Like a lot of people my age, I don’t think much of Lana Del Rey. My main takeaway from the various brouhahas about the grim-faced, name-changing artiste has been one of vague amusement. Still, I agree with a central point made in defense of Del Rey — namely, that self-reinvention is not just endemic, but kind of crucial to pop music and its attendant iconography. Del Ray’s defenders have cited greats and near-greats as diverse as Bob Dylan, Madonna and Lady Gaga to make this case. And I’d add Bruce Springsteen to that list. His latest single, “We Take Care of Our Own” — which he and the E Street Band recently performed on the Grammys – is a pure Springsteen Statement. Yet it comes from a persona that has undergone decades of careful honing.
Authenticity is not only Springsteen’s signature, it’s also Bruce’s brand, and that brand has undergone notable shifts (some subtle, some not so much) over the course of his nearly four-decade career. We’re old enough to remember Bruce as the word-drunk folk poet of his first two albums from the early 1970s, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle. You remember, the rangy kid with the skinny arms and the crazy eyes and the run-on mouth, the one who concocted cheeky triple rhymes like “in the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps.”
Springsteen retained vestiges of that kid on his breakthrough album Born to Run, sure. The record has high-blown verbal touches (what exactly is a “soft infested summer”?). But it also has its epic side (the nearly 10-minute “Jungleland”) and a streamlined, widescreen feel. In the end, the confidence of Born to Run almost completely immolated the somewhat callow troubadour whose feckless yearning dominated even dourer numbers like “Sandy” from The Wild…
And Born to Run wasn’t just a go-for-broke artistic move. Bruce wanted the big brass ring of next-big-thingdom, and he was gonna grab it. Two years before the album was released, his soon-to-be-producer Jon Landau had pronounced him the future of rock and roll, and Springsteen was determined to prove him right. But then, as he further raised the stakes, he cut down on the grandiosity. His next album was Darkness on the Edge of Town, and recent reissues of that record, along with accompanying video docs, show an editing and winnowing process, both song- and persona-wise, that proves that making ostensibly simple art can still be a pretty complex process.
His next big move was to simplify. The recorded-on-home-equipment Nebraska was part social protest, part statement about the discontents of actually achieving next-big-thingdom. The earlier smash Born in the U.S.A. had seemed to synthesize all the variants of the Springsteen persona – it became the rock upon which he built his church. But now, ambivalent about rock superstardom, he looked inward. After jettisoning the beloved E Street band in 1989, just after recording Nebraska, Springsteen made various and sundry solo-singer experiments, playing parts ranging from streamlined reluctant celebrity (“Tunnel of Love”) to heavy miserablist singer-songwriter (“Devils and Dust”) until finally reconvening the E-Streeters and rising phoenix-like into a more hardened/grizzled version of his Born in the U.S.A. self.
That’s the man behind “We Take Care of Our Own
.” A man who’s still apt to be misunderstood. Back in the day, Ronald Reagan and his political cronies tried to borrow some of Springsteen’s thunder and co-opt “Born in the U.S.A.,” citing a chorus that sounds rousing when separated from the song, but whose bitter irony is crystal clear in the verse. Similarly, Internet chatter in the wake of the first spins of “We Take Care of Our Own” (which will be on Springsteen’s first album after the death of E-Street Band saxophonist and inspiring spirit Clarence Clemons) noted that it could serve as candidate X’s ideal campaign song. In an article grousing about the Grammys
, New York Times critic Jon Caramanica (who seems very bitter that Lil Wayne hasn’t received a Nobel Prize or something) complained that Springsteen’s song “mistakes jingoism for empathy.”
Caramanica is letting his petulance clog his ears. The familiar catchphrase of the song’s title, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” may sound upbeat. But the rest of the minimal yet pointed lyrics – with their evocation of Hurricane Katrina, and image of the road of good intentions “gone dry as a bone” – reveal an angry irony at the song’s heart.
This is angry Springsteen, and why not? His kind of American hero can be pretty bracing when he gets mad. I hope that his true audience will hear him out.
By Glenn Kenny
Glenn Kenny is a journalist based in Brooklyn. Now chief film critic for MSN Movies, he was a senior editor and chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1996 to 2007.
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