by Matthew Sitman
Responding to the recent outpouring of Boss-related commentary, especially by Jeffery Goldberg, David Remnick, and David Brooks, Leon Wieseltier characteristically unloads on "the literature of fandom" and Springsteen's supposed late-career artistic failings:
The musical decline of Bruce Springsteen has been obvious for decades. The sanctimony, the grandiosity, the utterly formulaic monumentality; the witlessness; the tiresome recycling of those anthemic figures, each time more preposterously distended; the disappearance of intimacy and the rejection of softness…The joy is programmatic; it is mere uplift, another expression of social responsibility, a further statement of an idealism that borders on illusion. The rising? Not quite yet. We take care of our own? No, we do not. Nothing has damaged Springsteen’s once-magnificent music more than his decision to become a spokesman for America. He is Howard Zinn with a guitar.
There is, of course, a measure of truth in Wieseltier's remarks. Like many great creative talents, Springsteen's early albums, in absolute terms, really are better than his most recent work – or at least they possess an urgency and freshness that necessarily has diminished with time. And yes, most of the latest writing about Springsteen – especially Brooks' tale of traveling to Europe to see him – is rather lame.
The core of Wieseltier's argument, though, is a form of snobbishness masquerading as criticism. The language is typically overblown and his statements – amusingly, given his castigation of other writers for their lack of nuance – are without a trace of hesitation or complexity. Wieseltier seems put off that people go to Springsteen concerts and come away hopeful and uplifted, but not raging against the machine. He is terribly upset, citing Marcuse, that the music has not yet inspired a revolution. Springsteen fans labor under a form of false consciousness: their "joy is programmatic; it is mere uplift, another expression of social responsibility." He laments tastes less sophisticated than his own, appalled at the simple pleasures of a rock show. That Springsteen's more political and social songs do not make the arguments he would like, or that certain rock numbers sometimes slip into sentimentality or rather hazy formulations – this means that the music is not serious enough.
And so Wieseltier has missed the point.
The Remnick essay – imperfect and too uncritical – makes clear that whatever "message" Springsteen hopes to convey in his songs, he labors mightily not just to be serious, but to provide those moments of connection between artist and audience that allow us to slip out of the burdens of everydayness and enjoy glimpses of meaning and fullness. What else could Springsteen have meant, as he once sang, that he learned more from a three minute record than he ever learned in school?
All this reminds me of a line from the great N+1 essay about TNR's back of the magazine: "It confuses censoriousness with a faculty of judgment that links the aesthetic to the moral sense." That essay was titled "Designated Haters." This ultimately is what Wieseltier finds so detestable about Springsteen; he clings to hope rather than hate. The Boss is earnest. In an age of irony and near total skepticism, the perils of hope coming across as naive, un-serious, an empty form of consolation abound. If Springsteen proffers this hope, at times, in less than convincing ways, I will still choose it over a pose of condescension and contrived contrarianism.
(Photo: North American singer Bruce Springsteen performs during the Rock in Rio Lisboa music festival at Bela Vista Park in Lisbon on June 3, 2012. Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)