If you’re a cultural critic who writes for a major magazine, it helps to be cranky. After all, the critic is a moralist who must ceaselessly war against cliché and vulgarity in order to to bring light to the darkness and to impart wisdom and understanding from works of literature and art. It's been that way since Plato. One cannot hope to fight these battles without some measure of belligerence and peevishness. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, possesses crankiness by the boatload. And in his recent piece excoriating Bruce Springsteen and his witless fans, he practically chokes on it.
Sure, Springsteen worship is excessive and suspect. Wieseltier isn’t wrong about that. But he is so put off by the hagiography he sees all around him that he swings wildly in the opposite direction and misses badly. His first target is David Remnick, whose 75,000 word profile in The New Yorker, is dismissed as fandom that “could have been written by the record company.” I wonder what he was reading. What makes Remnick’s article such an excellent piece of journalism is that he both investigates and offers new insights (Wieseltier does neither). Remnick’s article provides a surprisingly fresh perspective for the kind of reader who picks up the magazine thinking they already know all there is to know about their subject. For instance, Remnick has Steve Van Zandt recalling how scary Springsteen’s Dad was. Remnick shares the resentments and regrets of former drummer, now golf caddy, Vini Lopez who was fired just before the band made it big. He takes us deeper into the relationship between Springsteen and his manager (and art collector), Jon Landau. And he asks Patti Scialfa, the wife, holder of the unique position of part-time band member and full-time mother, about the conflict between isolation and human connection, the tension that informs so many of Springsteen’s best songs.
But this “derecho of detail” is uninteresting to Wieseltier. For him, it is Springsteen’s inauthentic “Everyman” that is so grating. As if the measure of Springsteen’s artistry is his capacity for delivering a populist political message. (One can almost imagine a bearded Wieseltier backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, trying to shut down the power on Bob Dylan’s amplifiers to preserve the purity of the protest tradition by protecting the masses from the vulgarities of the rock star.) Wieseltier is hardly the first to criticize Springsteen’s “cornball sincerity” or insufficient radicalism. These criticisms are the very ones detailed in Remnick’s piece. Springsteen is not a revolutionary in either his politics or his art. He is not threatening. Remnick quotes Tom Carson, who observed in 1985 that for Springsteen, “rock and roll was basically wholesome. It was an alternative, an escape—but not a rebellion, either as a route to forbidden sexual or social fruit, or, by extension, as a rejection of conventional society. To him, rock redeemed conventional society.”
Springsteen is in many respects an artist who plays it safe. But “Johnny 99” is as radical a song as you’ll ever hear played in an arena. And there’s little that’s safe or sexless in “Highway 29,” “Reno” or the libido-driven “You’ve Got it” from his most recent album, Wrecking Ball. But it’s not the safeness of Bruce Springsteen that so offends Wieseltier. It’s his popularity. It clearly galls him that conservatives like Chris Christie and David Brooks dance in the aisles at Springsteen’s big tent carnival-atmosphere concerts.
But that’s Springsteen the showman, the shaman, the cultural icon. What about the music? Here too, Wieseltier misses the mark. He clearly prefers the older Springsteen catalog (his “once-magnificent music”) to the more recent material, but so what? So do nearly all of his fans. Wieseltier takes aim at the social consciousness expressed in Springsteen’s recent work and complains that the workers are stock characters lifted from Steinbeck and Guthrie and that the songs lack the “authenticity of acquaintance.” But it is not “acquaintance” that makes for good songwriting. It is empathy. Does Wieseltier really suppose that because Springsteen is a multi-millionaire, he’s never known a factory worker? That he’s forgotten his own father? His hometown? The experiences we have in childhood provide more than enough material to write for a lifetime.
Wieseltier targets Springsteen’s clumsier lyrics. Fair enough. But then he gets nutty:
"His anger that 'the banker man grows fat' is too holy: 'if I had a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight' is not a 'liberal insistence.' I prefer Dodd-Frank."
From songwriters? Dodd-Frank? Woody Guthrie didn’t sing about the Farm Relief Bill and Johnny Cash didn’t sing about Medicaid. We should be glad they didn’t. Springsteen’s “Matamoras Banks” is beautiful and haunting song because it’s not about immigration reform. It’s a singular story about a single immigrant. Springsteen may not fit the classic model of a protest singer, but “Death to My Hometown,” his Celtic rebel-rouser is as powerful an expression of what ails us as anything you’ll hear from Occupy Wall Street.
But forget it. Wieseltier is rolling now:
"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."
Right. We do not. But that’s precisely the point. If Wieseltier can’t discern that, then he’s misreading Springsteen as badly as George Will and Ronald Reagan ever did.
Full disclosure here. I’m a Springsteen fan. Not a worshiper. Not an acolyte. A fan. To be sure, being a fan means that I’m not objective. But this is music. When it comes to music, of what use is objectivity? Still, any fair-minded observer (or listener) ought to see what Wieseltier does not. Springsteen has not decided to become a “Spokesman for America." He’s a songwriter who has been writing about the same subject for the past 35 years: The margins between the American Dream and the reality he sees around him. Sure, some songs work better than others. But what the fans understand is that it’s the journey that makes it all worthwhile. Don’t need no baggage. Just get on board.
The real source of Wieseltier’s crankiness is probably revealed in his final paragraph:
“It is one of the duties of rock n roll to create nostalgia. There is a bliss that only the sounds of one’s youth can provide. (For me, it’s been downhill since Dion.)”
Downhill since Dion? So there it is. No wonder then that for him, rock and roll can deliver only illusion.
Before he became Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau was himself a music critic armed with the usual tools of wit and sanctimony. In May of 1974, he saw a concert at Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge and penned a review that is now the stuff of legends:
“I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time"
Now this one WAS used by the record company. But the experience of feeling like you are hearing music for the very first time is precisely what the greatest music does. It rejuvenates you in way that the mere nostalgia cannot. It’s what all great art does. One gets the sense that Wieseltier has never had this kind of experience. It makes me feel bad for him.
Or maybe it's just the Kool-Aid talking.