February 22, 2007

Don't Diss the Boss

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I’m not a proud man, so I have no problem admitting that there are many things in the world that I don’t understand, especially when it comes to popular culture. I accept the fact that people will have opinions that differ from mine. And that’s OK. Anyone and everyone ought to be allowed to enjoy whatever sort of books, movies or music they choose. Sometimes, though (and I say this with love) these people are wrong. Totally, totally wrong. Making matters worse, these are usually the people who are most inclined to advertise their uninformed taste loudly and often.

Most of the time, I’m content to shake my head incredulously and walk away from these individuals who have been cursed with a faulty set of critical faculties. When someone says that The Godfather sucks, Casablanca is boring or Dave Chappelle isn’t funny, I don’t feel anger, just pity. But when someone says, “I don’t like Bruce Springsteen,” I get frustrated. At that point, I know that nothing good can come of continuing the conversation and I ought to either walk away or change the topic before things get out of hand.

There are, however, rare instances when I’m feeling confrontational and it is then that things get interesting. In these situations the first thing I ask is, “Why? What don’t you like about Bruce Springsteen?” Invariably, the response is vague at best and, more often than not, incoherent: “I don’t like his politics … I don’t like that type of music.” Since I usually try not to be rude and I’m uncomfortable with lecturing or haranguing people (at least in person) I leave it at that.

But, I think that now it’s time to set the record straight. It’s fine if you’ve listened to some Bruce Springsteen albums and don’t like them. Maybe you’re a classical music buff and rock is not your cup of tea. Again, that’s fine by me. I’m willing to allow for variance in taste. What is unacceptable is when someone reaches an opinion based on his/her own willful ignorance or preconceptions about the type of music they are supposed to enjoy, and then proudly expresses that opinion as if it had some basis in fact.

This is what needs to be corrected; these baseless misperceptions and misunderstandings that have an undue influence on the music we are willing to even consider listening to. Bruce Springsteen may suffer the most from this preemptive pigeonholing. People incorrectly associate him with “Born In The U.S.A.” and the nationalist fervor they believe the song represents. But anyone who thinks that “Born In The U.S.A.” is a jingoist anthem of American pride doesn’t know anything. In fact, it is one of the harshest criticisms of America in the post-Vietnam War era ever written. That’s a big claim, but if you’re skeptical, listen to the song. I won’t do it the disservice of trying to quote the lyrics out of context, but they have biting venom and are rendered with a skill rivaled by only a few modern songwriters and surpassed by an even smaller number.

Now that that’s been dealt with, there’s another issue to clear up. To those who think of Bruce Springsteen as the guy who wrote “Born In The U.S.A.” is like saying that Shakespeare is “that dude who wrote Romeo and Juliet.” It’s not inaccurate, just incomplete. Springsteen has written many songs, and better songs. In fact, after Bob Dylan, there are few modern American songwriters as prolific or talented as Bruce Springsteen.

Another common practice for Springsteen-defamers is to listen to Born To Run or Born In The U.S.A and then dismiss Springsteen as a simplistic songwriter with little depth or nuance and a musician full of bombast and little else. To those accusations, my only response is that anyone who has listened to “The River” knows that is not the case.

Even if you have listened to those two albums and decided they are not for you, there are 12 other albums of music at your disposal. While they were his biggest hits, assessing the merit of Bruce Springsteen through Born To Run and Born In The U.S.A. alone leaves an entire body of work neglected. While they’re good albums with some great songs, they aren’t even my favorites. If those two don’t work for you, check out Greetings From Asbury Park or The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. They are just as good as his most popular albums and very different in their music and lyricism. They’re filled with an ebullient pop sound, verbose lyricism and a sparse but layered instrumentation that is some of the most unique and enjoyable music I’ve ever heard.

Do yourself a favor, buy those two albums and listen to them. Among other great songs, Greetings has the original version of “Blinded By the Light” (not the bastardized Manfred Mann re-tread) that I guarantee will have you singing along, whether or not you know the words. And, if you think Bruce Springsteen belongs in the same category as arena rock stalwarts like U2 or John Mellencamp, you’ve got a surprise in store when you listen to “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” “Spirit in the Night” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.”

If you find that after a couple listens this Springsteen guy isn’t half bad … well, I won’t bother with saying “I told you so.” All I’ll say is enjoy, and when you’re done with those two, get Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Darkness On The Edge of Town. You can thank me later.