Friday, April 16, 2010

Left with Bruce

David Masciotra's Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen steers a little too far to the left

In a 2005 omnibus review of Bruce Springsteen literature, A.O. Scott of the New York Times made the regrettable assertion about my book Born in the USA, which had just been reissued in a second edition. He wrote that it had "the effect of installing [Springsteen]  in a stable full of academic hobbyhorses rather than in a vital constellation of ideas." The regret, naturally, was all mine: Scott was right. Such, I've come to conclude, is the characteristic vice of what might be termed Springsteenians (who can be distinguished from the partially overlapping category of habitual Springsteen concertgoers I'll call BruceHeads). Like God, we tend to make Springsteen in our own image -- or, at any rate, the image we'd like him, and ourselves, to be.

In Working on a Dream, young David Masciotra, a graduate student at Valparaiso University, makes the case for Springsteen as a committed left-wing artist-activist. There is, of course, a considerable body of evidence for him to make this case, whether in terms of what Springsteen has said, done, and recorded in what is now a vast body of work. Actually, one of the best things about Masciotra's book is the sustained attention he gives to Springsteen's music of the last decade, work which has tended to be overlooked in terms of popular attention but which is likely to stand up about as well as any he produced in the previous thirty years. This is also the decade in which Springsteen has come out as an avowed partisan, campaigning for Democrats John Kerry and Barack Obama. Masciotra makes the most of these connections and many more, in a widely contextualized study that stretches from Edward Hopper to the Amadou Diallo case.

The problem is that he tends to overplay his hand. Most of Masciotra's chapters have the word politics in the title -- "the politics of urban decay," "the politics of invisibility," "the politics of American power," and so on. But while he makes some good points along the way, the analysis manages to be overly broad and reductive at the same time. In a chapter on the politics of isolation, for example, Masciotra compares the protagonist of Springsteen's 1980 song "Stolen Car" to that of both Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. While I do think such a parallel has at least some merit (I myself have made the comparison between the narrator of this song and Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov), the isolation in question is far more psychological than it is political. Notwithstanding the nightmares of some 21st century American liberals, the United States resembles neither Tsarist Russia nor a libertarian utopia, and conflating the three this way doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

A similar overstretch is apparent in Masciotra's handling of religious imagery in Springsteen's music. He's determined to downplay the role of Catholicism in Springsteen's work ("listeners who equate Springsteen's theological language with devout Catholicism are clearly shortsighted"), emphasizing its humanistic dimensions. This is a mistaken approach, in my opinion, but a plausible one nonetheless, depending on what you mean by "devout." It's a good deal less plausible to assert that Springsteen is at heart a Confucian, because like the Analects, Springsteen's music embraces "mutuality in human relations, loyalty, love and trust." To which one can ask: What major religion does not?  It also leads one to wonder, given Springsteen's legendarily difficult relationship with his father, how Masciotra would square it with the concept of filial piety so central to Confucianism. Such spiritual muzak trivializes faith in the name of ecumenicalism.

Other times, Masciotra misses ambiguities in Springsteen's work that don't necessarily comport with political orthodoxies of left or right. A good example is his reading of "Long Walk Home," from Springsteen's 2007 album Magic, a record I think we would both agree is an underrated gem in the Springsteen canon. Masciotra believes the song "reaffirms lost values." To make his point, he quotes the final verse, in which a father addresses his son:

That flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't

I think it's fair to say that there's an affirmation of community here -- and a very deep vein of skepticism that exists alongside it, allusions to sin of commission as well as omission jostling (or, perhaps more accurately, buried) with a sense of limits that we call honor. I've never talked with Bruce Springsteen, or been in anything other than a stadium-sized room with the man. But listen to anyone who has, particularly from the early days, and you'll be told that  he has a strong individualistic streak, to put it mildly. Actually, it's hard to see how he could have become who he has without it.

Finally, there are problems with the writing: Masciotra has apparently never been taught that adjectives are guilty until proven innocent. Thus we are told, for example, that "the problems and challenges that confront America at this pivotal moment in its short history are vast, and on certain days, when hope fails to emerge from the monstrous shadow cast by understandable cynicism, they appear to form an insurmountable mountain." A workaday piece of newspaper analysis by Robert Reich manages to be of "monumental importance." Yet Masciotra can also be dismissive, as when he says "the typical American middle-class worker is bordering on monolithic in his approach to life, operating according to the functionality of a machine that is programmed to work and spend the earnings on commodities." If Springteen's music has taught us anything, I would think, it would be to avoid language like that.

Still, it's hard not be hopeful about Masciotra's earnestness. And every once in a while, he turns a felicitous phrase, as when, mindful of some of the counter-currents that lace through the music, he says "Springsteen's vision can best be described as a preservative progressivism." Masciotra represents a new generation of Springsteen fans, and we believers would like to propagate the faith. So it's in that spirit that I tell him that sometimes, when you want to get a clue of what's going on, the most important thing you can do is, simply, listen.