998 anthology of lyrics (he refers here to his 1982 acoustic album Nebraska, which happens to be one of my favorites). Springsteen described "the grab-bag nature" of the BUSA, which he said made it "one of my purest pop records." Yet for a musician notorious for the painstaking detail with which his albums were constructed -- see Louis Masur's new book about the making of Born to Run, which I plan to review soon -- this is damning it with faint praise.

Of course, bad Springsteen is relative. I bought BUSA (on vinyl) immediately upon release in June of 1984, and played the hell out of it all summer long -- a summer of Springsteen, and Prince, and Cyndi Lauper, that I will cherish for the rest of my life. But music that's remembered fondly is not quite the same thing as great music. I never got a compact disc version of BUSA during that transition period so many of us went through in our record collections in the eighties, and since the most important songs on the album -- notably the title track, from those Nebraska sessions -- ended up on various anthologies in the years that followed, I can't really say it was ever missed. It was only this week, for the sake of the conference, that I downloaded it onto my newly-acquired iPod Touch. I greeted it like an old friend (so good to hear "Darlington County" again!). And now I'm trying to make sense of it.

The standard gambit in cases like these is the trope of "continuity vs. change." Certainly it's possible to speak of both in terms of Springsteen's place in American culture since 1984. But the thing that stands out for me as I reflect on the matter is the way in which the continuities in Springsteen's career are in effect a facade for more fundamental changes. Consider the following examples:

Springsteen as a concert act. Seems simple enough: Springsteen was a stage legend in 1984 (and, for that matter, in 1974), and he's still one now. The Born in the USA tour of 1984-85 was a turning point in terms of Springsteen filling the biggest arenas; since then he's never looked back -- and indeed is on such a tour at this very moment. But the industry in which Springsteen works has been turned on its head, as the rise of the Internet and music downloads have destroyed the traditional economic foundation of the recording industry. Back then, you toured to support the record. Now the record is a promotional tool for the tour. As John Seabrook reports in his piece of the concert business in the August 10/17 issue of The New Yorker, Springsteen's new album, Working on a Dream, has sold about a half-million copies, which by my calculations would gross a little over $10 million this year in the unlikely event all copies sold at the list price of $18.98. His tour last year to support the 2007 release Magic, by contrast, grossed over $200 million.

There's also been a shift in Springsteen's relationship to touring that's more specific to him. As we all know, there are some popular musicians, like the Beatles, whose principal work has been defined in terms of records. There are others, like the Grateful Dead, whose reputation rests on live performance. Springsteen has been notable in that his appeal rests on both these pillars. Yet in terms of his ongoing vitality as an artist, there's been a clear tilt toward the latter. Springsteen has recorded some very good music in the last twenty years. But not since the brief frenzy surrounding Live 1975-85 -- a three-disk set, it's worth emphasizing, of live performances -- has any Springsteen release generated excitement resembling that of his still instantly-sold out concerts.

Springsteen as pop star. BUSA was an important record as a music industry phenomenon. Springsteen had his first top-ten single in 1980 with "Hungry Heart," but BUSA put him in the stratosphere. Arriving at the peak moment when albums, helped by MTV, spawned multiple hit singles (see: Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Billy Joel, and of course, Madonna), it generated a remarkable seven top-ten singles on the Billboard pop chart: "Dancing in the Dark," "Cover Me," "Born in the USA," "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down" and "My Hometown." (None reached number one; ironically, the only Springsteen-written song that has, "Blinded by the Light," was a cover version by Manfred Mann's Earth Band in 1976.) In the decade that followed, Springsteen has made appearances as a pop artist, notably a trio from his 1987 album Tunnel of Love and his Academy-Award winning single "Streets of Philadelphia" in 1994. He's been even more dominant on the album chart. As Billboard reported back in February, Springsteen has nine #1 albums, including Working on a Dream. Only the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Jay-Z have more.

Yet Springsteen's prominence as a popular recording artist has receded steadily since BUSA. Note that it's been 15 years since he's been in the top ten, notwithstanding minor hits like "Secret Garden" from Jerry Macguire in 1996. And, yes, his albums debut at #1 -- and then disappear rapidly as die-hards like me make their purchases immediately, leaving little in our wake. Springsteen continues to be a fixture on FM radio, but largely in the realm of classic rock formats. Certainly, he has shown remarkable stamina in an industry that is not typically kind to long careers, and has held his own even as the record business has collapsed around him. But his commercial appeal rests on laurels he earned a long time ago.

Springsteen as cultural icon. In 1984, Ronald Reagan invoked Springsteen on the campaign trail; in 2008 Barack Obama invoked Springsteen on the campaign trail (and made "The Rising" a fixture of his rallies). Of course, the circumstances were quite different. Reagan invoked Springsteen disingenuously (though, as I plan to argue at the symposium, less inaccurately than many believe). Obama, by contrast, has a dappled imagination comparable to Springsteen's own.

Perhaps a more important difference, though, is Springsteen's changed stature. For Reagan, Springsteen was a current event; invoking him was a way of showing he was in touch with the culture of the moment. By the time of Obama's inauguration in 2009, by contrast, Springsteen had become a legend who bridged and blended a heritage that extended back to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, with whom he performed at Obama's inauguration. The Rising may not have sold many copies compared to BUSA, but it has become perhaps the best-known and culturally resonant art to come out of the 9/11 catastrophe. In the quarter century since BUSA, Springsteen has consolidated and extended his place in the fabric of American national life. His reputation is secure. In this regard, then, his position has strengthened, not weakened, since the release of BUSA 25 years ago.

This reality leads me to an important point, one that reflects the larger tenor of my remarks here: that Springsteen's importance is as someone who recapitulates what I called in my 1997 book "the American Tradition." Unlike, say, the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, the legacy of his work is more about the way he strived to preserve a vanishing past than blaze a path in a new cultural direction. But this is a topic for another day. I'll have more to say about it as the symposium approaches.