Trying To Get To You

Monday, February 02, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, The Super Bowl And A Healthy Dollup Of Corn

Bruce Springsteen’s 13 minute set (they went over by one minute) last night at the Super Bowl halftime show was a lot of fun. Bruce and the band looked like they were having a great time, and true to his word, the mini-set showcased the feeling of the final 15 minutes of a Springsteen show – fun, communal, exultant, and occasionally, very corny and silly.

That corniness has been a part of the band’s legend since before there was a legend of the E Street Band. Bruce has feigned heart attacks on stage, staged wrestling matches with bears, had conversations with aliens, spoken to God, and has had his mother admonish him on stage so he’d play one more encore. As Greil Marcus wrote in 1980, “At his finest, Springsteen can get away with almost anything, stuff that coming from anyone else would seem hopelessly corny and contrived – and that he can come up with stuff to get away with that most rockers since Little Richard would be embarrassed even to have thought of.”

Certainly, Springsteen stole many of those moves from the early rock and soul tradition. One thinks of James Brown shucking off cape after cape, leaving the stage only to come back to drive the audience further into ecstasy. Bruce has acknowledged these debts in interviews, and they are as crucial a piece of understanding his performances as any.

It is this portion of Springsteen’s artistic and performance persona that turns off a lot of smart people to his music. Bruce got mainly great reviews from last night’s set, but some predictable pans came in from writers like the utterly awful Jim DeRogatis, and from the New York Times. (And I'm sure we'll soon get another anti-Bruce missive from the awesomely tiresome Bob Lefsetz shortly.) What writers like these miss is that Springsteen (especially when he’s with the E Street Band) views a good part of his job to be an entertainer. And to a lot of people who love rock, and especially the denizens of post-Velvet Underground music, entertainer is a dirty word, redolent of inauthenticity, insufficiently artistic. (Can you imagine what Jeff Tweedy or Thom Yorke would do if you called them entertainers?)

But Bruce Springsteen is much smarter than these guys. Because he knows that a show is a SHOW – that when one is on stage, it’s inauthentic not to recognize that there is a stage. Punk and post-punk bands seek to eradicate the boundaries between audience and performer by pretending (emphasis on pretense) that there’s no difference between them. Springsteen recognizes that there’s a difference between the performer and audience, but he creates an emotional connection over the course of the night that reaffirms the common humanity of every single person in the building on that night – for the band and the audience. It's that affirmation of a common humanity - its joys, struggles, pain, fun, heartbreak and possibility - that makes a great Springsteen show so transcendent. And it’s what makes him so much wiser than the mistaken and misguided spokesmen for authenticity and cool who criticize him for his soulful, and sometimes corny heat.


Anonymous said...

Bravo. Ditto. Lefsetz' Bruce bashing is self-immolating. The best example of the very thing that he claims to cherish is the what he bashes most. No comprende. My take, this is the first half-time show that I ever wanted to see more of. I don't know of a higher complement.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, it's Brian of the currently dormant Small/Stupid. Your Springsteen commentary has been spot-on. Loved your review of WOAD.

It blows my mind that some critics are suggesting there should have been a political/social component to the halftime show. Have these people ever been to a party?

Anyway, just wanted to say hi. Keep up the good work.

ecrunner said...

Well I must say, while it was a fun show, I wasn't too impressed by the crotch shot into the camera! What was that about?! Don't think that will help boost his ratings any!

ajs said...

Disappointed in the uncalled for swipe at Tweedy and Yorke. For these guys, as for Bruce in other contexts, the music should transcend the performer, and the communal experience is genuine. To suggest that's inauthentic somehow is not only wrong, but arrogant as all hell.


Ben Lazar said...

Radiohead maybe. Tweedy is an overrated bore in my opinion. But regardless of the artistic merits, neither would ever "stoop" to think of themselves as entertainers. They're far too much the self-conscious "artiste" for that.

Unknown said...

Insightful commentary on the unique qualities that make Springsteen such a singularly gifted performer. Thanks for posting.

KG said...

Thoroughly enjoyed Bruce's performance at the Super Bowl, it was a highlight even with the game being as great as it was.

It's not so much that he gets that he's a performer and that it's a show, but that he genuinely seems to be (MUST be) enjoying himself onstage.

And furthermore, that the E-Street band enjoys the experience too. Turnover is nonexistent, and one has to conclude that part of it is that the "Bruce" persona the fans eat up in huge portions is not so different from the guy in the band after all.

Part of why his "everyman" persona works so well--and doesn't come off as staged--is because there's probably a hefty amount of truth to it.

PS: Any plans to weigh in on Melinda Doolittle?

Keith said...

I loved this year's half time show. I've always been a fan of the Boss. It was a fun and exciting show. It really got me pumped up and feeling great.