All your favorite artists are problematic. It’s an obvious statement, but one that resurfaces on social media in the wake of most every celebrity scandal, from Kanye’s vocal support of Donald Trump to Azaelia Banks’ apparent Twitter crusade against any and all forms of human decency. Of course, with other artists the crimes prove more unforgivable, inviting armchair critics everywhere to try and reconcile good art’s occasional tendency to come from bad people. Skillful deflections and self-justifications on this topic range from “Only a troubled mind could have made this!” to the more nihilistic “Everything is terrible; we might as well enjoy the music”. It’s an exhausting debate, and one that seems to affirm the sad truth that people will always do what they can to avoid feeling guilty in their indulgences.
This sort of cognitive dissonance, though, finds itself reflected in the more humorous tendency of individuals to willfully misinterpret their preferred works of art, often in an attempt to reconcile them with their own political beliefs. In an era when the President of the United States bars “unfriendly” news outlets from press conferences, it should come as no surprise that people hand-select the information that best suits their preferred narratives. We followers of Kanye West, for example, interpreted the man’s recently deleted tweets as a total repudiation of his prior support for Trump. It was a narrative too flimsy even to fool ourselves.
In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich explores conservative America’s undying fealty to Bruce Springsteen, a phenomenon that seems to befuddle even the artist himself. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famously, has seen the Boss tear up the stage with the E Street Band over 130 times. The governor’s air drumming and tantric dance moves have become familiar sights for Springsteen fans. For his part, Christie has repeatedly and publicly attempted to finagle a heart-to-heart with his idol, inviting him to perform at various events and tweeting his favorite lyrics at him. This outwardly emotional courtship seems at odds with a man whose appearance and political tactics suggest something closer to “middle school bully.” Bruce, who still lives in New Jersey, has largely ignored Christie’s romantic advances, relenting only for the sake of the Hurricane Sandy relief effort in 2012.
On some level, Christie’s passion for all things Bruce makes sense. Springsteenism, after all, is the closest thing that New Jersey has to a statewide religion. And, as Petrusich writes, the Boss’ source material tends to draw from a certain American mythology, that of “the tough, hardworking white man who, with wit and will, transcends his hardscrabble beginnings to achieve extraordinary wealth and notoriety (and girls).” In that sense, one could easily frame Springsteen as a mouthpiece for the same economic disparities that Trump says got him elected. Of the president himself (whom Christie eagerly supported, only to be ousted by Jared Kushner), Bruce has said, “He’s such a flagrant, toxic narcissist.”
Financial hardship and the elusive American Dream certainly inspire much of Springsteen’s discography, but he also employs these narratives in order to critique institutions and the mega-rich. In one of pop music’s great subversions, “Born in the U.S.A.” conceals an anti-war anthem under the guise of the same uncritical, flag-waving patriotism that now defines country music. Between foot-stomping choruses, Bruce sings of a man drafted to Vietnam to kill strangers, only to return home to nightmares and dwindling job prospects. The bait-and-switch worked so well that Ronald Reagan even played the song at campaign rallies – or at least until Bruce asked him to stop.
Of course, there is a value – which should not go unmentioned – in the universal appeal of Bruce Springsteen. On some level, it allows you to imagine that his music taps into a deeper, human longing felt by people across generations, socioeconomic classes and political affiliations. At the same time, though, one cannot help but view Christie’s political views as incompatible with the core themes of Bruce’s music. The man can somehow project himself onto Springsteen’s protagonists while also politically reinforcing the institutions that the songs indict. It’s an incredibly blatant act of cherry picking that allows him to filter out only the ideas that question previously held beliefs.
This concept, obviously, is not exclusive to the Springsteen-Christie relationship, nor is the irony in Christie’s idolatry a recent development. But given the apparent relativity of facts in today’s mainstream discourse, I’d say there’s something to be gathered from people’s ability to intentionally misinterpret the art that disagrees with them.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.