Following this week’s CityArts cover theme, Bruce Springsteen’s ballyhooed new album Wrecking Ball is considered by Editor Armond White and critic Ben Kessler who examine the contradictions when artists pursue the personal in the political. Read it here, only at CityArts.
Springsteen’s New Album Wrecks Faith
“Why does he sing like that, he’s from New Jersey!” a friend cracked when Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska debuted in 1982. Nebraska’s affected Oakie drawl–fashioning a down-home, pessimistic response to President Reagan’s “Morning in America”–has since become Springsteen’s formal vocal register. His method-acted empathy with our mythic depressed underclass marked the turning point when Springsteen stopped being simply a rock star and began running for public office. His new album Wrecking Ball resembles a candidate’s campaign strategy through its 11 stump speech tracks in which Springsteen mouths Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, endorsing without stopping to examine it.
Never mind that millionaire Springsteen belongs to the 1 percent elite OWS villainizes, or that his nickname “The Boss” perpetuates the hierarchy working folk both acquiesce to and resent. (Remember President Obama’s smiley complicity with Bruce about his whip-cracking soubriquet? Springsteen recently returned the compliment, dedicating the new album to Obama’s reelection bid.) Springsteen’s legendary romanticism (based on albums that made a magnanimous jamboree of rock-n-roll ethos) usually allows him to slip past such hypocrisies. Until now.
Wrecking Ball repackages the cant emanating from OWS. Even its fawning reviews evince the way sentimentality obscures the movement, pushing Springsteen past an artist’s openmindedness. Pity and hostility defines Springsteen’s new no-name characters. Their sob stories are lachrymose more than realistic. They are the rhetorical equivalent of crocodile tears–emotionalizing facts of struggle and hardship that once were the definition of American character.
Springsteen’s underclass guise on Wrecking Ball is meant to be an act of solidarity with OWS, yet it embraces so much pessimism and contrived anger, that instead of sounding quintessentially American, it feels as ersatz that New Jersey Turnpike lonesome prairie drawl. He wants to endow OWS with the same romantic rebellion that Nebraska gave to its alienated, post-60s American malcontents. The new album goes from rallying cries to fatalistic ballads, dirges to gospelly rants–transparent efforts of populist suasion. It’s all an attempt at modern mythification, unsurprisingly praised in the media as part of the mass delusion that has overtaken Left politics for the past 12 years.
Like OWS, Springsteen attempts snatching back the glory days of ‘60s dissent without the ethical commitment and emotional sacrifice once required. Sacrifice might be felt by the current recession, but minus the ‘60s moral impulse (spiritual inspiration, love), this purely political abreaction lacks equivalent impact. Neither the movement, nor the album, are galvanizing.
Having misjudged the motivations of disenfranchised Americans who are incensed more than informed, Springsteen soft-headedly emulates their plaint; his corroboration turns sour. Touted as his “angriest” album yet, it also sounds like a slick politician’s con. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen slips down the rabbit hole of Liberal piety, unaware how querulous and downright anti-social it has become. The sorrowful lyrics echo those who are certain of their aggrieved moral superiority to an irritating degree. This stance has coarsened Springsteen’s once heartfelt artistry (the double-vision of “Highway Patrolman” and “Ties That Bind“) into mere propaganda.
Before Springsteen became a politician, he used to know how the world worked. On 1978’s still rousing “Badlands,” he deduced “Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/ And the king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything/ I wanna go out tonight/ I wanna find out what I got.” Then Springsteen got richer. Pronounced our rock-n-roll poet laureate (Junior Dylan Division), he forgot the class logic inside American Dream social mobility–the goal of comfort and power that entices most Americans, even those who suspected (as we all know) that the game is rigged.
His 1996 The Ghost of Tom Joad, a timely rebuke to Clinton-era excess, wasn’t a political conversion (except perhaps to Socialist sympathies more romantic than real) but it triggered guilt along with Springsteen’s basic, generous compassion. He then tipped over into piety–a moralizing bent exacerbated by the feelings of lost power that obsessed Liberals after the 2000 Presidential election. Since then, Springsteen’s language–at one time the argot of working class ambition–took on the hectoring quality of the Left-leaning media, paused only by the sudden empathy he felt after 9/11, the subject of this finest recent work, The Rising and especially 2010’s Magic.
The complexity in those albums was flattened by a combination of the ongoing Liberal power grab and the Recession. What was genuine, palpable solidarity in songs like “Long Walk Home,” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and “Terry’s Song” has been reduced to wistfulness as on his awful, patronizing The Seeger Sessions sing-a-long album. Indulging nostalgic fantasies of social unity rather than achieving the real thing, Springsteen chose sides in the miasma of millennial polarization. His heartbreaking and recognizable characters now claim the bully pulpit–even when preaching to the choir.
This explains Wrecking Ball’s conceptual failure starting with “We Take Care of Our Own,“ the CD’s tricky first single. Springsteen walks a tightrope of fake ambiguity. His rockist tubthumping rejects the pleasures of success that Jay-Z and Kanye West boasted about on 2011’s Watch the Throne. “I been knocking on the door that holds the throne” Bruce’s song begins, using skepticism to deny the truth of American ambition and envy. His devious title doesn’t suggest charity so much as tribalism. You’d like to hear compassion in its anthemic repetition but the wording itself, like a crank’s bumper sticker, is unsettling: “We take care of our own/ Wherever this flag is flown” sounds jingoistic–though not in the way Springsteen claimed the scolding “Born in the U.S.A.” was misunderstood. “From Chicago to New Orleans from the Muscle to the Bone/ From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome” name-checks recent Liberal flashpoints using Obama’s Chicago Way politics to signal national desperation, finding a partisan solution to our crisis state. Frankly, it’s unclear whether he’s praising American exceptionalism or exposing an embarrassed patriotic selfishness. It’s either a contradiction of OWS rhetoric or part of its muddle.
That is, unless polarization is what Springsteen intends to promote (so long as it’s perpetrated by 99% of record buyers or the media-moguls who held fast to their own privileges while sentimentalizing Zucotti Park and chiding Jay-Z and Kanye West’s candid tycoon confessions. (A Times music writer just complained about “a lot of triumphal, fanfaring rock and hiphop around” then praised Bruce for firing a cannon “in the right direction.” That’s rich!) Like those elites, Springsteeen sings an ode to those comfortable in their superiority, protestors who brook no disagreement, who take hostility as their right and snideness as an argument.
“We Take Care of Our Own” fouls up American generosity when Springsteen ignores OWS’s recalcitrance, falling back on hoary clichés about self-pitying outlaws and selfish bankers which are the rhetorical equivalent of crocodile tears. Looking at what superficially divides us, he condones what deeply separates us (party to party, city to suburb, ethnicity to ethnicity). What finally makes “We Take Care of Our Own” disastrous is that Springsteen curries favor with one faction rather than instruct them about what they have in common with their “opponents” (such instruction was the great insight of “Your Own Worst Enemy” on Magic.)
Listen to how he mispronounces the word “cavalry” so that it sounds like “Calvary”–invoking religious sentiment that is totally absent from OWS’s protest. When he comes back to “Calvary” on the final track “We Are Alive,” the album has turned into an outrageous piece of bombast exploiting both Liberal and Conservative virtues. That Springsteen can’t recognize the manipulation–or his own confusion–condemns the album to demagoguery.
Wrecking Ball is an ersatz protest record as on the track “Shackled and Drawn” that samples a black female gospel-spieler. It anticipates the studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” which had been an astonishing performance on the 2002 Live in New York City album. This droopy version conjures Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” classics whose gospel evocations don’t resonate in the materialistic protests of OWS. All the secular smugness and lack of humility costs this performance the sense of justice that made the original version a revelation. Springsteen’s most inspired moment has now become an occasion of opportunism. Live, he had carried listeners on a Freedom train propelled by brother- and sisterhood; now it’s time to disembark and man fictitious barricades.
If Nebraska pretended towards the movie Badlands, and Born to Run pretended toward the movies Thunder Road and West Side Story, Wrecking Ball also mixes its metaphors (Grapes of Wrath with In Cold Blood) all to dramatize OWS panic about economic disparity. Springsteen’s incendiary album flirts with murderous revenge in the same way Occupiers make reign-of-terror threats of change. Not a single song includes the desires and disappointments of 1-percenter fellow Americans. Springsteen’s pandering takes a wrecking ball to the concept of “equality.” The rabble-rousing sound of “Death to My Hometown” recalls agit-pop by such crowd-pleasing British acts as Carter USM or The Fatima Mansions but Brits do this thing better. Bruce’s surprising Celtic lilt misappropriates a troubled rebellious tradition (what in this country resulted in Klansmanship and Militias) and imputes it to simple poor-folk discontent–a dangerously misleading ploy. And dishonest. Bruce evokes Warren Zevon here yet avoids the wit of “Lawyers Guns and Money,” Zevon’s confession of American privilege and pampering that OWS absolutely ignores.
Only a limousine liberal—or an idiot–could play so casually with the language and gestures of agitation and insurgency. (“Jack of All Trades” contains an incitement to murder, i.e. bloody revolution.) Even “This Depression,” the best, most to-the-point song, suggests Springsteen’s dejection comes from reading too many New York Times editorials. Pleading “I need your heart” neglects the other side of American prosperity, missing the deeper, existential meaning of depression as also experienced by the rich. Instead, Bruce settles for partisan rhetoric, not artistry. “All my prayers gone to nothing” fits the fashionable atheism that defines the current Liberal view–those who feel only their sorrow is justified.
Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas” refutes OWS diatribes, calling for a return to more complex contemplation. Cohen keeps his dignity as an artist not a propagandist. What does Springsteen think his fake folk salvation lyrics mean? Does Freedom riders manifest of “losers and winners/ saints and sinners/ whores and gamblers/ lost souls/ broken hearted/ thieves and sweet souls departed” only include OWS? From “We Take Care of Our Own” to “We Are Alive” there’s no universal outreach, just pandering to those who hoist him as a political leader. He cannot continue to divide and exclude and antagonize. There’s no forgiveness or sympathy in Wrecking Ball’s overall OWS propaganda. No righteousness, just self-righteousness.
Springsteen’s holier-than-thou vocals reject the vulgar Joisy whine now typified on MTV’s class war freak show Jersey Shore. The folkie twang isn’t Woody Guthrie nostalgic but western movie corn whereas back on “Badlands” his voice ached with passion and devotion: “I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the love that can save me/ I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me/ Above these badlands.” Long before our anti-religious Obama era, Springsteen wasn’t afraid to relate working-class struggle to the common American practice of faith and devotion. It was in his voice. There was beauty in his profession of faith–something anathema to the socialist pragmatism of OWS and hollow throughout Wrecking Ball. You especially heard his desire to be raised above the frustrations of worldly struggle. OWS brings him down to strictly secular problems. There was richness in Springsteen’s old idea that proletariats have faith despite every social obstacle in their way; faith in the ties that bind. This time he’s given up that belief in favor of pity and complaint.