Bruce Springsteen. The Boss. Blue Collar Rock King. He’s just a Jersey boy done good after years of working on the docks to make ends meet, just a common man breaking his ass to get by, who struck it lucky singing about his girl, his hometown and his Glory Days.
My floppy, white ass.
I’ve been fuming over the popularity of this faux working-class bozo for the better part of the last decade, and now, in what has to be the peak of the mountain of his current resurgence, I bring my unpopular opinion to you.
As someone who has worked in shitty warehouses, print shops and glass factories for the bulk of my life, I can tell you, it’s no fun. In fact, it sucks. Badly. And to paint over the grim reality of that life with a romantic brush is insulting.
The only people, I’ve found, who romanticize the up-at-dawn, back-breaking blue-collar lifestyle are people who’ve never lived it. Like the bearded, skinny jackasses I run into at parties I wasn’t invited to who lovvvvve Bruce because he’s “the realest” artist they or any one of their other freelance web designer friends have ever heard.
This Everyman image Springsteen has cultivated over the years—my god, how did he pull it off? His first record came out when he was 23. Twenty-three. Unless he was working in a coal mine at age 7, he knows very little about the kind of broke-down toil of which he croons so sincerely.
Still, I get it: You can’t blame Springsteen for selling goods to a public eager to buy them. There is a market, and someone has to provide for it.
Did I say “market”? I did. Make no mistake, Springsteen’s image, from top down—what he wears, what he sings about—is a marketing choice. Every breath is calculated, every move researched and deployed with precision. He’s no different than Lady Gaga marketing herself to the fashion industry or Coldplay to feminine hygiene products. The purity you’ve placed upon him is a myth.
He’s been perceived as such an angel for so long, it seems odd even to question it. So people don’t. There’s a whole new generation coming up who blindly bathe in the light of the Cult of Bruce without even questioning whether, for instance, in Ticketmaster’s controversial attempt to cut down on Springsteen scalpers by only selling nontransferable electronic tickets, the man himself actually tried to help his fans escape this lose-lose scenario.
It’s this new generation of Springsteen fans who are the most annoying. They look at the musical landscape and see vapidity. They see Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. They see Chris Brown, Ke$ha and Katy Perry. They want to disassociate with the airheads who call this kind of music their own. So they adopt Springsteen as a signifier of their own validity, their own worth. To listen to Springsteen at an early age is to distance yourself from your bubblegum-listening peers. They see substance in Springsteen, so they strap him on as if he were a shield against vacuousness.
And so Bruce is now more popular than ever, because he’s playing to two markets. He’s got the lifers who have grown up with him, who continue to hear him played on a never-ending loop on WMMR and WXPN—plus a new generation of whiners who think listening to him makes them less whiney by association.
Right now, Springsteen is everywhere; he cannot be escaped. He’s got a new (atrocious) album out, Wrecking Ball . He was the keynote speaker at South By Southwest. He’s got a goddamn exhibit at the National Constitution Center. And, this month, there are two Bruce tribute bands playing here—one at Johnny Brenda’s, one at the christening of Xfinity Live!—on top of the man’s own two shows at the Wells Fargo Center on the 28th and 29th. No small feat for a guy who hasn’t done anything artistically challenging since putting out his best work some 30 years ago.
Look, we all need heroes and people to idolize. I’m no different. I need figures to cling to in these tough times too—to find some solace in grand, larger-than-life escapism. I can’t deny the power of “Born To Run.” I just wish more people were willing to admit “Working on a Dream” is faux-populist horse shit. And don’t even get me started on “We Take Care of Our Own.”
Springsteen isn’t terrible enough to demonize, but he isn’t great enough to canonize, either. He’s the Tim Tebow of music: not very good, but different enough from the rest to stand out. He’s a piece of toilet paper clinging to the bottom of American culture’s shoe. And because he’s remained stuck there so long, we’ve attached undeserved meaning to him.
He’s a rock musician, not The Boss.
And anyway, bosses are assholes.
Bruce Springsteen performs Wed., March 28 and Thurs., March 29, 7:30pm. $68-$98. Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. comcasttix.com
PW's Music Issue 2014